In wake of Tory loss, questions remain about Harper's legacy
by John Ibbitson (feat. David Bercuson)
The Globe and Mail
October 19, 2015
Stephen Harper entered the election resolved to offer the voters nothing more than himself, one more time. The voters said no, in a rebuke of historic proportions.
In that respect, the final days reflected the worst elements of Mr. Harper’s administrations: the vindictiveness, the desire to divide. They reflected as well a dark streak in the Harper legacy: attacking knowledge by cancelling the long-form census; attacking the Supreme Court; treating opponents as enemies; and discounting the worth of those who opposed or even questioned him.
At the end, his government was exhausted; most of its best talent had left and those who remained, Mr. Harper especially, had nothing new and interesting to offer other than condescending contempt for the other contenders.
At its best, the Conservative campaign was lacklustre. Where was the bold plan for the future? The new initiatives? At its worst, the campaign was debased. The niqab debate. The Ford brothers.
The people responded by looking elsewhere, to the last person Stephen Harper would want to see succeed him, leading the party he sought to extinguish, and with a from-third-to-first-to-majority government victory unprecedented in this country’s history. To lose is one thing; to lose this way to this man is humiliating.
And Stephen Harper has only himself to blame.
Late Monday night, the Conservative Party stated that Mr. Harper had resigned as Conservative leader. An interim leader will guide the party until the next leadership convention. The Harper decade is over. The question remains of how much of the Harper legacy will survive.
But Canada’s 22nd prime minister will not be remembered only for the tawdry way in which he ended his prime ministership, but also for what he accomplished during it. And there are chapters in his life yet to be written.
Because there is also much that Stephen Harper can be proud of. He united a fractured conservative movement and led it to victory after victory after victory. He brought the West into the heart of the federal government. He signed trade agreements with four dozen countries and more. He guided the nation through a financial crisis. He delivered a decade of peace – uneasy at times, but peace nonetheless – between Ottawa and the provinces.
More than anything else, “he tried to get the message across that there are certain things that people should be doing for themselves,” said University of Calgary historian David Bercuson. “And so he took money out of the government’s hands and put it in our hands. He really did do that.
“All in all, he was a good prime minister.”
By reducing taxes, by shrinking the size of the federal government, by ending federal intrusions in provincial jurisdiction, Stephen Harper made the federal government mean less in our lives, which was what this most conservative of prime ministers wanted more than anything else.
In foreign policy, Mr. Harper pursued what Mr. Bercuson calls “targeted multilateralism,” reducing Canada’s role within the United Nations, for example, but strengthening military and trade alliances.
He brought a new toughness to the criminal justice system. The Supreme Court reversed some of it; it remains to be seen how much of the rest Justin Trudeau’s Liberals leave intact.
And while reforming abuses of the refugee system, his government streamlined and improved the means of choosing immigrants, while increasing the numbers who arrive here each year.
There is much left undone: reforming a health-care system that every year will consume more and more public resources while delivering less and less to those who need it; eliminating internal barriers to trade and the free movement of labour; matching the resources of the army, navy and air force to the mandate expected of them.
And Canada has neither a coherent energy strategy nor a coherent environmental strategy.
As for the authoritarian, secretive and sometimes cruel nature of the government itself, that stain will remain, forever tarnishing his legacy. But the tarnish is not the legacy itself. We shall see to what extent Mr. Trudeau pursues an open and accountable administration. In the beginning, it is hard to remember, Mr. Harper pursued it himself.
He ended in grace, whatever came before. “The disappointment you also feel is my responsibility and and mine alone,” he told supporters in Calgary Monday night. "But know this for certain: When the next time comes, this party will offer Canadians a strong and clear alternative based on our conservative values.” Though it would have been proper for him to reveal his intention to resign publicly.
What comes next? Well, a leadership race, sooner or later. Natural successors are hard to locate. Can Jason Kenney, the Calgarian with pronounced social-conservative views, win over the Red Tory wing of the party? Can Peter MacKay, the centrist Maritimer, win over Westerners? Is James Moore, the British Columbian with a foot in both camps, ready to make a return to politics?
And from Ontario: what about Tony Clement, one of Mr. Harper’s ablest and most unsung ministers? Lisa Raitt, who was as close to a rising star as could be found in the latter days, should be watched.
But the scope and sweep of this Liberal victory raises questions about the foundations of the Conservative coalition. With the party extinguished in Atlantic Canada and greatly reduced in Ontario, restoring the base of Western and suburban Ontario Conservatives, along with Maritime Red Tories, will be the party’s most urgent task.
As for Mr. Harper himself, at 56 he still has plenty of time to make a different mark. What might that mark be?
He is a capable writer, and has been keeping a journal throughout his prime ministership. A memoir would be well and carefully read.
The Harpers are planning to build a new house in the foothills outside Calgary. They may stay in Ottawa until Rachel finishes her school year. But they won’t linger. They never liked Ottawa.
Mr. Harper’s greatest challenge may be that, throughout his life, he has always needed to be in charge. He joins no team. He leads or he leaves.
His long-time friend John Weissenberger points to Mr. Harper’s interest in the Bilderberg Group, the organization that convenes annual meetings of senior figures in the conservative movement. And there will be boards to join, if he can keep from getting into fights with the chair and the CEO.
Mr. Weissenberger hopes his friend “becomes a leading public intellectual and author and continues to champion public policy reform. Or –” he added jokingly of the hockey-obsessed Mr. Harper, “maybe commissioner of the National Hockey League.”
Canada is a blessed nation, and that is not hyperbole. For three decades now, the country has been well led. Brian Mulroney negotiated free trade with the United States; Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin eliminated the deficit and kept the banks sound.
Stephen Harper guided Canada through a dangerous recession and made us a more Pacific nation, through increased immigration, trade deals and by involving the West in the life of the general government.
Few countries can claim such a record. And like it or not, a third of that record belongs to Stephen Harper.