Manitoba·Opinion

Stephen Harper is gone, but his legacy isn't, Steven Zhou writes

How the Liberal Party will use its strong majority remains to be seen, but those predicting a sharp 180-degree turn in government towards a more progressive Canada should remember just how successful Harperism was.
The election of Justin Trudeau's Liberals does not mark the end of Stephen Harper's influence, Steven Zhou writes. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

The Liberal Party's new electoral dominance has a lot of people talking about how resoundingly Canada has repudiated Stephen Harper's style of governance. The nativist brand of "conservative" politics that Harper loved so much seems to have backfired, especially among ethnic voters in southern Ontario, and Canadians are all supposed to be entering a new, more optimistic chapter of national politics. People are even talking about just how dashing a figure Justin Trudeau cuts and how the "hottest prime minister ever" is supposed to lead his country out of the shadows of the "Harper decade."

But the Canadian Parliament will continue to function under the shadows of Stephen Harper and his now-defunct administration for the next while. How the Liberals will use their strong majority remains to be seen, but those predicting a sharp 180-degree turn in government towards a more progressive Canada should remember just how successful Harperism was. The man may be gone, but his legacy will continue to be relevant for a long time to come. Harper reduced the GST, cut corporate taxes and put Canada's national security apparatus on steroids. The Tories shifted the national consciousness to the point where both the Liberals and New Democrats have been forced to adapt to (and thus accept) much of the Harper world view.

Trudeau voted for criticized legislation

For instance, Trudeau's Liberals will only amend parts of Bill C-51, perhaps the most draconian set of security laws that Canada has passed in the post-9/11 era. They've essentially embraced the Keystone XL pipeline project as well as every aspect of Harper's vision for Canada's involvement in international free trade. Trudeau also voted for Harper's egregious "barbaric cultural practices" bill, embracing everything except for the name. These are just some reminders of what Harper has left behind, and how even in defeat, his administration has changed the climate of Canadian public opinion and everybody else is still playing catch-up. 

The Conservatives may have lost big time in the election, but they certainly haven't lost their base of support, especially in Alberta and Saskatchewan. They also captured one-third or so of Ontario voters and about the same in British Columbia. So when Harper says he has left his party "in good shape," he isn't entirely wrong. His political legacy seems to continue to resonate with a good number of Canadian voters who may want a new, more optimistic face of conservatism, but agree with Harper's basic world view. This Canada is what Harper has spent so much time cultivating. It presents the stiffest challenge to those who want not just the end of the Harper brand, but of Harperism itself. Electing Trudeau won't be enough.

Haperism deeply entrenched

There's an aspect of delusion when it comes to the way many Western countries portray their electoral processes. It's the implicit message that "politics" is some sort of show that comes around every four or five years, whereby we're all obliged to tune in at the right time and rejoice in victory or weep in defeat when it's all over. But politics and the actually shaping of laws and policy take place between elections. Ducking into a ballot box once every few years is a limited definition of democratic rule, the political equivalent of hitting the "reset" button every so often.

Those hoping for a drastic change in Canadian politics should take a closer look at how deep Harperism has buried itself within the national landscape. It's going to take a bold, collective effort to dig it back out. That Trudeau's Liberals chose not to contend with much of what the Tories shoved through Parliament during Harper's majority is a reflection of how Canadian public opinion seems to have shifted to the right on so many issues. Changing this will take more than voting in a different party — majority or not.

Steven Zhou is a Toronto-based journalist and writer.

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