Harper selected as Canada's newsmaker of the year
Published Tuesday, December 23, 2008 5:59PM EST
OTTAWA - Captain Canada or the Grinch Who Prorogued Parliament?
By dint of sheer news volume, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was a heavyweight in 2008 - from a historic apology for the Canadian government's role in residential schools to an equally unprecedented constitutional end-run around a House of Commons bent on his political demise.
But Harper delivered the lion's share of the drama as well, making him the runaway choice as Newsmaker of the Year in the annual survey of news organizations by The Canadian Press.
"Love him or hate him, there is no doubt Stephen Harper generated his own headlines - and maybe his own demise when Parliament resumes," said Chris Green of CFCB Radio in Corner Brook, N.L.
The prime minister was picked by nearly half of the newspaper editors and broadcast news directors in this year's poll, taking 64 of 133 votes. The only other Canadian newsmaker to garner more than 10 votes was Harper's main political foe of 2008: now-former Liberal leader Stephane Dion, who was chosen by 35 editors.
Other Canadian newsmakers deemed notable by the men and women who run the country's newsrooms included Maple Leaf Foods CEO Michael McCain, with eight votes, and political femme fatale Julie Couillard, who earned five votes to the three garnered by her ex-boyfriend, former cabinet minister Maxime Bernier.
Outspoken former Canadian Forces chief Rick Hillier, who stepped down in 2008, got four votes, as did Elizabeth May, the first Green party leader to participate in a federal election debate. Even Marc-Antoine Audette and Sebastien Trudel, the Quebec comedy duo that punked Sarah Palin, got a vote.
But none of the runners-up could rival Harper's news value, either in quantity or in quality.
"An obvious choice," James M. Miller of the Penticton Daily Herald said in explaining why he picked Harper. "First calling an election and then ending the year fighting for his political life."
Added Dan Leger of the Chronicle Herald in Halifax: "Canadian politics news is all about Stephen Harper."
The Prime Minister's Office has neither committed to a traditional year-end interview with The Canadian Press nor responded to requests for comment on Harper's selection as the year's pre-eminent newsmaker.
The year certainly ended with a blizzard of Harper-driven news.
An incendiary fall economic update on Nov. 27 sparked the near-collapse of the Conservative minority just six weeks after a federal election that Harper had called in breach of his own fixed-date election law.
Sources have told The Canadian Press that it was Harper himself who insisted, despite the uniform misgivings of his closest advisers, on loading the update with a poison-pill provision on political party financing.
When an unlikely Liberal-NDP coalition backed by the Bloc Quebecois sprang to life, the prime minister - his reputation as a master tactician suddenly tarnished - was forced to employ a scorched-earth strategy in the Commons.
He accused the coalition of consorting with separatists and conspiring to "destroy the country" - a message that effectively undid two years of Conservative courting of the soft nationalist vote in Quebec.
After delaying a non-confidence vote in the Commons by a week, Harper took the unprecedented step of asking the Governor General to pull the plug on Parliament in order to keep his government from falling.
His moves effectively grounded the fledgling coalition, earning Harper glowing plaudits from his party base. They also enabled the Liberals to throw lame-duck leader Dion overboard in favour of Michael Ignatieff, a more formidable Harper opponent.
And as if that wasn't enough news-making for one calendar year, Harper appointed 18 new senators to the upper chamber Monday, reversing a long-standing commitment to put only elected representatives in the Senate.
Harper's choices included veteran CTV broadcaster Mike Duffy, his former colleague Pamela Wallin and Olympic medallist Nancy Greene Raine, as well as a host of prominent Conservative partisans.
"No strong prime minister has ever been uncontroversial," said Lethbridge College politicial science professor Faron Ellis, citing Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and even Lester Pearson as examples.
There's no question Harper, after three years leading minority Conservative governments, inspires towering passions.
Polling data on Harper's leadership qualities put him "head and shoulders" above his rival party leaders through much of 2008, said Harris-Decima senior vice-president Jeff Walker. But those same surveys also made it clear Harper's comparative advantage was as much a function of his weak rivals as his own prime ministerial timber.
Polls taken during and since the Commons confidence crisis suggest public opinion has polarized, Walker added.
While Conservative party support has skyrocketed, "we have seen fairly significant numbers of people suggest that (Harper) should resign - in the 40, 45 per cent range, and big numbers in Quebec in particular," he said.
"So he's taken a hit on his reputation, for sure in Quebec, and as well among a lot of people who you would call Liberal-Conservative switch voters."
Barry Cooper, a professor at the University of Calgary, where Harper earned his economics degree and honed his conservative ideology, said the Commons meltdown provided a correction to Harper's aura as a politically savvy chessmaster that was long overdue.
"I think his reputation as a strategist may have been over-emphasized by people - particularly in the media - with whom he's not comfortable talking," Cooper said.
"They say, 'Ooh, he's enigmatic so he must be some deep thinker.' He's not. He's just a pretty introverted guy."
For his part, Harper has not publicly acknowledged any political misstep, although sources said he admitted as much during emergency meetings with senior cabinet ministers.
Among news editors voting in the Canadian Press annual poll, Harper's year is characterized in starkly differing terms.
"Harper's machinations - calling an election, then refusing to acknowledge how the political situation was changing right in front of him - backfired in such a spectacular way that historians will be analyzing his government's actions as a textbook case of political misjudgment for years to come," wrote Brian MacLeod of the Sudbury Star.
Stephen Ripley of the Winnipeg Sun chose Harper not for his strengthened minority, but for mounting a successful challenge - so far, at least - to the "wildly unpopular" Liberal-NDP-Bloc coalition.
"Fewer than 50 per cent of Canadians may have voted for Harper, but a strong majority is dead-set against this unseemly end-run around the will of the electorate," Ripley wrote.
Harper's news year was not entirely dominated by his partisan manoeuvring.
On June 11, he stood in the Commons and addressed one of Canada's great historic wrongs - the forcible removal of native children from their homes in an explicit attempt at assimilation.
"You have been working on recovering from this experience for a long time and in a very real sense, we are now joining you on this journey," Harper told the emotional galleries packed with former students and aboriginal leaders.
"The government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly. We are sorry."
It was the kind of parliamentary consensus that Harper had worked to achieve on another contentious file - Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.
"There are certain common points between ourselves and the Liberal party and the government will try and broaden this consensus," Harper said on Feb. 12, a month before the Commons eventually voted to extend the mission to 2011.
Unfortunately, Harper made news on other fronts as well.
There was that disputed interview recording by author Tom Zytaruk, in which Harper appears to acknowledge some sort of financial inducement by Conservative party officials for the vote of dying Independent MP Chuck Cadman. Rather than explain himself, Harper ducked, weaved and eventually launched a libel lawsuit against the Liberals that remains unresolved.
But it was during the final four months of 2008 that Harper cemented his pre-eminent newsmaker status.
Rather than permitting Parliament to resume after the summer recess, Harper called an election that broke the spirit - if not the letter - of his fixed-date election law.
He went on to win a strengthened minority mandate of 143 seats in a result that belied both a historically weak Liberal opponent and Harper's own uneven campaign performance.
Harper rashly predicted on the campaign trail that if Canada was going to have a recession, "we probably would have had it by now." Then he famously referred to "great buying opportunities" as the stock market crashed in mid-election. He said the only way Canada would have a recession was if Liberals were elected to govern, and he promised to never run a deficit.
He also poured gasoline on a policy brush fire by stating cuts to arts funding only bother the well-to-do patrons of ritzy arts galas - a group that counts Harper's wife Laureen among its ranks - and not "ordinary people."
Marco Fortier, a columnist for Le Journal de Montreal, called Harper the "pyromaniac fireman" during the midst of the Commons confidence crisis in early December.
However one feels about the prime minister, he certainly lit up the news agenda in 2008.
Vote totals of newspaper editors and broadcast news directors that determined The Canadian Press Newsmaker of the Year for 2008:
- Stephen Harper, 64
- Stephane Dion, 35
- Michael McCain, 8
- Julie Couillard, 5
- Elizabeth May, 4
- Rick Hillier, 4
- Maxime Bernier, 3
- Michaelle Jean, 3
- Jim Flaherty, 2
- Coalition leaders, 1
- Karissa Boudreau, 1
- Marc-Antoine Audette/Sebastien Trudel, 1
- Omar Khadr, 1
- Danny Williams, 1