Michael Den Tandt: Harper says he is who he is, take him or leave him. That may not be enough

It has to count for something in ’s favour that he refuses to bow, scrape or pander to the cheap seats, rather asserting, to borrow from Popeye, “I am what I am, and that’s all that I am.”

Even so, it was hard not to see, in his interview with CBC’s Monday evening, a brilliant opportunity lost and a door closing. What’s more, Harper himself seemed completely aware of the fact.

To begin, for all Harper unplugged — as unplugged as he gets — is articulate and passionate in expressing his views, his demeanour was that of a man embattled. Leaning forward, interrupting frequently, punctuating points with ducks and nods like a boxer avoiding a shot to the temple, Harper gave no quarter. Mansbridge’s efforts to prod him to open up, he batted aside. Asked repeatedly about his personal share of responsibility in the tawdry mess of the Duffy affair, Harper would have none of it, asserting only that he was initially “very angry.” All this was unsurprising. Do not ask him to be a dancing bear, whatever the possible gain; he won’t play.

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The first big break in the action, to my eye, came near the mid-point. After noting was in a technical recession in the first half of this year (that is, two consecutive quarters of decline), that the price of oil remains mired in the mid-forties and the loonie listing, Mansbridge queried: “What do you do day one? Is there anything you do on the economy, on the economic future of the country given those particulars in terms of what we’re stacked up against?”

Response: “Well, look, we’re doing the — we’re going to continue doing the kinds of things we have been doing. I mean obviously”… whereupon Mansbridge interjects: “So nothing – nothing changes.”

Though Harper sallied with a convoluted answer involving the Bank of Canada and tax breaks, there was nothing else to gainsay that single observation: Nothing changes. This would have been the moment for the leader seeking another mandate to speak of something beyond the same-old; perhaps a reinvigorated strategy to get Alberta oil to market, or assert Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic. Anything but a shrug.

Then, the second and bigger miss. After offering a nuanced analysis of the strategic dynamic now in – essentially that a solution to the crisis will be difficult and a long time coming – he was asked twice by Mansbridge whether Canada is doing enough to help refugees. “Are we doing enough? Um, what’s enough?” Harper snapped back. “What’s enough, Peter?” he repeated.

Then he said this: “There are millions, millions of displaced persons that we know of in camps etc. There are tens of millions of other people whose survival, day-to-day survival, is in jeopardy. There is no — as I’ve said earlier, notwithstanding how terrible this is — there is no refugee-based solution alone to that problem.”

After saying again, as he did last week, that the photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying dead on the beach had profoundly moved him (‘the first thing you see is our own son as a two-year old running on the beach’), Harper continued: “We can admit thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of refugees and we are still going to see those kinds of images. So we’ve got to be doing a lot more than that.”

A rousing call to action, it wasn’t. There are worse things than writing books, true. That will be small comfort, though, for candidates running under the blue banner, particularly for the first time

That is of course correct, speaking in the beancounter-ese. The problem is overwhelming and much bigger than any one individual life. But other leaders, including Conservative Toronto Mayor John Tory, and others with impeccably blue credentials such as former Chief of the Defence Staff Rick Hillier, have taken a different tone. Rather than focus on what won’t work, they urge that more be done. In sticking rather grimly to the mantra that 10,000 additional refugees over three years is enough, regardless of the shift in sentiment this past week, Harper has declined an opportunity to lead.

For someone weighed down with his personal baggage – the sense that, though smart and determined, he has a heart of stone – this amounts to a quiet, though unmistakable statement of principle: I will not place more stock in a single life lost, or even thousands of lives lost, than cold logic dictates — even if it hurts me politically, even if it means we lose.

Such candour is honourable, in its own way. But in an environment in which more than two thirds of voters are eager for change, and minority government means a new career, it’s politically self-destructive.

Which perhaps explains why Harper also said this towards the end: “I’m hopeful that we’ll get another mandate. But if we don’t, um, look, all I say is that it’s been a great honour to serve. And I think we’ve done a good job and we can continue doing a good job.”

A rousing call to action, it wasn’t. There are worse things than writing books, true. That will be small comfort, though, for candidates running under the blue banner, particularly for the first time.

About Michael Den Tandt