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Stephen Harper Rides Into the Sunset as Canada's Right Wing Reinvents Itself

One of the longest-serving G7 leaders is doing his political swan song, and his party seems unsure of whether to fête him, or forget him.
Justin Ling
Montreal, CA
May 27, 2016, 4:40pm
Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck

Stephen Harper's political farewell clocked in at just around 17 minutes.

The goodbye, however, was conspicuously missing an actual "goodbye."

The defeated Canadian prime minister took the stage at the Conservative Party's annual convention in Vancouver Thursday night to thank his staff, his caucus, his family, and effectively to say goodbye to political life, without ever admitting that it was what he was doing.

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His speech, instead, was rife with Harper-isms, lauding the Conservative Party as "the party that knows that dollars are better spent by families than by governments," and celebrating his government as one bent on "giving the people who are responsible for raising the money the primary responsibility for managing the money."

The speech was Harper coming out of his proverbial shell that he's hid in since he resigned as leader last October.

Since the drubbing at the hands of political neophyte Justin Trudeau, Harper stuck around as a member of Parliament, hovering about like the ghost of Christmas past. His party, meanwhile, has been trying to determine what it wants to mean in the future.

That quest for reinvention — or 'refreshing,' as some have tried to rebrand it — comes with an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the political establishment of the party, not unlike Trump's wriggling through the decay of the Republican Party. But the frustration in Canada isn't quite as pronounced as their southern ideological counterparts and, if anything, the push back may bring the Conservative Party towards new, oddly progressive, heights.

Related: After Getting Whipped by Trudeau, Canada's Conservative Party Is Soul Searching

A motion is coming before the convention to strike the party's long-standing policy opposing gay marriage — a fight they lost more than a decade ago. Fervent opposition to abortion and euthanasia have given way to a panoply of positions within the party, ranging from vocally pro to mutedly con and, perhaps more commonly, indifference. Several candidates for the leadership of the party are trying to tug and pull the party forward, past the Harper era, advocating for everything from electoral reform to ecologism. One candidate has billed himself as a libertarian, and has spent the opening scenes of the race chiding Harper's fiscal policy as big-government interventionism.

Kevin O'Leary, a darkhorse candidate for the leadership, has opened fire on the outgoing leader, suggesting that Harper lost the election for wading into identity politics by demonizing the niqab and Muslim refugees.

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But while his party ponders whether to burn Harper in effigy, or erect a bronze statue in his likeness — with the conclusion that they may, in the end, do both — Harper has been something like a Canadian political unicorn.

An Instagram photo of the former prime minister popping up in Las Vegas. A tweet wishing, from his family to your's, a happy Easter. A shot of his confused face, looking on as his predecessor bursts through a crowd of opposition parliamentarians during a rare moment of physical confrontation in Canada's Parliament.

Since his defeat last October after nearly 10 years in power, now sits on the very fringes of his party's benches in Parliament. He's in the front row, but at such an angle that is virtually invisible to the media gallery that looks on from above.

He doesn't have a portfolio. He doesn't sit on a committee. He hasn't spoken in the House of Commons. He's only voted a handful of times — against the new government's budget, for a motion condemning a movement to boycott Israel, against a bill to hike taxes on the rich, against a bill to outsource aerospace jobs.

He hasn't sat down with the media. He's barely even spoken to his own party.

When Stephen Harper's driver arrives in Parliament, his car drives past the entrance to the Senate, around the back of the building, and leaves him at a loading bay. From there, he walks inside and steps directly into an elevator — probably no more than a 30-second walk, from the car, until he presses '5' on the brassy keypad of the elevator. From the sliding doors to his office, it's maybe 20 steps. When the day is over, he does it in reverse.

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It means he's never seen. Never interrupted.

One of the only sightings of the leader — who was, for years, the second longest-standing leader around the G7 table, after Angela Merkel — was on his first day back into Parliament, when he faced his caucus, in attempt to explain his loss.

He spoke for five minutes.

A handful of reporters — myself included — bumped into the unicorn in the stairwell. A volley of questions, shouted up the stairs, at the prime minister's back, went unanswered.

A staffer, one of his few left, rounded on us: "He's not taking question right now," she snapped.

He burst through the door, onto the fifth floor, and took off down the hallway.

Many were surprised that Harper stayed in his seat at all. Many defeated prime ministers have quietly stepped down the morning or week after their loss, fading into the noise — joining the board of a bank, serving as a senior advisor to a law firm, moving into private life.

Harper's decision to stay on was motivated by two factors, say Conservative Party sources familiar with his thinking: he did not want to wear the albatross of a costly election to fill his vacant seat, and he wanted to keep a small staff in order to arrange his papers, take his calls, and answer his emails.

His legacy in Canada is a political rorschach test. For some, his term was an assault on typical Canadian values — environmentalism, peace-making, religious tolerance, social justice. For others, his government was a populist victory that disrupted a linage of wealthy urban elites running the country.

Related: Liberals Are Starting to Dismantle the Conservatives' Legal Legacy in Canada

He largely led his party as a technocrat which meant there was little room for social conservatives (or social progressives, for that matter) or ideologues in the senior ranks of his government.

Some of his reforms have already begun to unravel. Attempts to reduce Canada's long-term spending, through raising the age of retirement and downsizing the federal government, have already been reversed by his successor. His tough-on-crime legislative agenda, which targeted drug dealers and slapped mandatory minimum sentences on a host of crimes, has been dismantled by the courts. His political ambition to obliterate the Liberal Party, the centrist alternative to the Conservative Party, failed when Canada elected Justin Trudeau in a large majority government.

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But Harper leaves behind many fans, as well. His spend-thrift government had reduced the tax burden for most individuals and corporations, while grappling with, and ultimately controlling, Canada's budget deficits — even amid a global financial crisis. His foreign policy was full-throated and unabashedly critic of foreign states with troubling human rights records like Russia and Uganda. His political legacy will be that he managed to unify the fractured conservative movement in Canada and quell infighting amongst its ranks.

His government may have found itself under fire for a litany of scandals — from accusations that organizers within his party had tried to stop voters from going to the polls with the use of misleading robocalls, to a criminal investigation into illegal accounting practises in one election campaign, to the discovery of a recording that his close advisors had tried to bribe a dying man with a life insurance policy in return for policy favours. But, despite all, few things stuck. And it was Harper, coming into power on the back of a Liberal government that was mired in a litany of corruption inquiries, that instituted broad accountability and transparency rules, and forced big-money donations out of politics.

So Harper leaves politics, still rife with contradictions, and returns to Calgary. Friends who have spoken with the media in recent weeks say he plans to open up a foreign-policy oriented think tank with his former advisors. He's mused about writing another book, this time about Canadian history (the last one was a well-received, albeit dull, history of hockey.) He's set up a registered company. Rumours suggest he'll join a corporate board in the near future.

Harper left the stage on Thursday night to thunderous applause, still publicly coy about his future. His actual resignation is expected to come quietly over the summer.

Follow Justin Ling on Twitter: @Justin_Ling