One last thought on Jim Prentice

People who are dismayed by the current federal Conservative government, and the fact that they stand a good chance of being re-elected this fall, can at least take comfort from one thing. When Canadians finally get tired of Stephen Harper – which inevitably they will – the Conservative party faces the worst succession crisis of any party in recent memory. Indeed, lack of “depth in the bench” has been one of the defining features of this government, one that may help to explain some of its more puzzling features (such as its ineffectiveness on the legislative front).

The standard narrative on the Conservatives (to be found, for instance, in Michael Harris’s Party of One), seeks to explain the extraordinary concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s office as primarily a consequence of Stephen Harper being an unusually controlling person. This is of course set against a background of a more general trend toward concentration of power in the central agencies, in particular the Privy Council Office. These trends were all set into motion under the Liberals, exacerbated by Chrétien, but it is clear now that, under Harper, cabinet has entirely ceased to function, either as a deliberative or a decision-making body.

Much of this gets blamed on Harper’s personality. Not being a “people person,” he has only a very small circle of people he trusts, or even knows well. He is a classic micromanager, scribbling marginal notes and instructions on all kinds of briefing documents that should have been taken care of several layers beneath him in the bureaucracy. And he is, famously, “his own strategist,” simply not interested in advice on that front.

I have another theory, which gets surprisingly little play. Harper is a smart man surrounded by fools, and he knows it.

He may be overly controlling, but he also has very little to work with in the people around him – certainly less than any Prime Minister in the past 50 years. For example, in order to understand why the PMO controls communications so severely – more than any Canadian government has ever done – you don’t need to psychoanalyze Harper, all you need to do is look at what his cabinet ministers say, when you put them in front of a microphone without a script. (The hapless Joe Oliver, for instance, has provided at least a half-dozen examples since January. If these were my best people, I’d be wanting to control them too.)

Anyhow, I’ve been privately accumulating support for my theory for several years now. My work brings me into contact with a fair number of retired senior public servants, so I’ve taken to asking them about this. There is universal agreement that Stephen Harper is extremely smart – the smartest Prime Minister since Trudeau, possibly smarter. “Okay,” I say. “But who else is smart? You’re sitting there at the cabinet meeting, looking around the room. Who other than Harper is smart?”

This is where the conversations get interesting. Every single person that I asked this came back with exactly the same answer, immediately, without hesitation:

“Jim Prentice was smart… but he quit.”

“Okay,” I say. “Prentice was smart. Who else is smart?”


“Well, Jim Flaherty was certainly no fool.”

“Okay,” I say. “Flaherty was smart. Who else is smart?”

Very long pause.

Actually, at this point the pauses became so long that I would often begin to suggest some names – just throwing stuff out there, the usual suspects, people who show up in the news. The answers would be a wrinkled brow, a raised eyebrow, and something along the following lines:

“Maybe… he could be clever at times,” or “Yeah, he had a certain low cunning,” but often just “No,” or “Oh my God no.” (Incidentally, I say “he” because no “shes” ever came up.)

And that would be the end of it. So that’s what I mean by lack of depth in the bench. Now of course, Prentice may have turned out to be too smart for his own good. The trick that he pulled on the Wildrose Party exhibited a sort of Machiavellian brilliance seldom seen in Canadian politics, but it seems to have only antagonized voters. Meanwhile, there are many examples to show that you don’t need to be smart to succeed in politics – particularly if your electoral platform consists of nothing but a pledge not to raise taxes. At the same time, national political parties, and national political campaigns, are very tricky things to manage. It’s easy to overrate the value of intelligence, but it’s also hard to get along with only a modest portion of it.

In any case, Plan A for many people in the Conservative Party was clearly for Prentice to be elected in Alberta, Harper to be re-elected in October, and then for Prentice to take over from Harper after a respectable period of time, maybe 3 years. That plan is now as dead as any plan can be.

So what is the best Plan B for the Conservative Pary? Without getting into all the gory details, let’s just say that all the other Plan B’s have some pretty major deficiencies.

Several commentators have noted that, in the past few years, Alberta has become the graveyard of political careers. The death of Prentice’s, however, is one that has important national implications.


One last thought on Jim Prentice — 4 Comments

  1. It’s a breath mint and a candy mint. My read is that Harper, an intelligent but controlling and somewhat paranoid guy, doesn’t actually like having anyone around him who might pose a challenge of any sort. He prefers to surround himself with yes-men of clearly lower calibre than his own. Exacerbating this, in my opinion, is a feature of the Conservative ideology: It emphasises the whole free market “greed is good” approach, even more so in Harper’s party right now to the point where the ethic is basically “Winner takes all and any method is fine”. The result is any competent Conservative almost by definition cannot be trusted, so if Harper’s paranoid about having able people around him this paranoia would probably be quite justified.
    Having thus arranged more or less on purpose to be surrounded by incompetents, I agree that he then really needs to exert extra control to keep them from screwing up.

    Incidentally, Flaherty could be an exception to this rule precisely because he didn’t really subscribe to the Conservative ideology: He was fairly clearly, on a personal level, a pretty nice guy with a certain sense of loyalty. Harper could keep him around despite his competence because even he could trust the guy.

  2. “Harper is a smart man surrounded by fools…” Yes, indeed, but this is hardly an accident. Several years ago I served on a search committee charged with the task of selecting a high-level administrator at a major American university. An astute member of the committee, herself a department head in another division of the university, remarked that “first-rate people surround themselves with first-rate people; second-rate people surround themselves with third-rate people.” This may partially explain why Peter Mackay, during his time as Minister of Defence, thought that California bordered on British Columbia. This isn’t just “hapless”, it’s potentially dangerously ignorant. Oh, and the “trained economist” has never worked as one, unless he was pinching pennies in the mail room at Exxon.

  3. Your comment about Jim Prentice being “too smart for his own good”, with Machiavellian ploys that only end up angering voters, is a very interesting one. If anything, I think such a comment could be applied to Harper himself. For example:

    -He’s won the regulatory battle over Northern Gateway by giving Cabinet the power to make the final decision on the pipeline, but his ham-handed approach to the issue has also turned a lot of public opinion against pipeline development, a loss that former Canadian Gas Association, called “crippling”;

    -He’s established a lot of new supervisory powers for the government and discretionary powers for Cabinet ministers, which many people are concerned could be used against groups that the Harper government doesn’t agree with, and to favour causes that the government supports…but he seems to have forgotten that those powers will end up in the hands of future non-Conservative governments too. That means that pro-life groups might be observed by a future Justin Trudeau government, or the fate of Energy East might lie in the hands of a future Tom Mulcair government.

    -His concentrating power in the PMO has led him to be seen as an anti-democratic control freak, and led to bad press such as the resignation of MP Brent Rathgeber from the Conservative caucus and the publication of his book “Irresponsible Government”.

    -His management of Aboriginal issues has kept a lid on things for now, but it’s done nothing to address the frustrations that led to Idle No More, and the calls for blockades of roads and railways.

    All of this makes me wonder whether Harper isn’t much better at short-term tactics than long-term strategy. He’s accomplished some of his goals in the short term, but whether that success will endure in the long term, and whether they’ll ultimately benefit or harm Canada, remains to be seen.

  4. It’s interesting that nobody you know mentioned Jason Kenney as a big fish in Harper’s little tank. I know a few journalists and lobbyists who find him the most consistently sharp member of Harper’s government, with more ideological consistency (and zeal) than Harper himself. This is all anecdotal of course. It’s worth noting though that Kenney has also been quietly effective at changing policy towards immigration. Fewer valid refugee claims and fewer claimants admitted, despite no major changes in federal policy.