Harper’s legacy is the birth of a modern 21st century Canadian conservatism

Outgoing prime minister Stephen Harper is the only leader that Canada’s modern Conservative Party has ever known. (Facebook)

Next week, for the first time since 2002, Stephen Harper will neither be Canada’s prime minister nor opposition leader. Canada Flag Icon

At the same time that Stephen Harper was on stage conceding defeat to Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, he announced (via a statement) that he would indeed be stepping down as leader of the Conservative Party, a position that he has held since 2003 when the party first came into being.

In the days ahead, the Conservative Party will decide how to appoint a caretaker interim leader pending a full leadership election to choose the party’s second leader.

Harper leaves behind a mixed legacy, like any prime minister.

For Canada’s conservatives, Harper wasn’t just a three-term prime minister, though his nine-year tenure will be longer than all but five prime ministers in Canadian history. He’s the tribune who led the Canadian right out of the wilderness of opposition and the man who brought the Canadian west back into the national conversation that had focused too long on Toronto commercial matters, constitutional crises, bilingualism and appeasing the Quebeckers.

In retrospect, it’s amazing that it took just three years for Harper to take power after engineering the December 2003 merger between his Canadian Alliance, the upstart prairie and western movement that brought a more full-throated, US-style, socially conservative attitude to national politics, and the more troubled Progressive Conservative Party. By the 2000s, the PCs were a relic of the eastern elite, and the party never fully recovered from the 1993 election, when it lost all but two seats in the House of Commons.

Incredibly, as the Conservative Party looks to choose Harper’s successor in the weeks and months ahead, he is the only leader that the current Conservative Party has known — not counting, of course, the two living former Tory prime ministers Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney, neither of whom ever completely warmed to the Calgarian warrior from the west.

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At just 56 years old, Harper certainly didn’t look or act like a leader (or prime minister) in a hurry for retirement. He looked mostly like someone who believed, until too late, that leftist and moderate voters would split between the Liberals and the New Democratic Party (NDP), giving the Conservatives yet another path to government by plurality vote. To his misfortune (and to the NDP’s), that didn’t happen.

Post-election reports reveal that Harper was considering a pledge not to seek a fifth term after 2015. But having only won his first majority government in 2011, Harper might have easily stuck around to run for a fifth mandate if he’d survived October 19. But in shooting for a fourth consecutive term, Harper knew well that he was facing long odds attempting to repeat what only Conservative John Macdonald and Liberal Wilfrid Laurier accomplished before.

Coupled with the onset of a mild economic recession, it was always an uphill fight for Harper. He can walk away from the election result with his head held high, having remade Canadian conservatism and nudged Canada toward greater fiscal responsibility, more enthusiasm for free trade and presided over a generally more unified Canadian entity. 

His legacy, too, will include the churlish centralization of power, his media gag order on ministers, his 2011 decision to abandon the Kyoto protocols and some of the less noble aspects of the 2015 campaign, when Harper tried to use the niqab as a wedge cultural issue. His bullheaded approach to Senate reform (simply refusing to appoint new senators to the upper house, which now has 22 vacancies) may be controversial and possibly unconstitutional, but Harper’s stand caused Trudeau to expel all Liberal senators from his caucus (they sit as ‘independent’ Liberals), and he forced his successor to take up the cause of Senate reform.

Most importantly, he will also leave the Conservatives as a potent opposition party. Though Harper’s defeat was starker than polls predicted, the Conservatives still hold 99 seats in the House of Commons. Unlike the Liberal plummet to just 34 seats in the nadir of the 2011 election, or the infamous 1993 election, when the Progressive Conservatives lost all but two seats nationally, Harper will bequeath to his successor a credible and mostly united opposition force drawing from a more diverse base than you might assume.

Though the party was shut out of atlantic Canada (the Liberals won all 32 ridings in the four maritime provinces), it’s still a relatively diverse caucus. Ontario leads the way, giving the Conservatives 33 of their new caucus, mostly from the suburbs and the southwest. Another 29 come from Alberta, and 15 more come from the prairie provinces, as you might expect from a party with such strong western roots. But 10 come from left-leaning British Columbia, demonstrating the lingering appeal of the Conservatives to recent Chinese and Indian immigrants. Fully 12 are from Québec, which is frankly a better result in French-speaking Canada than in the three prior elections that Harper won.

No one doubts the legacy that Harper has bestowed upon Canada.

By cutting budgets and lowering taxes, Harper shifted the power balance in Canada ever further to the provinces. He reinforced the budget discipline that Liberal prime ministers Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin introduced in the 1990s, and he expanded on Mulroney’s trade-friendly legacy by inking dozens of free-trade agreements, most notably the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement and this year’s 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership.

One of his first policy steps was to phase in a cut in the goods and services tax from 7% to 5%, and he tried at every attempt to engineer budget surpluses. But when the 2008-09 financial crisis hit, Harper’s government was quick to cede a stimulus package, and Canada’s well-regulated and traditional banks escaped the crisis without undue harm. It’s easy, looking back, to realize that Harper actually shared much in common with Mulroney, Chrétien and Martin.

By ceding more power to all provinces, including the Québec that he called a ‘nation’ in 2006, he lowered the tensions that roiled Canada from the 1960s through the 1990s, as the cause of Québéc separatism slowly faded. A native English speaker (unlike so many of his bilingual predecessors), Harper learned how to speak French — and strikingly well at that — on the job. When the separatist Parti québécois came to power for a short-lived minority government in 2012, Harper maturely ignored most of premier Pauline Marois’s provocations.

Though critics will argue that he relied too much on commodities and the oil and gas industry, Harper presided over a much more tangible pivot to Asia, positioning Canada’s interests squarely in the Pacific Rim. His government’s openness to immigration means that over one-fifth of Canada’s population today is comprised of immigrants, many of which are proud Harper supporters.

Hampered for the first five years by a minority government, Harper’s legislative record isn’t necessarily long, but the tone that he set for Canadian prudence and for Canadian conservatism is just as important as his legislative accomplishments.

There’s already a long (and growing) list of candidates to replace Harper, some likelier than others and some more charismatic than others. Most of all, Canada’s next opposition leader will have to work hard to perpetuate the unity of a party that’s still very much divided on geographic lines.

Though many leftists in Canada hold Harper in low esteem, it’s easy to forget that his predecessors were far more cartoonish on the national stage. It feels like a century ago that Preston Manning’s ‘Reform Party’ swept the western provinces in 1993 or his successor, the gaffe-prone Stockwell Day, whose disastrous leadership of the rechristened Canadian Alliance resulted in Harper’s election as leader in 2002.

Harper has already outlasted nearly every potential successor in the Tory parliamentary caucus — as much as anything a sign that the Harper era was nearing its end.

  • Jim Flaherty, Harper’s long-serving finance minister and a one-time potential successor, died in April 2014.
  • Jim Prentice, another loyal Harper lieutenant and a one-time environmental minister, left for the private sector and then to become Alberta’s premier in September 2014, though he lost the May 2015 provincial election to NDP leader Rachel Notley.
  • John Baird, a collegial former foreign affairs minister, resigned from the cabinet in February and retired altogether as an MP in March 2015 for the private sector. A former provincial cabinet minister in Ontario’s Progressive Conservative governments, Baird is likely to stay in the private sector — and it seems unlikely that the Conservatives would elect the country’s first openly gay federal party leader.
  • Peter MacKay, who didn’t run for reelection after nearly two decades in the House of Commons, was perhaps always the most likely successor to Harper. The last leader of the old, eastern-based Progressive Conservative Party, MacKay engineered the merger with Harper’s Canadian Alliance. Thereafter, MacKay served as Canada’s defence minister and justice minister before his decision earlier this year to step down. The Liberals won his riding in Central Nova, bring to an end an era for a Nova Scotia-based seat that his father Elmer MacKay first won in 1971.

All of them — Prentice, Flaherty, MacKay, Baird — are now part of a Harper era that’s moving by the minute from the present into the past. The challenge for Harper’s successor will be to show that the Conservative Party Harper established can have a second act and generate new ideas to advance a small-c conservative, business-friendly policy perspective through the middle of the 21st century.

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