A Wells-spring of political punditry

Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells talks elections, university funding and the new prime minister

Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells looked sharp and spoke sharply in Stirling Hall on Tuesday.
Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells looked sharp and spoke sharply in Stirling Hall on Tuesday.

He may be known as Canada’s foremost political blogger, but Maclean’s magazine columnist Paul Wells would rather not tell you about that.

“I’m sick to tears of talking about blogging and I don’t get paid to blog,” he deadpanned to the 70-strong audience gathered in Stirling Hall Tuesday evening to hear him speak.

His “Inkless Wells” blog, he told the Journal by phone before his talk, is at best a testing ground for new ideas among a readership that tends to be more politically engaged than average.

“The blog is essentially a hobby, and the result of my having more opinions than I have room for,” he said. “I’m flattered when people read the blog, but I can’t let myself care [about that] when I write the blog—I’m writing for me.” His greater love is political analysis, which he showcased most recently in a 30-page marquee piece for Maclean’s on the ins and outs of the 2006 federal election campaign.

Wells followed the campaign for eight weeks at stops across the country, absorbing the people and platforms that are shaping the current Canadian political climate.

Despite acknowledging how impressed he was with Harper’s campaign, Wells, who graduated with a political science degree from Western after “quite energetically flunking out” of chemistry, keeps his own political leanings low-key.

With a smile, he told the audience that during his weeks on the election trail, he alternated between a briefcase with a Conservative luggage tag and one with a Liberal tag. Campaign volunteers would gleefully point to whichever tag he carried on a given day and believe they had him figured out, he said.

Wells does, however, profess no affiliation with the party that was the butt of most—but by no means all—of his one-liners during the hour-long presentation organized by the AMS Speakers Committee.

“I don’t carry a Liberal Party card,” he said. “It gives me tremendous freedom—to make fun of them.”

Wells gave the Journal a frank assessment of the new Conservative government: “Anyone who’s expecting Harper to drive a Trojan horse into 24 Sussex and then let out the freaks and the rabid nutcases hasn’t been paying any attention at all.”

When Conservatives are elected to government essentially only once every fifteen years, Wells explained, they gradually stop being seen as a viable alternative to the federal Liberal Party, which he called “the most successful electoral machine in the Western hemisphere.”

Instead, Harper wants the Conservative Party to become more broadly accepted as a legitimate electoral choice, Wells told the audience.

“[Harper wants] to permanently kick Canadian conservatism into a place of stability and maturity in Canadian politics.”

Wells began his talk with crib notes on Harper’s political background.

Between 1987 and 1997, Harper worked for the Reform Party, hoping to help build it into the voice of true conservatism in Canadian politics: it was to favour small government, an independent role for the provinces, and a foreign policy closely aligned with that of the United States, Wells said. The corollary aim was to pull the Liberals further to the right in order to appeal to conservative voters.

Harper left politics in 1997 to run the National Citizens Coalition—“badly,” according to Wells—but returned in 2001 to lead a Canadian Alliance Party that had been drastically weakened under Stockwell Day.

“It was polling six per cent in the polls—it was actually within the margin of error of zero,” Wells said.

Harper devoted his time after that to reviving the Canadian Alliance, but the party was still weak enough by 2003 to merge with the equally desperate Progressive Conservatives.

“Maybe, hopeless plus hopeless equals hope,” Wells said of the merger.

“It was so long ago that I have to remind you that [in 2003] Paul Martin looked like a formidable politician,” he added, to chuckles from the audience.

The next year, Wells said, the PM turned out to be “a bit of a dud.” To understand the goals Harper set in response and the direction of Canada under his leadership, Canadians must understand that his politics are strategic and instrumental at heart, Wells said.

“It is what it is. But it isn’t what he is, but what he thinks Canadians might be interested in,” Wells said, noting that Harper keeps his personal beliefs on a variety of issues, including same-sex marriage and abortion, strictly to himself.

He said Canadians can expect Harper as PM to be disciplined, prudent and—unlike some of his predecessors—unlikely to institute drastic policies for the sake of personal recognition.

“Mulroney thinks it’s kinda cool that his party was radioactive by the time he left,” Wells quipped.

He said politicians who have briefed the new prime minister have reported that he prefers arguments showing a given policy’s benefits for middle-class Canadian families, rather than for business—a substantial shift for a party Wells said was once known for propping up Bay Street interests.

He said its longer-term desire to build its appeal to major Canadian cities was the reason Harper brought former Liberal David Emerson and specially appointed Senator Michael Fortier into his Cabinet.

“This is why he was willing to suck back all the horrible press he was getting,” Wells said.

Despite how impressed Wells said he was with the Conservatives during the campaign, he told the Journal he has less confidence in their ability to handle one of his pet issues: post-secondary education, for which he has developed a reputation as a staunch advocate.

“We need to have a system that is both very democratic and very elitist, in the sense that we should try and have a situation where every Canadian is educated to the limit of their ability and desire to get an education,” he said. “But then you can’t just be in a pretty crappy university. ... There’s gotta be several where they’re training to be the best that’s ever happened.”

Wells added that he believes increasing access to quality education may—“and I think Queen’s might be the only school in the country where I can say this and not get lynched”—involve raising tuition.

He told the audience many university presidents are worried that the recent Liberal increase in research funding, which funded a construction boom at campuses across the country, will be scaled back under a Conservative government. Although several top-level Conservative officials—including Clerk of the Privy Council Kevin Lynch—are committed to investing research and education, Industry Minister Maxime Bernier will need a strong push from educators in order to give it priority, Wells said.

“He’s a ‘get government off your backs’ guy, not a ‘get government into your labs’ guy,” he said.

University administrators are right to be concerned about the new government’s commitment to the issue, Wells added.

“I am too, and I’ll be writing about that over the next little while.”

But first, he told the Journal, he will draw on his eight weeks of campaign reporting to write a book on the rise of Harper, the fall of Martin and the Liberal Party’s future prospects.

He’s also still a headlining columnist at Maclean’s, even though his former back-page column was recently moved inside the magazine as part of Editor in Chief Ken Whyte’s drastic redesign.

Wells told the audience that although Whyte gave him a veto over the decision, he was happy to throw himself behind the magazine’s much-needed makeover.

“We’ve gone aggressively for the intellectual penthouse and the sexual gutter,” he said of the magazine’s brash new look and content.

“I’m more confident than I’ve ever been that on your way to [my column], you’ll find something else you want to read.”

The untold story of Election 2006: Inside an epic battle

This is an edited excerpt from the first chapter of Wells’ coverage of the 2006 election campaign, originally published as a 30-page article in the Feb. 6 issue of Maclean’s.

By Paul Wells
Special to the Journal

Sometimes you have to wonder how we always manage to get into these messes.

Other countries make decisions. We stride ever forward into new frontiers of fiendishly clever indecision. Quebec referendum, 1995: a draw. Martin-Chrétien feud, 2002: Jean Chrétien winds up spending a year and a half in limbo between power and powerlessness. Federal election, 2004: Paul Martin winds up chastened, but not out. Federal election, 2006: Stephen Harper is in, but chastened.

There are places in the world that get to taste hope all by itself, or disappointment all by itself, in big meaty chunks that go down well with beer. In Canada, we’ve developed the knack of weaving hope and disappointment together into absurdly complex confections that threaten to fall apart if you touch them. You can’t even get a decent emotional meal around here anymore. ...

The 2006 campaign was the most surprising and momentous in many years. It comes down to the story of two men. Paul Martin, who wanted the highest political job in the country for so long and fought for it so ferociously, only to lose his way when he finally reached the promised land. And Stephen Harper, who always seemed clever enough but in whom very few people ever saw the spark of leadership. But he did all he could, he gave it all he had, and though he even made mistakes in the home stretch, he toppled a man who had once seemed a titan of Canadian politics. ...

When it began, few gave Harper any chance at all. Certainly not the people around Paul Martin, who confided, quietly, that despite almost two years of disappointing government plagued by bad memories of Chrétien-era scandals, they thought Martin would hold power and even get back the Liberals’ majority in the House of Commons.

But what the Liberals didn’t know was that when it began, it was already almost over.

Stephen Harper fades from view now and then. He is not energized by crowds, the way some career politicians are. The Conservative leader has been an easy target for satirists because he vanishes sometimes for weeks on end. The big news of election 2006 is that it was the fruit of work that began during one of Harper’s vanishing spells. It began immediately after the 2004 election. ...

This was supposed to be a boring, unnecessary election that changed nothing. And if it wasn’t that, it was supposed to be a campaign of unprecedented bitterness and vacuity. The campaign of 2006 proved once again, not for the first time or the last, that the conventional wisdom in Ottawa is almost always flat wrong. ...

To understand how far Stephen Harper has come, you have to recall how far back he started. When he became the leader of the Canadian Alliance in 2002, it was fair to ask whether the job was worth holding. Under its previous leader, Stockwell Day, the party had been driven punishingly low in the polls, suffered MPs’ defections, become something close to a national laughingstock. Harper resuscitated his caucus, rebuilt his party with the help of the Progressive Conservative Peter MacKay, won a leadership contest, and reduced the Liberal majority to a minority and then to opposition. All in four years. He is turning into the kind of man whom one underestimates at one’s peril.

But even in winning, he fell short of any comfort zone. Voter research for Maclean’s shows what any number of water-cooler conversations across the country have already revealed: that many of the people who didn’t vote for Harper don’t like him one bit. He has his work cut out for him.

But he has had his work cut out for him before. There is something bracing about realizing you will not win what you cannot earn. It may even be character-building. Since nothing has been handed to Harper, the story of how he got this far is our best guide to how he will move forward from here. If he can. If anyone can.

Reprinted with permission from Maclean’s magazine

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