The Incrementalist

Stephen Harper is a patient man on a mission: remaking Trudeau’s Canada

In the very first paragraph of his entertaining and thoroughly researched analysis of Harper’s government, The Longer I’m Prime Minister: Stephen Harper and Canada, 2006–, Paul Wells warns the reader: “If all you look at is ‘anger’ or ‘control freak’ or ‘Alberta,’ you’re left with a mystery, because how could an angry control freak from Alberta get anywhere all by himself?” Harper may well be some of these things, but he could not have won three elections—January 23, 2006, October 14, 2008, May 2, 2011, the last one awarding him majority status—without having “a superior understanding of Canada.” Wells reminds us that not only westerners but also millions of other Canadians, including immigrants, Jews, Quebecers, Ontarians and even liberal-minded Torontonians have voted for him. In a parliamentary democracy, Wells writes in his inimitable style, “lightning does not strike three times on the same forehead.” People who do not see that “not only misunderstand Stephen Harper. They also misunderstand Canada.”

Wells’s central thesis is that Harper is a man with a mission. Contrary to Jean Chrétien’s definition of a good politician as “the one who wins,” Harper is of another breed. He is, very much like Pierre Elliott Trudeau, a man who seeks political power in order to bring about a social project. To such people, political power is a means to an end. Where Trudeau and Harper differ is, of course, in the nature of the project dear to their hearts. Trudeau’s was to combat Quebec separatism, to strengthen federalism, to enhance the bilingual and multi-ethnic nature of Canada and to enshrine a number of human rights protecting the people against abuse, including abuse by their own governments. To a large extent the aim of Harper’s conservatism is to eradicate that whole platform. Wells writes:

[Harper’s] Western Canada-based conservatism [is] rooted in a pervasive sense of betrayal at the hands of Trudeau Liberalism and its pale Progressive Conservative imitations. Righting that betrayal was the mission that first sent Stephen Harper and hundreds of other activists into electoral politics.

Trudeau is Harper’s arch-rival for two reasons: his mission was antithetical to Harper’s, but, more importantly, his legacy remains deeply rooted in Canada’s system of values. Thus at the heart of Harper’s mission lies the need to cleanse the Canadian landscape of Trudeau’s legacy. In Wells’s words: “[Harper] wanted to change the terms of the Canadian debate, to re-legitimize the Right’s ideas and de-legitimize the Left’s.”

But Harper was not content with that. He wanted to replace the Trudeau legacy with a new and durable set of conservative values. To him, what purported to be Conservatism was but a disguised form of Liberalism, reflected in the oxymoronic “Progressive Conservative Party.” He wanted to bring in a “true” conservative ideology, so that real conservatives would never wonder “whether it was worth their time to be Conservative.” And to achieve this, he needed time. Consequently, writes Wells, “[Harper’s] goal was to ensure that Conservatives governed as frequently and as durably in the twenty-first century as Liberals had in the twentieth.” Hence Wells’s title: “Every day he stayed in office, he would make the decisions only a prime minister can make … ‘You know,’ he’d tell his staff, ‘the longer I’m prime minister … the longer I’m prime minister.’”

Wells delves into two aspects of Harper’s political project. One focuses on the motives that incited Harper to become prime minister. It examines his political philosophy and raises key questions: What are Harper’s fundamental values? What is the nature of his Conservatism? Why does he believe in the urgency of giving Canadians a true conservative voice? The other deals with the means, strategies and policies Harper has adopted in order to bring more and more Canadians onto his side of the ideological divide. For this purpose, Wells follows Harper from his first election of 2006 to the crucial one of 2011 when he finally got the majority  status he craved. He clearly shows how Harper has patiently constructed a new and truer conservatism, one brick at a time.

Wells, like many others, believes that in order to appreciate Harper’s conception of Canada’s frailties, one must examine The Patriot Game: National Dreams and Political Realities, written in 1986 by Peter Brimelow, a British-born and now U.S.-based author who is very well known in Conservative and western circles. Brimelow’s basic thesis is that “contemporary Canadian Nationalism is a fraud designed primarily to benefit particular interest groups in Canada.” The particular groups in question constitute Central Canada’s “public class.” Throughout Canada’s history, claims Brimelow, this class’s primary strategy was “to concentrate rents from a resource-based economy in Central Canadian hands.” In other words, it simply stole what rightly belonged to the West.

While this underhanded transfer of resources has often been cited as the cause of western alienation, Brimelow adds an original twist. He claims that, divided as it is between English and French Canada, with further subdivisions within English Canada, this country “is not a nation.” Quebec separatists could not agree more. We are not about to forget Lucien Bouchard’s assertion, during Quebec’s second referendum on secession (October 1995), that “Canada is not a real nation!” To Brimelow, this situation is used by the Liberal establishment to control the economic and political levers of power. And in his view, as one would expect, Trudeau was a master at it, doing his best to remove “any element of Canadian cultural expression that might be deemed upsetting in Quebec.” But the tragedy, according to Brimelow, is that “the old man was selling Canada’s history down the river to appease Quebec and it wasn’t even working.”

How did this so-called public class, which sought its own narrow interests rather than the common good, manage to stay in power generation after generation? To Brimelow, and more generally to many western Conservatives and their sympathizers, the answer is obvious: this class (which includes Liberals, Social Democrats and Progressive Conservatives) was able to forge an alliance with a substantial portion of Canada’s educators, civil servants and media people. Quoting Irving Kristol, a leading neoconservative in the United States, Brimelow explains this alliance by a communality of interest: all these people “share a disinterest in personal wealth, a dislike for the freemarket economy, and a conviction that society may best be improved through greater governmental participation in the country’s economic life.”

Brimelow is particularly troubled by the absence of an alternative to the dominant Liberal  perspective in Canada because, to him, the Progressive Conservative Party is nothing but a pale imitation of the Liberals. For example, Mulroney’s preoccupation with the English-French dispute, and the huge political weight he granted to Quebec, was the purest expression of Liberal hegemony. Mulroney, claims Brimelow, was “trying to steal Trudeau’s formula and govern Canada from a Quebec base in alliance with the Anglophone centreleft.” As Wells rightly points out, Brimelow’s analysis struck a resonant chord in the West: “The Patriot Game landed like a bomb among Alberta conservatives precisely because its arguments weren’t novel and isolated but gave expression to something deep-seated, broadly based and cultural. The book functioned … as a highly charged revelation of a truth that was already present and felt.”

Harper has taken to heart the task of readjusting the balance between the West and the rest of Canada: “Where Liberals had worked to transfer wealth to the East, he would leave it in the West. Where they had eroded the Crown and the memory of a distinctly British heritage, he would build them up.” Worth noting here is how Harper’s government, in 2012, thumbed its nose at the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and focused instead on the War of 1812, on the military, the monarchy and other such symbols, in a manifest attempt to create a new set of Canadian values and symbols. His government even tampered with the classic 1982 photograph of Trudeau and the Queen signing the repatriated Constitution with a charter of rights. In the new “official” version, Trudeau has simply been cropped out of the photo, an act reminiscent of former Kremlin tactics.1

It seems that from Harper’s vantage point, erasing as much as possible of the Trudeau era, and especially of his most important legacy, the Charter, is not a way of manipulating history but rather of cleansing Canada of nefarious political values. Wells finds the intellectual foundations of this perspective in a number of works. For example, in Friends of the Court: The Privileging of Interest Group Litigants in Canada, Ian Brodie, Harper’s close collaborator from 2005 to 2008, depicts the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as the root cause of the transformation of the Supreme Court into an extremely activist tribunal. This point of view, which is dominant in western Conservative circles, finds its most complete expression in the works of Ted Morton and Rainer Knopff. According to these two University of Calgary academics, all the people attached to the Charter—referred to as “the Court Party” and including feminists, civil libertarians, language minorities, the LGBT community, and many ethnic and racial groups and their supporters—constitute a political minority wielding excessive powers. To these people, writes Brodie, “electoral politics is … not an advantageous arena … The Court Party prefers to advance its agenda through institutions that are insulated from electoral politics.” The fact that individuals and groups can use the courts to defend their rights, sometimes against their own governments, is not seen by these authors as a means of empowering individuals but rather as an instrument used by what Harper calls the “modern Left” to pursue its own interests.

A speech delivered by Harper in 2003 to Civitas, a Conservative organization, allows Wells to further penetrate the prime minister’s political philosophy. Harper shares wholeheartedly the social-conservative values of Edmund Burke, the 18th-century British parliamentarian and philosopher. He states, with obvious admiration, that Burke, “stresses respect for customs and traditions— religious traditions above all—voluntary association, and personal self-restraint reinforced by moral and legal sanctions on behaviour.” Note the emphasis on religious traditions above all. Clearly religion plays a fundamental role in Harper’s political philosophy. This is in stark contrast with liberal Trudeau, who established a clear distinction between his own deep faith and his political philosophy.

To Harper, as to Burke, true conservatism cannot be reduced to an appreciation of market relations, or to an abhorrence of taxes or to the intrusion of the state in the economy. Beyond all of these features, it champions a set of fundamental values, which are diametrically opposed to liberal ones. To Harper, writes Wells, true Conservatives should “get back in touch with their social-conservative side, to confront the liberal welfare-state threat.” Social conservatism is at the forefront of this battle: it provides the moral foundations of true conservatism and thus paves the way toward the “Good Society.” Thus, all matters concerning the family, such as the institution of marriage, homosexuality, abortion, the parents’ rights to educate and punish their children, and so forth are, as stated by Harper, “key to a conservative agenda.” He also looks at foreign affairs through a social-conservative lens, and asserts that, on this front as well, battles “should be fought on moral grounds, [because Conservatives should] understand that the great geopolitical battles against modern tyrants are battles over values.”

Interestingly, as Wells clearly shows, Harper is capable of adapting his values to various political contexts. For example, when he felt there was a possibility of selling western oil to the United States he sat on high moral ground and refused to deal with China. But since the Obama administration dimmed this hope by its reluctance to back the Keystone pipeline project needed to deliver the oil, Harper has turned a blind eye to China’s record on human rights and established much closer relations with this “modern tyrant.”

Nevertheless, Harper firmly believes that a stark contrast exists between the superior values of true conservatism and the absence of meaningful values of the modern Left. In his view, now that Soviet communism has crumbled and socialism in its various incarnations as a motivating social system has disappeared, the true enemy is a new leftist ideology, which is presented under various political labels. This new left has “moved beyond old socialistic morality or even moral relativism to something much darker. It has become a moral nihilism.” Moral nihilism? Is this what Harper believes the Liberal Party stands for? How does he view the people sitting on the Opposition benches at the House of Commons: are they political adversaries or enemies?

Yet, with all its excesses, Harper’s political project has undoubtedly been successful. Indeed, by the end of the Conservative Party’s current mandate, it will have been in power nine years and stands a good chance of being re-elected. In terms of duration this would place it among Canada’s top-ranking governments, including William Lyon Mackenzie King’s or Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s. Ironically, Harper, who claims to strongly uphold tradition, has in fact created a Conservative Party that represents a clear break from all previous Canadian conservative voices. Not only is it a break from the Reform Movement of Preston Manning and the Canadian Alliance of Stockwell Day but also from the venerable Progressive Conservative Party, in which the progressive Red Tory touch was part and parcel of its tradition. Particularly striking, and to many people worrisome, is the fact that this strong shift toward social conservatism has not prevented Harper from systematically enlarging his voter support. Wells clearly shows, for example, that Conservatives’ social views have struck a chord with ethnic communities and have substantially eroded their traditional support of the Liberal Party.

From the vantage point of Harper’s ideological principles, his crowning achievement must have been the rout inflicted upon the Liberal Party in the 2011 election. The so-called “natural governing party” won a mere 34 seats, the lowest number since day one of Confederation. This represents almost five times fewer seats than the 166 won by  the Conservatives, and three times fewer than the 103 seats of the NDP. Moreover, since 2006 the Conservatives have won three elections against a Liberal Party successively led by Paul Martin, Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff. Then Bob Rae, who was expected to seek the leadership, threw in the towel. This means that four leaders of the Liberal Party have now been either defeated or scared away by the Conservatives. In spite of Justin Trudeau’s present popularity, the least one can say is that this does not put the Liberals in a comfortable position.

Harper’s political success is all the more intriguing since, especially in its first mandates, the Conservative Party committed some grievous mistakes that gave credence to the accusation of a “hidden agenda.” Furthermore, it is well known that Harper lacks charisma. To better understand the secret of this success, Wells examines Harper’s policies and strategies, as well as his strengths and failings. I will not deprive the reader of the pleasure of discovering the many threads of Wells’s finely woven analysis, but will merely identify two aspects of the Conservatives’ achievement: 1) their ability to understand the intricacies of the political process and to learn from their mistakes, and 2) their ability to advance their agenda with maximum efficacy and minimum electoral cost.

Many people attribute the smooth running of the Conservative machine to Harper’s quasi-dictatorial handling of his associates. Or, at least, that was true until the debacle of the Conservative senators’ scandal, which had clearly escaped Harper’s attention. In any case, Wells argues that Harper does not risk a mutiny any time soon, because he is a good leader; he knows the importance of working with a united and dedicated team. Contrary to appearances, Harper is a good listener who encourages a strong and open expression of divergent opinions and is well appreciated by his colleagues. Wells writes: “one constant throughout Harper’s time as a party leader … was the [genuine] admiration … [of] members of the Conservative caucus for Harper’s confident dominance of the weekly caucus meetings.”

Another of the Conservatives’ strengths is their ability to learn from their mistakes. Instead of dismissing them as unfortunate accidents, Harper and his colleagues dissect them in order to draw the appropriate lessons. A close associate of Harper’s revealed to Wells that after every campaign, “we might come out and say to you that everything went fine. But in private, we sit down every time and we go through what we did do right, and what we did wrong. And we do it brutally, frankly. And every time we’ve made changes.” This introspection led to changes in all aspects of the Conservative political strategy, including Harper’s own image. From 2004 to 2008 Canadians barely knew Harper and, on the whole, disliked him. While this did not bother him personally, he knew quite well that it mattered politically. To overcome this handicap, writes Wells, the Conservatives did not make Harper’s “persona the center piece of his party’s campaign pitch.” But, when in 2008 his name became valuable, the Conservative ads immediately took advantage of this new image.

Conservatives’ willingness to work hard and to criticize one another allows them to improve their strategies. They have learned to better present their views to the public and to properly identify the weaknesses of their opponents and play them to the utmost. This does not prevent them from imitating other parties’ successful strategies. Wells references three electoral races where they have, underhandedly, campaigned for one of their opponents in order to split the vote. In short, the Conservatives have learned that politics is not the road to Utopia; it is the art of the possible.

There is one last aspect of Harper’s political savoir faire thoroughly examined by Wells that is worth mentioning: Harper’s capacity to renege on promises or change his mind according to political circumstances. For example, he promised to eliminate the deficit, to reform the senate so that senators would be elected and to establish fixed election dates. And yet the deficit rose, he made politically motivated appointments to the senate and he seems to have completely forgotten about the set election dates. He can also totally reverse his stand: starting with a categorical opposition to a special status for Quebec, he ended up recognizing the “Québécois people as a nation.” “A prince never lacks legitimate reasons to break his promise,” wrote Machiavelli.

While Harper’s Conservatives have mastered the art of compromise in politics, their mission is still very present in their minds and actions. They have simply adopted what the renowned Yale University economist Charles Lindblom refers to as the principle of “incrementalism.” On any day, writes Wells, Harper “has a choice: he can do some of the big conservative things that would be the end of his career, or he can do the small conservative things that won’t. He is amazed that earlier leaders had a hard time choosing.” All it takes, believes Harper, is patience.

The Conservatives have learned to stay away from costly political issues even when they constitute an intrinsic part of their philosophy: abortion, homosexual marriage or official languages, to name a few. Instead, they have concentrated on promoting less politically sensitive issues. For example, their “tough on crime” policy is music to the ears of social conservatives. Although most criminologists would claim that prisons are schools of crime, the notion of punishing the criminals is relatively easy to sell. Making the Statistics Canada long-form census voluntary is another example of such a policy. To right-wing people the notion of a detailed census is seen as an instrument of governmental intrusion. Whereas many statisticians, economists and civil society groups decried this move, ordinary citizens’ opposition was barely audible.

By far the most important impact of the incrementalist strategy is on the structure of the federation. Conservative governments, especially contemporary ones, typically favour decentralization. Joe Clark saw Canada as a “community of communities.” Similarly, Brian Mulroney twice attempted a profound restructuring of Canada through a devolution of powers to the provinces, first with Meech Lake and then with Charlottetown. Harper’s Conservatives, writes Wells, have realized that “the ultimate decentralization … would ensure that less money ever got to Ottawa.” And they have adopted a number of incrementalist measures that have done precisely that.

For example, most economists believe that lowering the rate of the GST, rather than income taxes, is bad for the economy. Wells correctly points out that “Harper was not interested in boosting productivity. He was interested in clearing a lot of money out of Ottawa.” As a result, $12 billion came out of the federal government budget. In their 2007 budget, the Conservatives found an even better way of slimming down the national state. Titled “Restoring Fiscal Balance,” the budget dealt with the recalculation of equalization payments to the provinces, and thus tackled the so-called “fiscal imbalance.” The provinces, Quebec at the lead, had persistently complained that while the needs were in the provinces, the money was in Ottawa. For Harper’s Conservatives this was a golden opportunity to achieve a Conservative goal: shrinking the size of the federal government while becoming political heroes. And thus, Quebec, with 24 percent of the population, received 46 percent of the new money. All other “poor provinces”—including Ontario—also received generous amounts. Unsurprisingly, writes Wells, the “reviews in Quebec were ecstatic. La Presse columnist Alain Dubuc wrote that the budget ‘settles the dossier of the fiscal imbalance’.” Meanwhile the Conservatives have successfully, and permanently, impoverished Ottawa.

Incrementally, Harper’s Conservatives are transforming Canada to their liking. With time on their side, they may very well achieve their goal of eradicating Trudeau’s liberal legacy.


  1. See the official guide for citizenship, “Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship,” specifically the section on rights and responsibilities.