by Paul Wells

From his years as PM to his low-key resignation video, he remained intensely private to the end

Like so much of Stephen Harperís last years in politics, his final resignation as member of Parliament for Calgary Heritage was surprising only for a moment. Once it happened, it perfectly fit an extended pattern of behaviour.

Harper did not leave public life on Friday, he only finished leaving it. He has been extracting himself from the public eye, in stages, for nearly as long as he was in it.

Leaked to two news organizations before it happened, Harperís resignation announcement -captured on video in an anonymous and empty Parliament Hill meeting room and then posted to Facebook with the antiseptic efficiency that so regularly makes the term “social media” a satire on itself – was conspicuous for the way it did not actually require he say anything to anybody real.

I covered the news conference at which Joe Clark announced his (second) retirement from politics in 2002. I watched on television as Paul Martin announced he would step down as Liberal leader, on election night in 2006. An entire country, or at least the part of it that watches news channels or follows Twitter on weekends, was watching in April when delegates to a NDP convention in April announced to Tom Mulcair that he would be leaving politics soon, too.

To Harper, such moments, whether chosen by their protagonists or inflicted by electorates and fickle fate, are too messy.

So when he lost his own election last October, he refrained from telling the crowd at the Calgary Telus Convention Centre, or the despised reporters arrayed in rows behind them, that he would resign as Conservative leader. He saved that news for a letter to the party president.

He dutifully attended votes in Parliament for the autumn, winter and spring that followed, in a move that honours him because it represented a refusal to leave the voters of Calgary Heritage unrepresented after an election in which they had voted in good faith. He did not speak in debates, sit on parliamentary committees, or, Iím told, attend Conservative caucus meetings, because he wanted to give his colleagues room to consider their future without his formidable presence cramping their style. There is a kind of honour in all of this.

Once in a while he would tweet something statesmanlike, in each official language in turn.

But when in June the moment came to leave the House where he had sat for a total of almost 18 years, he did not say he would not return. He did not say a word in that place. He neither required nor bestirred himself to sit through any awkward and heavily self-edited tributes from party leaders who had laboured mightily, for years, to get him gone. He just left.

In his final election campaign he did not give any speech to any crowd whose members hadnít been personally invited as recognition for their demonstrated history of support for the Conservative Party of Canada. At the beginning of the campaign, those guests were asked to refrain from sending any photograph of him to Instagram or Facebook, until that particular request collapsed under the weight of its own absurdity.

He refused to attend the debates organized by broadcast networks because the networks had threatened to let ordinary Canadians submit questions. Impromptu debates were organized and his attendance at each depended on a single condition: If he was going to debate, he wanted to be in the same room with his tormentors.

He refused for months on end to meet with the Premier of Ontario, Kathleen Wynne, because he decided she had shown insufficient respect. He should know what that looked like: In his first year in office he had left a meeting with her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, to attend a fundraiser for his opponent, at which he told the crowd that John Tory would be Ontarioís next premier. Allís fair. McGuinty did not let a snub bother him. Harper should not have let Wynneís bother him.

But by the middle years of Harperís only majority mandate he was well into letting his reclusiveness rule him, having grown tired of trying to rule it. A million Ontarians had voted in successive elections for both Harperís federal Conservatives and for Wynneís provincial Liberals. He was doomed if he could not hold the votes of those Ontarians who were not interested in partisan purity. He had stopped caring.

Twice by cordial rotation, it became Canadaís turn to play host to the presidents of the United States and Mexico. Twice Harper cancelled the summit. He would go to the meetings they hosted, but he would be damned if he would play nice with Barack Obama while Obama was dithering over a pipeline.

In his first speech as leader of the Opposition in 2002, he had lectured Jean ChrÈtien for letting personal antipathy interfere with his relationship with George W. Bush. But when his own time came with Obama, Harper saw no point in rising above such considerations. He put word out that Obamaís ambassador to Ottawa should be shunned. He took to predicting that the logic of the Keystone XL pipeline would outlast Obama and render the project inevitable. But now the next U.S. president will be Hillary Clinton. Good luck with that one.

The ads his party produced before and during the last campaign, showing him alone in the office at night, were as accurate as documentaries. His deputy chief of staff, Howard Anglin, has written in a book review that at Harperís last meeting with his Clerk of the Privy Council, she asked him what he would miss most about the job. Anglin writes: “Being prime minister,” he replied and, gesturing at the stacks of paperwork on his desk, added, ëDoing this.”

In the end he had convinced himself that the stacks of paperwork were the job. For such a private man, becoming prime minister and holding power for a decade was a feat of will so titanic we can barely comprehend it. In taking his leave, he has finally returned to his equilibrium state.

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Copyright 2016
Torstar Syndication Services

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