October 6, 2010 / 4:47 PM / in 7 years

Brutal book on Stephen Harper causes pre-election stir

OTTAWA (Reuters) - An unflattering biography of Prime Minister Stephen Harper that portrays him as a control freak dedicated to crushing his opponents is causing a big stir in Ottawa just months ahead of a likely election.

“Harperland”, by veteran newspaper columnist Lawrence Martin, relates how Harper imposed a remarkable level of control over Ottawa after the Conservatives won a minority government in January 2006.

Even before the book was released on Tuesday, Harper’s team denied they had been prepared to take the extraordinary step of appealing to Queen Elizabeth, Canada’s head of state, to help end a constitutional crisis in December 2008.

Harper’s chief spokesman, Dmitri Soudas, dismissed the book, noting that Martin has written two biographies of former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

“The book should be read through the prism of Mr. Martin being a big-L Liberal sympathizer,” he said in a statement.

Harper has led his right-wing Conservative Party to two successive election victories, helped by the fact that the centrist and left-of-center vote is split between two parties, the Liberals and the left-leaning New Democrats.

A new election could take place as early as next spring if the opposition parties join forces to vote against the government’s budget and bring the government down.

The December 2008 constitutional crisis erupted after Harper failed to win a majority in an election held in October. The electorate failed to fully endorse him in part due to doubts about what he would do if he won full control over Parliament.

Martin writes that Harper, highly intelligent and a master strategist, is “one of the more talented Canadian political leaders to come along in decades”. Yet too often he is let down by the darker side of his character, Martin says.

“Too many Canadians see him as a leader of bad faith, a guy who will do anything to get his way ... who will put politics ahead of the public good every single day of the week. That is his chief weakness,” Martin said before publication.

Martin, noting that Harper twice had Parliament shut down, says the prime minister has gradually weakened all checks and balances in the Canadian political system.

Legislators from the main opposition Liberal Party are already referring to what they describe as Harper’s controlling instincts as they prepare for a possible election.

Polls show the Conservatives only just ahead of the Liberals and it is unclear who would win an 2011 election, which might conceivably end in deadlock.

Some of the book’s most unflattering comments about Harper come from Conservatives who have worked with him.

“He hates the Liberal Party and I would say his aim from day one -- and I don’t think anyone would disagree -- was to break the brand. The long-term strategy, that was it,” said adviser Keith Beardsley.

Martin has some sympathy for Harper’s predicament in early 2006, when he won a fragile grip on power after more than 12 years of Liberal government.

Keen to avoid accidents and suspicious of a bureaucracy he saw as dominated by Liberals, Harper exerted increasing control over every arm of government. Even a news release about the mating habits of black bears had to be cleared by his office.

“The control stuff was often too much for me when I was there and I remain convinced that he overdoes it,” said Tom Flanagan, who was Harper’s chief of staff when the Conservatives were in opposition.

Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Janet Guttsman

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