In The Media

Is it too soon to assess Harper's legacy?

by Mark Bourrie (feat Colin Robertson)

February 5, 2017

In 1972, during President Richard Nixon’s visit to China, charismatic premier Zhou Enlai was asked about the legacy of the French Revolution. He said it was too early to tell.

There were some guffaws. The Chinese, pundits said, take an almost glacially long view of history. Later, some writers came to believe Zhou didn’t understand the question, and was talking about the Paris riots of 1968.

Actually, Zhou was right.

If you looked at the legacy of the French Revolution in, say, 1815, when the monarchies overthrown in the revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars were restored and the European Powers tried to set the political clock back to July 13, 1789, you’d think the French Revolution was a misfire.

If you looked back from the revolutionary year 1848, you’d have seen the French Revolution as prophetic. In 1871, it would have seemed ancestral to the Paris Commune, another misfire. In May, 1914, it would have seemed almost irrelevant. In March, 1917, it would have been looked on as a dress rehearsal for the Russian Revolution. In 1941, it would have been a wistful memory to some French people.

Even now, the ideals of rational thought, democracy and equality of opportunity that underlay the early years of the French Revolution are still very much in play in the West.

And that’s the problem with trying to figure out the legacy of world historical events. When it comes to examining the domestic and international legacy of a middling politician in a second-tier power, devoting an entire book to Stephen Harper’s legacy so soon after he was turned out of office may seem like a waste of time. This is especially true when the prime minister believed in incremental change and was, at best, reluctant to tell where he was leading the country.

But it’s worth a try, just to set a baseline for future researchers.

Jennifer Ditchburn and Graham Fox have edited The Harper Factor: Assessing a Prime Minister’s Legacy (MQUP 2016), a collection of essays written by journalists, former political staffers, senior public sector executives, academics and lawyers. They have tried to give, for the most part, a fair assessment of what Stephen Harper’s policies will mean to Canadian society and politics. The essays are thoughtful, fact-filled and elegantly written. The editing is flawless. In the main, however, the writers’ takes on the Harper legacy are unlikely to stand the test of time — not because of the thought and effort that went into their papers, but because it’s simply too soon to tell.

There are fifteen essays in the book. All of them are authoritative and some of them are convincing, despite the narrow ideological range of the analysis. For example, CBC reporter Murray Brewster’s explanation of Harper’s defence policies makes careful assessments of Harper’s impact on military affairs and veterans’ policy, and Brewster is careful to remind readers that almost all military strategy and policy has uncertain outcomes. Brewster is a good enough thinker to resist the temptation to extrapolate, so, like many of the chapters in this book, his is more of a history than an attempt at picking out the policies that will be remembered and have lasting impact.

Colin Robertson, a former diplomat, faces the same challenge when writing about the legacy of Harper’s foreign policy. In a word, Harper’s diplomatic initiatives have already become irrelevant. There were no great foreign policy leaps by the Harper government. Its policies on trade don’t matter anymore. Nor does what Robertson rightly calls Harper’s “black and white approach to international relations.” Much of Robertson’s chapter is insider history of Harper’s tinkering with the structure of Canada’s foreign policy apparatus, which is useful to students of the subject.

Graham Fox does, in his introduction, zero in on something that may well be the legacy — really, the only important legacy — of the Harper government: its decision to surrender to the constant drumbeat from the Bloc Québécois to declare Quebec a nation. This is a time bomb that will be cursed someday by the Canadian prime minister who must deal with the next round of serious Quebec separatism.

It was a motion drafted for the most cynical of reasons. It will be easy for a coming generation of Quebec sovereigntists to make the relatively easy leap from “nation” to “state” — especially since the Montevideo Convention that defines a “state”, with its four-part test, puts customary international law on the side of the separatists. The wording that the Quebec nation is subsumed “within a united Canada” will be very thin armour. This was a colossal blunder by a prime minister who had been, until then, able to deal successfully with national unity issues.

While this book is supposed to be an assessment of Harper’s legacy, much of it is apologia. For example, former PMO staffer R. Paul Williams plays a cute game of facts with figures to try to make the case that Harper respected Parliament, and that the prime minister’s use of omnibus bills and time allocation to stifle real debate was no aberration. He excuses himself by saying the chapter “has presented a narrow examination of the Harper government’s record on a few key points,” and that’s very much the operative phrase of the piece.

I have serious reservations with Jennifer Ditchburn’s chapter on Harper’s media dealings. I wrote a book, Kill the Messengers: Stephen Harper’s Assault on Your Right to Know, that was published in the winter of 2015. I looked at the ways Harper had instituted an information control system in Ottawa, attempting to maintain a lock-out of news flowing from policy-makers and the bureaucracy. Ditchburn does the same analysis quite well by explaining the evolution of the media relations system in Canada and contextualizing Harper’s methods with those in the U.S. the U.K. and Australia. She argues that the media, by “pathfinding” — looking for non-official news — was able to work around the Harper news control systems and come up with investigative journalism.

I don’t buy the “pathfinder” idea. Hill journalists have been doing solid investigative work for generations. Daniel LeBlanc’s sponsorship stories, Glen McGregor and Tim Naumetz’s “in-and-out” articles and Andrew McIntosh’s “Shawingate” stories all had an impact on national politics. If anything, the Press Gallery during the Harper years showed a level of obsequiousness that was both troubling and infuriating as the Gallery executive (of which Ditchburn was a part) tried to develop some sort of normalcy with the Harper PMO.

I agree with much of what she says about news management, but believe the Harper system needed much more explanation. Ditchburn makes a strong case that the media control systems in the West have incrementally developed over decades, and she’s right. I think, however, there’s a step missing. Harper’s obvious loathing of the press is a symptom of alt-right political culture that revels in the troubles of the “legacy” and “lamestream” media.

When Harper was prime minister, this attitude had already crystalized in the discourse of the extreme left and extreme right. It is quite clearly expressed on Canadian blogs like and on U.S. trend-setters like Drudge, as well as on sites like, Vice and The Guardian. The goal of the alt-right and extreme left is not to limit coverage, but to delegitimise the role of centrist journalists as scrutineers of the political system. We are now seeing the same attitude, from the same ideological root source, in the White House.

If there is a Harper legacy here, then — if we’re lucky — it will be rooted in Ditchburn’s idea that Harper news management was part of an evolutionary process that continues today and can be countered with better journalism. Certainly, now that the ideologically-based hostility and the attempts to delegitimize the media as political actors has been purged from the PMO, we are seeing a return to the pre-Harper paradigm. Time will tell whether alt-right views of the media will return to the Langevin Block.

Time has caught up with some of the other authors. Susan Delacourt’s exaltation of political marketing as some sort of philosopher’s stone of electioneering seemed to have taken a hit in last Canadian federal election, when Justin Trudeau’s campaign — with less money and experience with data-mining — won.

Then Donald Trump’s seemingly populist campaign deflated the idea of political marketing, until the truth came out after the election: Trump’s marketers had used sophisticated data-mining of social media, along with years of monitoring conservative talk radio, to craft their message and identify potential voters and donors. Delacourt’s own book, Shopping for Votes, is still a very valuable reference that likely will need yet another update.

One of the strengths of this book is that most of the writers do rise above ideology. Tasha Kheiriddin, a conservative lawyer who doesn’t practice criminal law, writes well about the Harper government’s Criminal Code and terrorism law changes and comes to a conclusion based on evidence, rather than gut feeling or ideology. It’s one of the better chapters in the book, combining elements of law, statistics and common sense.

But very few of the pieces go so far as to say Harper left a lasting legacy in important policy areas.

So what this book ends up being is a snapshot of the views of a selected, very narrow group of bright Canadians in a very definite point in time — post Trudeau but pre-Trump. That makes it a useful tool for scholars a few decades from now who look back to see the conventional wisdom of the media/political class in 2016.

Similarly, one could look back on the Pierre Trudeau years and find people who were sure he would be remembered for his North-South peace initiative or his inflation-fighting skills. People in the oil patch remember the National Energy Program more clearly than the Constitution. Quebecers see the Constitution in a very different way than people in British Columbia. Same with Brian Mulroney, whose greatest legacy — free trade with the United States — seemed unassailable until January 22, 2017, when Donald Trump called Justin Trudeau to tell the prime minister that NAFTA will be renegotiated.

So maybe in the end, the Harper legacy will be something that seems small and insignificant now. Maybe it will be Quebec nation. Perhaps it will be the creation of the Conservative party from the shrapnel left from the Mulroney years. Or it may, in fact, be an administration like Louis St. Laurent’s that left no tracks in the snow.

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