Shifting sands

My opinion about Stephen Harper began to shift last March. I met him for the first time when he was in Toronto for the official sod-turning of the tunnel to Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport. Unlike his cold and stand-offish public image, the Prime Minister was warm, gracious, and relaxed. My two grandchildren were also present. With a smile, he said to each of them, “Shake my hand, look me in the eye, and tell me your name.” He took time to chat even though the official ceremony awaited.

Last month during a lengthy Q&A session at the Canadian American Business Council, Harper looked like a man comfortable in his own skin. He talked frankly about relations between the two countries, including protectionist sentiment in the U.S. There was no political side-stepping, no gilding of any lilies.

He also spoke openly about personal aspects of his life, including a tour on his fiftieth birthday of the Abbey Road studios and the pleasure of playing a piano used by the Beatles. He even admitted crying as a 12-year-old boy in front of the television when his Toronto Argonauts lost the Grey Cup to the Calgary Stampeders in 1971.

I was surprised by how much I concurred with his recent decision on CNOOC Ltd.’s takeover of Nexen Inc. Ruling against the deal on a retroactive basis would have been wrong. I thought he struck the right balance by letting that deal go ahead, with provisos on net benefits, while at the same time drawing a line on future purchases by state-owned enterprises. After all, why should we privatize former government-owned entities such as Air Canada, CNR, and Petro-Canada only to allow foreign governments to own any or all of our businesses.

I was surprised at my own reaction on this foreign takeover because I started out my political life working for the Liberal Party as a student in the 1960s. I was a Pearsonian Liberal and a Walter Gordon nationalist. During my time working for Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield in the 1970s I was a Red Tory. As a result I disagreed vehemently with most of what Harper did in his early years in the renamed Conservative Party.

Siding with him on CNOOC doesn’t mean I now concur with all his policy views. I’m too much of a curmudgeon for that. Yes, I’ve changed since my Red Tory days, but I’d like to think the Prime Minister has moved toward the political centre, and a little bit my way, too.

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