OTTAWA — Stephen Harper began the year facing crater-sized political potholes at home, so he adopted a time-honoured coping mechanism of Canadian prime ministers: he hit the road internationally.
New York, China, India, South Korea — all were ports of call aimed at burnishing Harper’s image at home as a trusted economic helmsman in a time of unprecedented financial uncertainty.
The strategy, it seems, worked like a charm: Harper used a steep recession to his political advantage and emerged stronger than ever in his four years in office, a feat that has earned him the title of 2009 Newsmaker of the Year in the annual survey of news organizations by The Canadian Press.
“His personal forays onto the international stage and his surprising positions on major issues such as climate change are criticized, but he sticks to his guns,” said Maurice Cloutier, managing editor of Sherbrooke’s La Tribune.
“Mr. Harper seems to have won his bet that Canadians are less concerned with Canada’s image abroad and more so with more personal interests in issues such as the economy and public security.”
It’s Harper’s second straight year as top newsmaker. He garnered 24 per cent of the votes to edge out Jim Balsillie (19 per cent), the billionaire CEO of Research In Motion who fought unsuccessfully to bring another NHL hockey franchise to Canada.
Other notable contenders for top newsmaker included Victoria (Tori) Stafford (11 per cent), the young girl from Woodstock, Ont., whose April abduction and murder shocked the country, and Dr. David Butler-Jones (11 per cent), the chief public health officer who became a household name to Canadians in the throes of a flu pandemic.
Two high-profile international events bookended Harper’s year: welcoming the immensely popular U.S. President Barack Obama to Ottawa in February and making an overdue sojourn to China in December. Both generated mainly positive reviews.
2009 was the year the prime minister became, well, more prime ministerial, said political science professor Faron Ellis of Lethbridge College.
“Harper shined, in my opinion, on the international stage,” Ellis said. “He does appear prime ministerial, but he doesn’t appear stuffy and aloof.”
Harper’s most important speeches — whether to bankers in New York or to business leaders in China — might have come on foreign soil, but they were designed to play back home, said Ellis. They inspired confidence among Canadians facing economic uncertainty and helped his party make inroads with visible minority communities.
The end-of-year accolades were a far cry from 2008, when Harper closed out the year with a rare political misstep that left him dangerously close to squandering power.