Canada's Harper Seen as Shrewd, Serious, Bland

Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister-designate Stephen Harper, his wife, Laureen Teskey, and their children, Ben and Rachel, wave goodbye as they board their aircraft for Ottawa.
Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister-designate Stephen Harper, his wife, Laureen Teskey, and their children, Ben and Rachel, wave goodbye as they board their aircraft for Ottawa. (By Tom Hanson -- Associated Press)

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By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 25, 2006

TORONTO, Jan. 24 -- On March 20, 2003, as the United States launched its invasion of Iraq, Stephen Harper rose in the Canadian House of Commons and bitterly condemned his country's refusal to join the fight.

The government "has betrayed Canada's history and values," he thundered. "The government has for the first time in our history left us outside our British and American allies in their time of need."

It was a vintage performance for the Conservative leader: self-assured, serious, claiming the moral high ground, and caustically critical of the liberals then in power. Now Harper, 46, has reached the pinnacle of a political career. Following his party's victory over the ruling Liberal Party in parliamentary elections Monday, he will become the 22nd prime minister when Parliament reconvenes in the coming weeks.

On Tuesday, Canadians awoke uncertain whether Harper's customary role would change, and whether his history of opposition was well-suited for building the alliances he needs to support the new minority government.

Those who know Harper insist he will not change.

"I expect him to be straightforward," said Diane Ablonczy, a Conservative lawmaker who has known Harper for 19 years and is likely to join his cabinet. "We won't get a dizzying round of rhetoric. He will say what he means and mean what he says."

Despite Harper's years in public life and a long record of speeches, however, many Canadians feel they do not know him well. The political strategist has never been a warm, approachable public figure. He had to overcome a reputation for stiffness that left him at a disadvantage compared with his garrulous opponent, Prime Minister Paul Martin.

"He's not an extrovert. Clearly," said a longtime friend, geologist John Weissenberger, in an interview Tuesday. "He approaches his work in a very serious, professional way. I think he viewed some of the showmanship of politics as being beside the point."

In personality, though not politics, Harper is similar to America's 2000 Democratic presidential nominee, Al Gore. Both are smart, studious policy mavens who come across in public as somewhat wooden. Like Gore, Harper incorporated self-deprecating jokes about his blandness into his standard campaign speech.

"One lesson I have learned in politics is that dull works," he would say, usually the only laugh line in an otherwise policy-filled speech.

Policy and conservatism have been Harper's obsession. When he and Weissenberger were graduate students at the University of Calgary, they debated free-market theory and plotted political strategy over Chinese food at the mall outside campus.

"It sounds kind of incredible to have two guys in their twenties sitting down to say how should we change the way the government works," Weissenberger said. "But that's what we did. We were both kind of political junkies and policy junkies."

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