Visionary is one of those marvelously flexible words. It variously describes those gifted with 20/20 foresight and dreamers who ignore reality.
Better still, it helps explain Stephen Harper.
Harper’s strength is an unusually creative capacity to see politics differently. His weakness is running headlong into solid objects.
Five years in power prove the prime minister’s strategic vision has brought him a long way.
Guided by the Mike Harris Ontario experience, Harper refused to throw open the come-one, come-all ideological tent erected by federal Tory and Liberal predecessors. Instead, he won consecutive minorities by drilling down into the Canadian Conservative bedrock.
It’s less certain that the prime minister’s divide-and-rule tactics can carry him as far as he desperately wants to go. With yet another election looming, Harper remains the 30-something prime minister, the leader of a party less than four of 10 Canadians support.
Numbers don’t paint the full Harper picture or accurately frame Conservative prospects. Fragmented opposition, the Liberal failure to restore their brand or rebuild the Big Red Machine, and dozens of ridings up for grabs position Harper closer to a majority than limited popularity suggests.
Just a few more percentage points could gain Harper — like Jean Chrétien before him — more or less total, between-elections control without the benefit of a national consensus. Even if there’s self-evident fairness in that payback, the prospect of four more years of disconnect between Conservatives and most Canadians isn’t promising.
Central to that concern is the hardening of partisan lines. Blame is shared among parties — the 1980s Liberal Rat Pack sorely tested parliamentary civility — but the result today is an increasingly tribal Canadian political culture.
Reasoned debate has degenerated into abusive finger-pointing coupled to the reflex assumption that anyone who disagrees with government policy, including the media, must be a card-carrying supporter in the thrall, or even in the pay, of an opposition party.
Some of that is inseparable from rough-and-tumble federal politics — some is downright scary. How scary? Roll the calendar back two winters to the coalition crisis and witness political leaders recklessly putting national unity at risk to hold or seize power.
Lingering from that ugly confrontation is a threatening sense of skewed priorities.
Even if winning was always the main thing for many politicians, it was rarely the only thing for most prime ministers. Holding together a diverse country, advancing public interests and making tough choices without hope of partisan reward were part and parcel of national stewardship.
Minorities demand more of politicians, but they don’t make progress impossible. Touchstones of our evolution as a nation — the flag, universal health insurance and pensions — were achieved by governments making minorities work.
This Parliament has forged agreement on some contentious issues. But no great milestones mark this government’s progress, nor is there any sense that compromise is its default position.
It’s easy to be impressed by Harper the political visionary. He deconstructed the methods of the past, saw another way and built the slick new machinery needed to win at least minority mandates.
But it’s also hard not to worry about that new political order’s impact on the country.
Crashing headlong into a national consensus less conservative than Harper likes could, with luck and fortuitous electoral splits, secure the majority he wants.
But the visionary flip side is that most Canadians will be out of place in that particular utopia.
James Travers is a syndicated Toronto Star columnist.