Stephen Harper's legacy: Good, bad and a dose of ugly

The Harper decade ends with a tangled legacy: a louder foreign policy, lower taxes, a balanced budget, and an abrasive political style that alienated both friend and foe.

The Harper decade ends with a tangled legacy and an abrasive style that alienated friend and foe

WATCH: Highlights from Harper's concession speech

7 years ago
Duration 3:02
Stephen Harper conciliatory, expresses gratitude to Canadians

In defeat, Stephen Harper showed something he often lacked in power: grace.

He made his exit with grace towards both winners and losers. "The people are never wrong," he said.

Simultaneously, a party statement said the search is on for a new interim leader. And with that, Harper was gone, leaving no further doubt about the question the NDP posed to voters in their ads: "Had enough yet?"

After nine years and eight months in office, Stephen Harper finally turned off too many voters. Soon, he'll be hurling his political obituaries across the room.

Time, of course, may cool the steaming dislike of Harper's abrasive brand of politics. Perhaps his creditable record in domestic and foreign affairs will be remembered more fondly when the alternative becomes clear. 

For now, though, the sheer nastiness of the Harper style looms large in his defeat.

He brought taxes down as he promised. He was bold without being visionary in foreign affairs. But there's no way around it: Harper's thuggish political tactics alienated friends and energized enemies.

Time and again throughout this long campaign voters said they wanted him gone. 

More than they wanted anyone else to win, they wanted Harper to lose. They'd even vote Liberal if that's what it took.

'I can't even get my friends to like me'

Stephen Joseph Harper, of course, never set out to be lovable. He always knew he would rile the nabobs of the establishment, the media, the bar and the academy.

So what? He was out to reform a nation and a world that he deemed infested with entitled liberals who coddled criminals, ran up debt and cozied up to dictators. He knew he'd be the skunk at the party.

Consider his deft and poignant 2014 eulogy for a fallen comrade, Jim Flaherty, in which Harper noted the contrast between himself and the gregarious ex-finance minister who charmed his way through the great recession.

"Jim, as fiercely partisan as he was," said Harper, "was also genuinely liked and respected by his opponents — liked by his enemies. That's something in this business — something I envy. I can't even get my friends to like me."

Nobody stood up and shouted, "No! We love you!"

Indeed, have we ever seen a prime minister so bereft of the back-slapping, shoulder-punching, baby-kissing arts of human contact? Even the cerebral Pierre Trudeau enjoyed a pirouette at the palace. Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien seemed to like plunging into rooms full of loud supporters. For Harper, it was always an ordeal.

The fact that he could steel himself to endure it, though, tells us much about his success as a politician. He never set hearts a-thumping — except among his enemies — but Harper's discipline made up the difference.

Politics, politics

Take the little matter of elections. It was a gigantic achievement to lead a fractious party to victory three times in a row, even in the teeth of a deep recession.

What's more, Harper did not step to the head of an established political machine; he had to build his own from the wreckage of two defeated parties. Preston Manning's Reform Party split the right; Harper united it.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper addresses sailors aboard HMCS Fredericton in Poland in June 2015. (Terry Milewski/CBC)

After that, he piled up wins. The immigrant vote? Check. The Jewish vote? Check. Keeping the social conservatives close while keeping them quiet? Check. Surviving minority government? Check, even if prorogation wasn't pretty. Running rings round Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff? Check and check.

Don't say that Harper didn't know how to pirouette, too. He preached against chasing "the almighty dollar" in China, then led the chase. He swore to balance the budget, then ran six deficits.

He campaigned on a cap-and-trade carbon plan in 2008, then mocked it in 2011. There was no rose in his lapel, but he could swivel like Pierre Trudeau and flip-flop with the best.

The deficit dragon — slain or sleeping?

His defining zig-zag, for many voters, was the recession budget of 2009. As the financial winds howled in the fall of 2008, he said, "We're not running a deficit ... that's our policy. We're not going into deficit."

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen walk along the Great Wall China in 2009. Harper reversed his stand against chasing 'the almighty dollar' in China, and visited twice in pursuit of boosting trade. (Terry Milewski/CBC)

Six weeks later, the first whopper of a deficit was in the works. By spring, it was over $50 billion.

So, yeah, that was one doozy of a flip-flop. And so?

Sometimes, a flip-flop can be a wonderful thing. The opposition complained that it hadn't happened sooner. Rather than being a black mark on Harper's record, it's now seen as simply a necessity in the face of an economic hurricane.

And the five more deficits that followed? Those enabled Harper to boast that he shoveled taxpayers' money out the door faster than any government in history.

Which, of course, was not what Conservatives thought they were voting for. They just had to hold their noses while $50 million was steered into Treasury Board President Tony Clement's central Ontario riding for "border infrastructure."

Oops! It's nowhere near the border.

So Harper could ladle pork like a Liberal. Better, in fact. Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin reduced the national debt by $90 billion and left a budgetary surplus of $14 billion. Harper's six deficits added $150 billion to the national debt.

Don't blame me

Not his fault, you say? Perhaps so, although Harper certainly made the red ink deeper by cutting the GST and adding $14 billion a year to the deficit. Add on all the tax cuts for hockey moms and firefighters and parents and, well, Harper even contrived to double the budget for prisons at a time when crime was falling.

The end result was lower taxes and higher debt. The two are not wholly unrelated.

Even so, a rising debt can still be a smaller slice of the economy if the economy grows.

That's the big picture: Canada's debt-to-GDP ratio is on a slow, downward creep, from 30 per cent to 25 per cent, which is better than our G7 partners. It's a meaningful measure of fiscal health. If Harper wants to be judged by the economy, then it could be a lot worse.

And, if oil prices had not crashed, it would probably look a lot better.

Ships, planes and pandas

As for global politics, let's start with the good news: baby pandas! Face it, Harper-haters, it's an unmitigated success. Pandas! Let's hope they survive.

Otherwise, Harper's conduct of foreign and defence policy has produced a tangled legacy that's long on bombast and short on cash.

Harper's pledge to stand by Israel 'through fire and water' was a centrepiece of his foreign policy. (Terry Milewski/CBC)

Harper always pooh-poohed Canadians' supposed historical role as peace-keepers and "honest brokers." Tell it to the boys who died at Vimy Ridge, he said. Or in Afghanistan, where they were sent, initially, by a Liberal government.

That wasn't peace-keeping; it was war. Even the brief engagement in Libya meant dropping bombs, not blankets — and there's certainly no peace to keep in the fight against ISIS.

However, Canada's modest contribution to these missions reflected another hard truth: Canada's defence spending under Harper never matched his muscular rhetoric. He loved to bemoan the Liberals' "decade of darkness," but Harper presided over a second decade of you-know-what. Canada's defence budget, at barely one per cent of GDP, is half what NATO expects.

So, we still need new fighter jets. There's no commitment to buy F-35s or anything else. We're still patching up the old planes as best we can.

And the new ships? Be patient. For all Harper's chest-thumping about his shipbuilding plan, the Arctic patrol ships are five years behind schedule, the supply ships are eight years behind and the icebreaker ... just hang on for a decade or so.

Typically, though, the spin has arrived on time. The icebreaker has a name! It's the Diefenbaker. So — metaphor alert — it sounds like a rock-ribbed Conservative, but it's not real.

Fire, water and Obama

Still, Canada's lack of military muscle never stopped Harper playing the conviction politician on the world stage. Whether he was a consequential one is a different matter.

There's been brave rhetoric aplenty — on the uselessness of the UN, on ISIS, on Russia, Ukraine and especially on Israel.

Much of this was cheered on at home — and why not? When Saudi Arabia's on the UN Human Rights Council, do voters mind if Harper gives the UN no respect? As for ISIS, it was the Liberals and the NDP who were out of step with public opinion, not Harper.

RAW: Stephen Harper concession speech

7 years ago
Duration 7:06
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper addresses his supporters in Calgary after a Liberal majority government is elected.

Otherwise, though, for all his failings as a consensus politician, Harper's foreign policy was mostly backed by the opposition. Notably, he trumpeted his support for the Jewish state "through fire and water" and no party in Canada tried to stop him.

The Obama administration was a different story. The hopey-changey Obama-crats were irritated by Harper's foot-dragging on the environment and his claims that he wouldn't "take no for an answer" on the Keystone pipeline. Really?

Harper did succeed, though, in doing as little as possible about climate change while doing as much as possible about free trade.

Spin was a high priority in both files: Harper took credit for the closure of Ontario's coal plants — which he had opposed — and repeatedly celebrated a free trade deal with Europe which, two years later, is nowhere near being ratified. Likewise, the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Ten years hence, though, we may thank Harper and his indefatigable trade minister, Ed Fast, for an essential boost to Canada's trade across the Atlantic and the Pacific. Their successors will reap the benefits and pay less for camembert.

Control freak in chief

Today, though, Canadians seem to judge Harper not by his achievements, but by his methods. Even his fans tend to look down and shuffle their feet when asked what Harper did to Canada's democracy.

His ugly attack ads, his fear-mongering and his muzzling of his own MPs and ministers all served to undermine his standing. 

Conservative Senator Mike Duffy has pleaded not guilty to 31 charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery related to expenses he claimed in 2013 as a senator and later repaid with money from Nigel Wright, Stephen Harper's right-hand man at the time. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

His freakish parsimony with information and his strong-arm tactics in Parliament made him Canada's control-freak-in-chief. Where else is a government scientist forbidden to discuss the weather?

As John Ibbitson put it in a balanced and largely sympathetic biography, "no prime minister in history and no political party have been loathed as intensely as Stephen Harper and the Conservative party."

Yet Harper persisted, even when his clashes with independent forces kept ending badly. On Senate reform, prostitution, sentencing, safe injection sites, the niqab, Omar Khadr, even on Supreme Court appointments, the courts said No.

Each rebuff was dismissed as an enemy plot. Ditto, the parliamentary budget officer. Ditto, the chief justice. No one was safe. The chief of defence staff was dragooned into defending the Prime Minister's Office for using restricted footage in its taxpayer-funded vanity videos. The PMO, apparently, wasn't bound by the rules.

Thus did Harper pile up reasons to distrust him. Government advertising forced taxpayers to underwrite the Conservative message. Ministers read from evasive scripts in Question Period. Budget bills were stuffed with non-budgetary items and, in the 2011 campaign, Liberal and NDP voters were misled by a blizzard of robocalls.

Naturally, Elections Canada's powers were soon curtailed. But that didn't save Harper's parliamentary secretary, Dean Del Mastro, who faithfully cried "baseless smears!" at the opposition but ended up in jail for election fraud.

Don't mention Duffy

All that, and we haven't even mentioned Mike Duffy yet.

But let's not go there — not again! We know the story too well: the Ol' Duff soaked taxpayers while drumming up cash for the party, so Harper's henchmen schemed to protect him. Already battered, the reform agenda that brought Harper to power turned to dust. 

Now, it's the Liberals' turn again. Lord help us.

But look out. Somewhere, there may be a young Conservative — a budding economist, perhaps — who's watching, learning and plotting to clean up the mess in Ottawa one day.

By the time the Liberals get mired in the next scandal, this young reformer will be uniting the right and drafting a Senate reform plan.

Let's wish him or her good luck — but watch carefully.


Terry Milewski worked in 50 countries during 38 years with the CBC. He was the CBC's first Middle East Bureau Chief, spent eight years in Washington during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations and was based in Vancouver for 14 years before returning to Ottawa as senior correspondent.


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