A Eulogy for Prime Minister Stephen Harper
The uncomfortable truth about the prime minister we loved to hate—it said more about us than him.
This summer past, I started hearing a phrase that I wasn't ready for.
"He might lose."
Rank-and-file, true-blue-blood, Canada-has-created-1.2-million-net-new-jobs-since-the-depths-of-the-recession type of Conservatives, they were the ones who began admitting to themselves that this might be the end.
Those were still good days for the Conservatives. Their mortal enemy, the Liberal Party, was stuck in third place. Justin Trudeau, that inexperienced drama teacher, was never going to become prime minister. It was just Stephen Harper going mano-a-mano with Thomas Mulcair, the bearded wonder. And their power levels were even. An election cage match could go either way.
Publicly, the Conservatives were confident. Privately, they were voicing some concerns.
After all, things weren't all that rosy. Whereas staff in 2011 were clambering aboard the Stephen Harper express, this time, the pandemonium was muted. Long-time Conservatives abruptly retired. After promising their party that they would run again, senior ministers John Baird, James Moore, Shelly Glover, and Peter MacKay all up and split with little notice. Staff left with them.
Offices of senior ministers, rife with talent, cleared out as the party faithful began to glimpse the end of a five-year marathon and began searching for placements in the private sector. Even if Harper won again, many of those staff didn't want to affix themselves to the lumbering Voltron that the Harper government had become.
A few staff were done with the control—done with vetting every decision through "the centre," done with the prime minister inserting himself in every file, done with Harper kneecapping otherwise good files by slathering his clamped-down brand of media relations all over it.
So October 19 came, and Rome fell.
Part One: "The tired, old, corrupt Liberal party is cornered like an angry rat."
It's hard to remember what Stephen Harper stood for in 2004. That's what he promised when he unified the right wing—to get rid of the tired, old, corrupt Liberal Party.
Populism, accountability, federalism, democratic reform, chucking gay marriage (four-out-of-five ain't bad)—that Stephen Harper didn't have credibility problems. That Stephen Harper had personality problems. People had a hard time believing that man—cold to the point of robotic, dogged to the point of pathology—really had the temperament to be prime minister.
Paul Martin won the 2004 election, the one dubbed "shallow, cynical and mean-spirited," thanks to a lot of rhetoric around Stephen Harper's "hidden agenda" (one that we were still waiting for, ten years on) but was ultimately cut down in 2006, thanks to a raging corruption scandal that made his Liberals not just unpalatable, but outright toxic.
While we all may smile fondly in recalling those heady Liberal days, it's worth remembering that Martin's party was responsible for $100 million in graft and waste that merely lined the pockets of old boy Liberals. When the opposition parties, outraged, trying to topple his government in the House of Commons, Martin simply cancelled the opposition parties' ability to do so. (Sound familiar?)
Nobody was particularly saddened when Martin lost. The National Post wrote that "the cruel irony" of Martin's defeat was that, "for the most part, the principal agents in the sponsorship scandal kept their jobs and the money. Paul Martin lost both his job and his principles. His corruption was total."
Harper's 2006 campaign, as I've already written about, was not as scary as we remember. He vowed not to introduce any new abortion laws. He would scrap the obviously ineffective long-gun registry, but not lessen gun control otherwise. He would hold a free vote on re-defining marriage as a strictly non-gay enterprise, but must have known that the baker's dozen of his Conservative colleagues would vote against it, ensuring that nuptials remained fabulous. He would beef up our military, but would not, if he could help it, help knock over any two-bit rogue -istan that drew the ire of the Pentagon.
Columnist Colby Cosh summed it up in 2006 as thus: "Canada remains in 2006 largely what it was in 2005—a country where cigarettes are taxed 300%, but heroin is free to addicts; where gay widowers have an easier time obtaining pension entitlements than Second World War veterans; and where a women can go topless in public unless she has hate literature tattooed across her breasts."
And so, frustrated with the arrogant, bloated beast that was the Liberal Party of Canada, Canadians opted for Harper's reformed Reform Party. They elected a class of penny-pinching farmers and car salesmen, fetishists of the nuclear family and inherently distrustful of politics, the media, lobbyists—hell, anything in Ottawa.
It was those guys who burst into the House of Commons in 2006.
They had just ousted Canada's miserable government on their second attempt. They brought what Canadians wanted: change.
And this is how the Conservative Party came to power. Not with a promise to change Canada. Not with a vow of retribution. But with a promise to fix politics.
Part Two: Stephen Harper Tried to Change Ottawa, But Ottawa Changed Stephen Harper
Somewhere between Stephen Harper the Angry Ideologue We Hired to Fix This Shit, and Stephen Harper the Man We Fired In A Fit of Frustration, the prime minister wore a lot of different hats.
Stephen Harper the Hawk. Stephen Harper the Broad Thinker. Stephen Harper the Tinkerer. Stephen Harper the Libertarian. Stephen Harper the Panda Love Master.
But ultimately Stephen Harper was more interested in hanging onto power than he was in turning the tables on the urban elites or installing himself as Kaiser. From 2006 until 2011, the Conservative mission was survival. Hang on. Don't get ousted. Don't allow another Liberal decade. Don't drown in the recession.
That doesn't mean he didn't improve some facets and levers. He had to pay lip service to that promise to clean up Ottawa. He forced departments to hand over ever-more information to the public. He clamped down on how lobbyists skulk through the halls of power. He put in oversight for appointing lackies to important jobs. He did good things.
But like every jagoff who moves into 24 Sussex, this jagoff—like all the jagoffs before him—couldn't separate politics from government.
He had to employ the very tactics that he had railed against. He appointed flunkies to the Senate. He prorogued Parliament to avoid confidence votes. He stuffed controversial legislation into omnibus bills to jam them through.
He was flawed by the exact process he promised to fix.
And maybe he never really wanted to fix it. Harper is a political animal. Maybe he knew that promising populism is a hell of alot easier than delivering populism.
But for the list of accusations made against him, a jury of his peers would have a hard time actually finding Harper guilty of some of the more specific crimes.
Stephen Marche, Toronto-based columnist, took to the New York Times to decry the Harper legacy, and it's a good place to look to see this principle in action. Harper political staff barred bureaucrats from talking about snowfall to the media? Actually, non-political bureaucrats decided not to do the interview all on their own. The Fair Elections Act tightens the requirements for voting? The final (amended) version of the legislation did no such thing. The government is killing research critical of the tar sands? The reality isn't quite so simple.
This isn't to say that the Harper government didn't, from time-to-time, engage in some skullduggery. Sometimes, even effectively. But Canadians shouldn't confuse radio silence on, say, scientific research with an actual end to the research itself.
When you peel it all away—all the accusations, all the "facts" pulled from ShitHarperDid.ca, all the indictments of the Harper government—you're left with the legacy of a team of overworked and under-trusted micromanagers who fucked up four-out-of-five files on their desk, not a shadowy cabal of operators hell-bent on destroying liberal, happy Canada. This was a government more incompetent than evil.
Tucked inside Marche's column, written as almost a throw-away, is one of the most insightful things ever written about the Harper government.
"But the worst of the Harper years is that all this secrecy and informational control have been at the service of no larger vision for the country. The policies that he has undertaken have been negligible—more irritating distractions than substantial changes," Marche wrote.
And that's exactly it. Harper didn't want to dismantle the welfare state. He didn't want to change how we think about Canada. He didn't want to fix entitlement culture or hack at equalization. His broad strategy was a simple and attainable one: downsize government and neuter it wherever possible.
Last May, I swung into the opulent Laurier Room, inside Ottawa's gaudy Chateau Laurier, to eat some free cheese and slug a couple of complimentary Heinekens from the open bar.
Maybe three dozen conservatives and/or Conservatives were milling around the room. A little stage was set up at the front of the room. I shook a few hands with the Tories I recognized, then set up shop near the bar.
The event was being run by the Canadian Taxpayer Federation—a group that oscillates between hysterical pearl-clutching over every cucumber sandwich bought with public money, and legitimate concern over waste, incompetence, and graft in the federal government. The main portion of the event was a Q&A, which included Minister of Defence Jason Kenney, re-elected earlier this month and the odds-on front-runner for leader of the party, and John Williamson, felled New Brunswick MP who was particularly popular for speaking out against his own party when the occasion arose.
As events go, this one was particularly prone to navel-gazing. The two MPs slapped each others backs, and fetted nine years of fighting for the public dime.
But this, despite all the histrionics about the Harper decade, was the heart of Ottawa during the Conservative reign. Self-congratulation for slashing red tape, downsizing federal bureaucracy, and prying law-abiding citizens out from under the regulatory thumb of government. They didn't sit around, stuff their faces with cheese, and brag about how they've stripped Canadians of the right to vote and muzzled scientists.
It was in the hell-bent mission to lower taxes and streamline government that Harper and his team of sycophants tripped over themselves on file after file. Even when they didn't mean to.
Their mandated bureaucratic downsizing meant that Veteran's Affairs Canada would shutter offices and turn around WWII pilots. It meant that the very watchdogs that were set up to save money and improve performance were so short-staffed that they could barely pay for postage to mail their toothless requests for more funds. The military emerged from a "decade of darkness" only to see a decade of dim twilight under the Tories.
A government caught between spending as little money as possible, delivering for its industry clients, and simply surviving as a political entity is a government that has little ambition to please the public. There's simply no time.
Harper ran the federal government as though it were irrelevant—a nuisance and a hinderance. If he could return your tax cheque, he would. If he could approve your pipeline, he would. Whereas the Liberals want to prove that the federal government could be all things to all people, the Conservatives want it mean very little to as many as possible.
To offset his lacklustre, Harper pummeled the Liberal Party whenever he could. Luckily for him, the Liberal Party made it all too possible, by hoisting unelectable rubes into their top spot. Men whose vision of the Canadian government were so ephemeral and arrogantly-built that the offer of no government at all—essentially what Harper was peddling—seemed more appetizing.
The closest thing that came to euthanizing the Harper government was Jack Layton's battle cry of "Ottawa is broken." Had the 2011 election gone on another seven days, it's possible that Canadians would have agreed.
And that's what so damning about Harper's critics. They couldn't win the argument. Faced with all the supposed horrors of the administration, they couldn't offer a better solution.
Part Three: "Normal."
It didn't take long after the Conservative Party's defeat for the knives to come out.
It took all of a day before the Conservative rank and file began their long march away from the Harper decade. Member of Parliament Ron Liepert dug at Harper's personality. Surviving MP Michelle Rempel subtweeted her way through an announcement that she will likely try to replace the big guy. Leadership frontrunner Jason Kenney told the media that they, as Conservatives, needed to learn to smile more. Nice-guy MP Dan Albas said he wants a "sunnier" party.
And those are the Conservatives. The Toronto Star, by comparison, read like the New York Times after the Emperor surrendered.
The intolerably self-aggrandizing Heather Mallick congratulated herself in Harper's defeat before lamenting, unironically, "it's a huge mistake to define yourself only by what you dislike." Haroon Siddiqui took once last kick at the Conservative decade in proclaiming: "Canadians reclaim their country from Stephen Harper." Robin Sears describes post-apocalyptic Canada reborn, arguing that we have returned to "normal."
It's easy to say that he won a majority government with 40 percent of the vote, in an election with 61 percent voter turnout. It's easy to say he and a shadowy room of operators cooked up the robocall scandal in order to fudge the results. Easy, too, to say his manipulative style and Republican-inspired politics choked out political opponents at every turn, making a good-guy victory impossible. Easiest yet is the idea that racist and xenophobes backed his party, pitting them at odds of multiculturalism and tolerance.
But these myths, these ideas that Canada is good, Harper is bad, and his government was some sort of horrible aberration, they still don't explain how 5.6 million Canadians continued to support his government. And those myths assume that these problems—inaction on various social problems, secretive bureaucracy, environmental destruction, racism—are new, or that the previous governments have handled them responsible. They are not, and they did not.
Canada was not cursed by a witchdoctor in 2006. It did not transform overnight.
Justin Trudeau—or prime minister-designate Thomas Mulcair, winner of the alternate reality election where Harper was forcing all women to wear the niqab at citizenship ceremonies—will not be a clear break from Harper's policies.
On tone, sure, the Liberals will approach governance like brunch with your bae. But on the day-to-day machinations of government, Trudeau wants the same tax breaks (altered, slightly), the same departmental spending (heightened, a bit), the same security legislation (fixed, at spots), a mimicked foreign policy (improved, in style), and the same social services. The country will not be run that differently.
We must be very careful of the myths we choose to create. Harper's government was not as bad as we chose to paint it, and Trudeau's promises are not as bold as we choose to believe.
And maybe that's the saddest thing about the Harper decade. He stormed into power as the inheritor of a populist mandate—a license to actually change how politics works, and to make it more accountable and beholden to the public. Instead, he said "fuck it" and started cutting us cheques for pumping out babies in a sad attempt to curry our favour with our own money. And his enablers, the very ones who are now promising us a new era of conservative politics, were the ones who stood by and made it possible.
It's the same trap that has swallowed the NDP wholesale: that all you need to do to win at politics is to play the game with the same set of rules we've been playing with for decades. If anything, the one-time socialists should be even more ashamed of themselves—at least Stephen Harper actually won before he shed his principles.
We should thank Stephen Harper for showing us just how broken and superficial our politics actually are. But we won't.Follow Justin Ling on Twitter.