NEWSMAKER-Canada’s Harper to push for elusive majority

By Randall Palmer

OTTAWA, March 25 (Reuters) – Canadian Prime Minister
Stephen Harper has won two successive minority governments for
his Conservative party on the promise of a steady hand and
strong economic management.

Now, in a break with the past, he is looking for a majority
— a government that can see out a four-year term in office and
one that opposition parties can’t vote out of power.

With four parties in Canada’s House of Commons, it has been
difficult for any party to win more than half the seats. But it
was a particular challenge for Harper as opposition politicians
warned he would impose a secret right-wing agenda.

But Harper is now the third-longest serving Conservative
prime minister since World War Two, and he will point to his
five years in office as proof that there is no secret agenda.
The election campaign is due to start this weekend.

An economist by training, Harper maintains strict control
over his government to try to avoid negative press, and he has
a reputation for being cold and uncharismatic.

His detractors say he is suffocatingly domineering; he says
only those who “run a tight ship” can win.

“He may not be the most cuddly guy, but he is an efficient
campaigner, and he rarely makes mistakes when it’s showtime,”
Liberal war room veteran Warren Kinsella wrote in late 2010.

In the run-up to the 2011 election, Harper’s opponents
noted he ruthlessly dismissed heads of government agencies with
whom he disagreed.

And ironically, for a man who came to power on a promise to
clean up government, Conservative officials face charges tied
to campaign financing, the government has asked police to
investigate former or current staffers, and a parliamentary
committee declared that Harper’s government showed contempt for
Parliament on its spending plans.

Harper has an instinctive distrust of big government and
red ink, and during the 2008 election campaign he scoffed at
the idea of a big crash or recession.

But he turned with other world leaders to Keynesian
economics to dig out of the recession, running the biggest
budget deficit, in absolute dollar terms, in Canadian history.

The Liberals say he was reckless with the public purse, but
with unemployment lower than in the United States and
government finances in far better shape, he has not faced the
same kind of pressure as, say, U.S. President Barack Obama.

He rejected Liberal pressure to raise corporate taxes to
pay for social spending, arguing that this could kill jobs
while the economic recovery remains fragile.

Born on April 30, 1959, Harper cut his political teeth in
the western province of Alberta, which long felt excluded from
the Canadian capital Ottawa. He rose to prominence in the 1990s
as a legislator for the Reform Party, which campaigned under
the slogan “The West wants in”.

Harper quickly became frustrated and returned to Alberta,
where he urged that the province erect a firewall to prevent
interference from the federal government. In 1997 he said
Canada was a “welfare state in the worst sense of the term.”

Yet he was soon back on the national stage, winning the
leadership of the Canadian Alliance — the successor to Reform
— in 2002 and then pushing through a merger with the smaller
Progressive Conservatives to form the new Conservative Party.

Largely thanks to that merger, the Conservatives took power
in 2006, while the forces on the left were and remain divided.

Harper is married with two young children and is writing a
book about ice hockey, Canada’s passion and its national winter
sport. His wife Laureen, a motorcycle rider before she became
the prime minister’s wife, generally keeps a low profile, but
engineered two surprise performances in 2010 of Harper singing
rock songs and playing the piano.

NEWSMAKER-Canada’s Harper to push for elusive majority