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Paul Wells on What Harper Did

Does it make a difference that Stephen Harper was ever prime minister?

Paul Wells

The Harper Factor: Assessing a Prime Minister’s Policy Legacy

Jennifer Ditchburn and Graham Fox, editors

McGill-Queen’s University Press

305 pages, hardcover

ISBN: 9780773548701

After Stephen Harper’s Conservatives finally won a majority government in 2011, I used to enjoy terrifying readers by reminding them that by the time his term ended in 2015, Harper would still be three years younger than Jean Chrétien was when Chrétien became prime minister for the first time. Since Chrétien had lasted a decade, I was implying, Harper could turn out to be damned near eternal. Readers would protest that they could not stand the man. So how could he keep winning elections? But by 2011, I had a ready answer: You never could stand him in the first place, and yet he has won three in a row. Why would he stop now?

The truth—obvious to me only in hindsight—is that very soon after the 2011 election, Harper’s electoral goose was already pretty thoroughly cooked. He had always run an insurgency. He could not figure out how to run an incumbency.

We are left with three questions. Why did he lose in 2015? How did he win three consecutive elections before that? And does it make any difference that he was ever prime minister?

The second question—how Harper won, while he was still winning—was so hard to understand for so many readers that I needed to write two books to answer it properly. To some extent my effort was wasted. Many Canadians never wanted to know how Harper won elections. Many do not really believe he did. When pressed to acknowledge that Harper did indeed reside at 24 Sussex Drive from 2006 to 2015, many will finally admit that it may be so, but that the unfortunate mishap can be chalked up to chronic voter fraud, combined with the bottomless gullibility of the uneducated.

My own claim is that Harper represented widespread, long-standing and legitimate currents in Canadian politics; that millions of Canadians were pleased to see him become prime minister and happy to help him stay as long as they could; and that although millions of others were less sure about him, he was skilled at politics and, often, able to win enough of them over.

And then it all fell apart. Here I am not sure how to avoid the cliché about the dog that chases cars until it finally catches one. Winning that majority, like so much else Harper did, was a hell of a stunt, and it took him four elections to pull it off. But then he was not sure what to do.

For most of 2011 he tried to offer a Holiday Inn government: “No surprises.” He reintroduced the budget his government fell on before the election. He had the governor general read a throne speech that said close to nothing. His goal was to prove that a majority Harper government need not be a scary thing. But his base grew restless because he was proving it could be an insipid thing. Then, in November 2011, Barack Obama delayed a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline for at least a year, giving Harper a chance to transform into a resource export crusader. Harper was friendly to the Chinese, which won him no favours from China and upset longtime Conservative voters; he was theatrically furious at Obama, which failed to hurry the president along, and belligerent toward environmentalists, indigenous opponents of pipelines and just about everyone else.

Harper divides Canadians in his absence as he so diligently sought to do in office. Many will not want to entertain the notion that he left anything tangible.

Eventually he probably would have decided anyway that none of this was helping him. Before he could get around to that epiphany, Robert Fife of CTV News started reporting on Nigel Wright’s secret deal to pay off Senator Mike Duffy’s living expenses. Perhaps there was some clever way to handle this revelation that Harper did not try. What he did do was collapse into a defensive crouch from which he never recovered. A decade earlier he had won power by reaching out to a succession of unlikely allies: Progressive Conservatives, Quebec nationalists, Tories on Bay Street and in Atlantic Canada. For his last two years in power he lived in an echo chamber.

I could go on about all the big events of the 2015 election, but here is a little thing that preceded it and is, I think, illustrative. It is Harper’s practice of federalism, in its late decadent phase. Never mind that he refused to meet the premiers as a group: that was an interesting experiment in rejecting the stacked premises of executive federalism in this country. But he refused for as long as he could to meet Kathleen Wynne, the Liberal premier of Ontario, in what he clearly intended as cretinous punishment of Ontarians for having elected the wrong government.

A million Ontarians had voted, in turn, for the Harper Conservatives in 2011 and the Wynne Liberals in 2014. A million of them. They believed both of their votes were legitimate, and they expected both leaders to act like adults. The Harper who won in 2006 would have told the Harper who pouted in 2014 to suck it up and meet the lady. The Harper who lost in 2015 appeared, twice in the campaign’s final week, with Rob Ford instead. His detractors need to contemplate all the reasons for his victories. His supporters should ponder all the reasons for his defeat.

What does he leave behind? So soon after his defeat, so early in the gaudy reign of his successor, it is brave even to ask the question. Harper divides Canadians in his absence as he so diligently sought to do in office. Many who were on the losing side of his decade will not want to entertain the notion that he left anything tangible, or anything good at any rate.

Fortunately, the Institute for Research on Public Policy has a long history of barging into the country’s nastiest debates. That the Montreal think tank was founded at Pierre Trudeau’s initiative, during his government’s first mandate in the early 1970s and with a generous federal endowment, does not matter much anymore. The IRPP is now, for all intents and purposes, eternal. Its publications, including its flagship periodical Policy Options, are cheerfully non-partisan and aimed at an informed general audience, rather than at academics. When I was an undergraduate in the 1980s, IRPP-commissioned essay collections on the Meech Lake constitutional amendments and on Canada-U.S. free trade offered one-stop shopping for my ­term-paper research. Written by academics, journalists and practitioners of the political arts, the books left a reader plenty of room to draw his own conclusions about the issues under discussion.

And so it is with The Harper Factor: Assessing a Prime Minister’s Policy Legacy. Edited by the IRPP’s current president, Graham Fox, who served 15 years ago as Joe Clark’s chief of staff, and by Jennifer Ditchburn, the former CBC reporter who now edits Policy Options, The Harper Factor offers 15 essays on Harper’s record in as many policy areas. Ditchburn covers Harper’s fraught relations with the parliamentary press gallery. Reporter Susan Delacourt, whose most recent book was on political marketing, writes about Harper’s strategies for goosing voter support for the Conservatives. Michael Decter, long a first-call expert on Canada’s healthcare system, sums up Harper’s record on health (“A Curious Mix of Continuity, Unilateralism and Opportunity Lost”).

This impressive cast was conscripted long before the 2015 election, Ditchburn and Fox take care to note, with a mandate to deliver copy no matter who won that battle. The authors were told to bring their passions to the table, but not to ignore the facts. “While there was a lot of instant analysis of the Harper government in the form of punditry and editorials, much of it—too much, perhaps—focused on the personality of the man,” the editors write. The goal here is to take a longer, cooler view.

To the extent their partisan stripe can be known, most of the contributors are Liberals or, well, Tories, as distinct from the sort of populist and mostly western Conservatives who would once have consorted with the old Reform party.

One honourable exception is Paul Wilson, a former policy director in Harper’s Prime Minister’s Office, who mounts a spirited defence against widespread claims that Harper used the rules of parliamentary procedure to crush his opponents when he was not simply ignoring the rules altogether. Wilson uses data on closure, time allocation, length of debate and the bulk of budget implementation bills to significantly nuance these claims. At times Wilson’s tone is defensive, and at other times he does concede that Harper departed significantly from his predecessors’ practice. But even where his portrait softens the caricature of Harper as an authoritarian, it is not gratuitous: Wilson offers information that most readers will not have considered before.

Deeper understanding of what he was up to proves elusive. He is a complex man, plainly given to conflicting impulses.

“Harper’s record,” the editors state at the outset, “is decidedly more nuanced than both his admirers and his detractors will concede.” Less coherent than either would try to argue, too. Reporter Murray Brewster, now at the CBC and for a long time the military specialist at the Canadian Press, tries to make sense of Harper’s record on war, military procurement and veterans affairs. Brewster’s account is meticulous and nearly incomprehensible. It is not Brewster’s fault: Harper extended Canada’s mission in Afghanistan before cutting it short. He led a surge in equipment procurement before proving, in his last years, incapable of buying almost any piece of military kit. He announced a massive multi-year military expansion before scaling it back considerably. “It is safe to say that those who are left coming out of Stephen Harper’s wars,” Brewster writes, “have yet to fully appreciate or reflect upon the experience.”

The same could be said of any veteran, participant or observer, of Harper’s many combats. The ­sector-by-sector approach Ditchburn and Fox favour permits more detail on individual files than, say, the more impressionistic take I offered in my own books on Harper. But to a surprising extent, deeper understanding of what he was up to proves elusive. He is a complex man, plainly given to conflicting impulses and not at all fond of explaining himself. (I am told, reliably, he has no plan to write his own memoir. He would be the first long-lasting prime minister since Louis St. Laurent to so deprive us. Harper’s continued turtle act is a serious loss to our understanding of executive government in Canada.)

Does he leave a legacy? Justin Trudeau is trying to ensure it is as minimal as possible. Still, there are traces. On transfers to the provinces for health care, on the response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and on levels of taxation, Trudeau is closer to Harper than either might like to admit. In most ways they were as different as chalk and cheese. Canada is a big enough country to accommodate both.

Paul Wells is a senior writer for Maclean’s magazine. He wrote two books about Stephen Harper.

Related Letters and Responses

Andrew Baldwin Ottawa, Ontario