Former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper this month ended nearly two years of self-imposed exile from commenting on public affairs. The occasion was the reported $10.5 million payout and apology to confessed Islamist terrorist Omar Khadr, which current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau initially tried to blame on the previous Conservative government. In a withering Facebook post Harper said “the government today attempted to lay blame elsewhere for their decision to conclude a secret deal with Omar Khadr. The decision to enter into this deal is theirs, and theirs alone, and it is simply wrong. Canadians deserve better than this.” It was Harper’s first major foray into the public square since he left office, and the first indication that he intends to take an active role in defending and shaping his legacy.
Much has already been said and written about Harper’s legacy, both critical and laudatory, by both his political opponents and allies. But the jury is still out on how history will finally judge his contributions to Canada’s political evolution, including his decade as prime minister. While his critics on the left are working assiduously to ensure that he is remembered as a cartoonish tyrant, his critics on the right tend to criticize him for the failure of the 2015 election campaign and for failing to use his one-term majority government to implement radically conservative policy reforms.
But whatever strategic mistakes occurred in his last election campaign, the complaints of right-wing policy wonks are misguided. Harper’s main contributions to Canada – and the conservative cause – should not be measured in policy. Instead, beginning with the establishment of a united Conservative party at the federal level, Harper’s ultimate contribution to Canadian politics was to transform the Canadian political landscape and end the Liberal monopoly on Canadian identity and governance.
After the collapse of the Liberals in the 2011 election, there was serious discussion about whether the Conservatives had replaced the Liberals as the “natural governing party” of Canada. The spectacular Liberal comeback in the 2015 election put an end to that giddy speculation, but it did not restore the hegemonic status the Liberals had enjoyed for the better part of a century. The Conservatives lost power in 2015 but remained a unified, formidable political force. They have since performed well as the Official Opposition and executed a credible leadership succession process. Today they are a legitimate contender for power in the next election. All these achievements were built on the sturdy political foundations built by Stephen J. Harper.
To understand the scope of his success, it helps to look back on Canadian political history. In the 20th century the Liberals governed for a total of 69 years, a record of dominance unparalleled in other liberal democracies. Since Sir John A. Macdonald, only two Conservative Prime Ministers have won more than two consecutive elections, John Diefenbaker and Stephen Harper. However, despite winning three separate elections, Diefenbaker was PM for less than six years. The great Sir John A. Macdonald is the only Conservative prime minister to have served longer than Harper. Of the three other Conservative PMs in the post-war era, Joe Clark lasted less than one year, Brian Mulroney had two terms totalling just short of nine years, and his successor Kim Campbell had barely four months in office before the electoral annihilation of the old Progressive Conservatives in 1993. With the exceptions of Macdonald and potentially Harper, Canadian political history has been marked by brief periods of Conservative governance followed by decades of Liberal dominance, with Conservative prime ministers serving as short-term historical placeholders for long-tenure Liberals like Wilfred Laurier, Mackenzie King, Pierre Trudeau, and Jean Chretien.
Unlike Mulroney, Harper did not leave his party on the edge of ruin. After three electoral victories, and nine years and nine months as prime minister, he left the Tories one seat short of 100 in the House of Commons, and in control of the Senate, with 32 percent of the popular vote and a solid base of membership, organization, and money. This is an unparalleled achievement in modern Canadian Conservatism. In the past, governance has always seemed to exhaust Conservatives, leaving them vulnerable to major electoral defeats. However, after 2015 the Conservatives recovered well under the stabilizing leadership of interim leader Rona Ambrose. The party once again leads in fundraising, and the long leadership campaign has swelled membership to well over 250,000.
The early reviews for new leader Andrew Scheer, both from within and without the party, have been positive. During the leadership campaign, Scheer implicitly positioned himself as the natural successor to Harper, often invoking his name and praising his accomplishments, and mostly promising to stay his predecessor’s course, albeit with a readier smile and outwardly sunnier disposition.
The Canadian conservative renaissance under Harper also saw the proliferation of a substantial network of right-wing advocacy groups, organizations, and think tanks. He played a significant personal role in this phenomenon as head of the National Citizens Coalition during his five-year hiatus from retail politics from 1997 to 2002.
These organizations are helping change Canadian political culture. Nobody jokes “tax me I’m Canadian!” anymore, as best-selling conservative author Mark Milke did in 2002 with his book of the same name. The goal of lower taxes and more economic freedom enjoys a much wider constituency today.
Even more importantly, the Ottawa-Toronto-Montreal liberal intelligentsia no longer monopolizes the public image, self-perception, and policy opinions of Canadians as much as it once did. In some sense, Harper has given a voice to the rest of Canada that resides outside of the Danforth or Westmount. As one of the founders of the Reform Party, Harper once campaigned on slogan that “the West wants in!” What he achieved as prime minister was to let Canadians outside the old Laurentian elites have a say in government.
Furthermore, while Harper may have left political life, many of his deputies are poised to continue his work. In Manitoba, Ontario and Alberta former Harper collaborators or proteges have either recently taken power, or seem poised to form government. At the provincial level, the success of figures like Brian Pallister, Jason Kenney, Brian Jean and Patrick Brown is helping to re-establish conservative governments. It is not hard to imagine a near-future national first ministers’ summit largely populated by Harper’s political descendants.
This narrative is obviously disputable. Harper’s legacy is still up for grabs. Many Conservatives blame Harper for the 2015 election defeat. Some see the lack of ideologically conservative policy changes, especially in Harper’s last four years with a majority government, as an irredeemable disappointment. Harper ran deficits for much of his tenure, and bought votes with boutique tax credits. Many of the conservative changes his government did bring in were easily undone by the Trudeau Liberals. Most importantly perhaps, Harper failed to break the liberal-progressive monopoly over the judicial system. Thus, for many conservatives, Harper’s legacy is one of missed opportunities and disappointment.
But if it turns out that he has indeed established a viable party at the federal level that will consistently be able to win and govern for long periods, Harper’s legacy will be to enable opportunities for further and more ambitious policy and institutional reforms under future Conservative prime ministers. Harper recognized that in order to re-establish conservatism as an integral element of Canadian political life he had to shift mainstream public opinion slowly, carefully and incrementally to the right. In this he accomplished more success than any Conservative leader since Macdonald faded into history and the Liberals established themselves as the dominant institution in Canadian politics. No longer should Conservatives see themselves as perpetually on the outside and incapable of anything more than brief, episodic electoral success. If his successors understand what Harper achieved, and dedicate themselves to building on it, the Conservatives will consistently compete for power as one of Canada’s natural governing parties.