Me vs Stephen Harper

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I walked into the Prime Minister’s office. It was 6:15 p. m. and snow whipped against the outside stone walls of Centre Block. Downstairs the reception was thinning and the foodplates decimated. Upstairs, the door closed behind me, and Harper approached. We shook hands. There were a few small words about the campaign in my riding and we stood during them, while Chief Whip Jay Hill watched. The Prime Minister then motioned me to sit down, which we did on either side of a small wooden end table with a brass lamp on it.

My bottom was barely in the chair when Harper let it fly. I am very disappointed with you, he said. It got worse quickly, and the tone was unmistakable. Stephen Harper was condescending, belittling and menacing. Here was a man with whom I had exchanged perhaps 200 words in the last year, talking to a newly elected MP, a member of his own caucus, who had just succeeded in taking a riding from the Liberals after more than a decade — a riding that was a beachhead into the constituency-rich GTA–and he spoke to me as if I were a petulant, useless, idiot child.

His voice was without a single shred of respect. No acknowledging I’d been in this office before, or in the Cabinet room down the hall, or had run to be leader of a legacy party. It was as if conservativism had started with the election of Stephen Harper as leader and led directly to this moment. Prior to that, he may have believed politicians bobbed like rudderless vessels on a sea of public opinion, blown helplessly by the winds of media know-italls. And he alone was out to change that.

The Prime Minister was at me now about my comments on former Liberal Jim Emerson, and I explained my opposition to floor-crossing MPs and my position that despite the new minister’s worth and experience, the ethical action would be to re-submit to the people. How, I asked, could you have been critical of what Belinda Stronach did, and now turn around and cause this to happen?

Harper glared. He pointed out to me that he had not voted for legislation in the last Parliament that would have banned floor-crossing (although half his caucus did). He said there had been nothing in the election campaign platform that prevented an MP from abandoning a party, or the voters, to pursue his or her own agenda. That, he said, leaning forward and staring hard at me, was not his position, and I was absolutely wrong in talking to anyone about it. Pointedly, he did not mention Belinda’s name. I thought the better part of valour at the moment was to follow suit. But it also struck me:Here was a man hiding behind semantics, convinced his position was unassailable because words defended him. He may have hinted broadly that Belinda was a weak person of questionable intellect that led her to make the wrong decision in leaving his side. But he never actually said the process was incorrect. In an argument of logic, he won. So when I said, “I still find this position unprincipled,” he needed only to look at me with disdain.

He was done with that. We moved on to me. It was not going well.

Harper said he felt he could not trust me. “To put it charitably, you were independent during the campaign.” The penny was dropping now. The dots between anonymous on-the-phone Doug Finley, worries about my blog and the leader’s ear were filling in rapidly. He turned to look squarely at me and said, “I don’t need a media star in my caucus.”

Media star. The choice of words was interesting. I had come to my candidacy as a businessman, employer and entrepreneur, running three companies. I thought the man would have known that, realized I had not been an on-camera personality for a few years, or a daily newspaper columnist

for decades. But perhaps some sins could never be expunged.

The Prime Minister paused. “I was going to offer you something, a role, something I had that is delicate, something important,” he said. “But now I’m not going to anymore. Instead we will just see what happens, what you do, over the next few weeks.”

The Prime Minister looked over at me, waiting for my face to react. Was he seeking disappointment, anger or regret? Remorse, maybe? A desperate cry for forgiveness? Stephen Harper had just dangled some valued, unnamed position or title, then snatched it away.

But I was not here to ask for anything. He had nothing I wanted. The only goal pursued had been to become a Member of Parliament, and my behaviour, principles or beliefs could not be changed with a job offer.

I started to rise out of my chair. “Well,” I said, “I guess that’s it then …”

But Harper wasn’t done yet. “Sit down.”

“You’re a journalist,” he said, “and we all know journalists make bad politicians. Politicians know how to stick to a message. That’s how they are successful. Journalists think they always have to tell the truth.”

The phone rang. “This is the Prime Minister’s office,” a woman announced. “I have the Prime Minister’s chief of staff on the line. Please hold.”

“This is Ian Brodie. I have Jay Hill, the government whip, here with me.”

It was mid-morning, and I had promised many media outlets I’d tell them shortly whether or not interviews would happen. After the events of the previous evening nothing was exactly clear. Pathetically, I imagined Brodie was about to extend an olive branch.

“I’m a blunt person,” Brodie said. “I heard your comments on Canada AM, and this freelance commenting of yours has to end. The public undermining has to end. There was nothing in our platform that was against floor-crossing. If you want to f–k with us, we will certainly f–k with you. Do you want to sit as an independent? Then we can arrange that. Count on it.”

The tone was shocking, the words driven by an obvious anger. I tried a compromise, and offered to turn down any further media interviews. Jay Hill spoke. “That is unacceptable,” he said. “You are damaging your colleagues and the Prime Minister. You will do no more media.” Then he asked me, simply, why I was saying the appointment of David Emerson was wrong.

“Because that’s what I believe,” I said. Hill laughed.

“Let me make this clear.” Brodie’s voice dropped a bit and he slowed. “I am telling you, you will not give any more media interviews. I am telling you, you will stop writing the blog. And I’m telling you that you’ll issue a press release today praising the Prime Minister’s appointment of Emerson. Are you clear?”

Yes, I said. Clear.

It was clear that a political staffer, unelected and unaccountable, answering directly to the Prime Minister, had just tried to gag a Member of Parliament, threatened to throw him out of the party he’d been elected by the people to represent and ordered him to make a false statement.

Oh my God. Here we go.

- Excerpted with permission from Sheeple: Caucus Confidential in Stephen Harper’s Ottawa by Garth Turner. Published by Key Porter Books. ©Garth Turner, 2009.

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