Vancouver Sun, Thursday, June 23, 2005
Harper, Martin both need some judgment, not a makeover
by Barbara Yaffe
When talking about Stephen Harper's deficiencies as
Conservative leader – which lately has been all the rage
– it's useful to remember two things.
First, Harper's problem is far more fundamental than
one of image; it pertains more to his poor political
Second, Paul Martin is every bit, if not more, in
need of a makeover when it comes to his judgment.
Dealing first with Harper, who even in
Conservative-minded B.C. has a lukewarm 38-per-cent
approval rating – behind the two other national leaders
– his image is quite okay. He doesn't need new
eyeglasses or a different hairstyle.
Former Reform party leader Preston Manning, bookish
and nerdy, needed a makeover. So did an excessively
slick Stockwell Day, former Canadian Alliance leader.
Harper doesn't. He's just a standoffish guy, which
won't change regardless of how many strawberry socials
he attends this summer. And yes, he attended one in
Ottawa Friday, as a prelude to a summer of BBQs and corn
roasts, a facile agenda aimed at making him appear more
Canadians tried flamboyant and approachable (Brian
Mulroney) and rejected it. For many Canadians, brilliant
and charismatic (Pierre Elliott Trudeau) didn't go down
well, either. Even avuncular and folksy (Jean Chretien)
soon became unbearable.
When it comes to leaders, substance inevitably trumps
style every time. How much did we care that Trudeau
seemed sexy when the deficit ballooned and he introduced
wage and price controls? Harper has done poorly in the
leadership department because the truth is he lacks
Were he more astute he'd have surrounded himself with
staffers who could compensate for his shortcomings
rather than reinforce them.
Press handler Carolyn Stewart-Olsen and top adviser
Tom Flanagan both keep him cloistered and reinforce his
seriousness and conservatism. Harper has difficult
relations with the media.
He has waited too long to announce Conservative party
He defended MP Gurmant Grewal and his absurd tape
recordings instead of immediately disassociating himself
from the whole affair.
But his most worrying mistake was failing to make
welcome in his caucus two strategically important women
– Deb Grey and Belinda Stronach, both of whom could have
helped broaden the party's appeal. He allowed
Conservatives at their March convention to nix a
resolution calling for a youth wing which, again, could
only have helped the party expand its base.
Instead of projecting an alternative vision of hope
in response to Liberal pronouncements, Harper projects
He also shows a mean-spiritedness in refusing to
allow former Progressive Conservative leadership
candidate David Orchard anywhere near the party, or
refund $70,000 the PCs have owed Orchard since his
Finally, Harper failed to foresee problems and erect
a barrier between himself and Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe
– whom he has publicly called a straightshooter – as the
two cozied up to plot the demise of the Liberal
government through a mid-May confidence vote.
These mistakes don't reflect an image problem and
won't be addressed by having deputy leader Peter MacKay
play football with him on Parliament Hill.
But it's also important to remember that to focus
exclusively on Harper's shortcomings is to overlook
those of his rival, the prime minister.
Paul Martin is a colossal disappointment as leader,
far better cast as a No. 2 man.
He has shown himself to be a self-absorbed political
opportunist, giving in at every turn to those who can
help perpetuate his power, regardless of the challenges
it poses to the national ledger.
He's as guilty of patronage as his predecessors,
giving numerous party hacks plum jobs. Martin is no
longer believable in what he promises, having neglected
to fulfil a commitment to address, as his first order of
business, the democratic deficit and change the culture
He has been labelled a ditherer, delaying decisions
he doesn't feel comfortable making.
Polls are showing Canadians are indecisive, darting
back and forth between Liberals and Conservatives. It's
surely because neither leader impresses. Harper and
Martin make the NDP's Jack Layton and even Duceppe look
This country is suffering a genuine crisis of