Stephen Harper leaves a mixed-bag legacy for those on the political right

Many on the political right — and that includes a disparate group of red Tories, social conservatives, right-wing populists and libertarians — see Stephen Harper's departure as party leader as a bittersweet reminder of a mixed-bag legacy of political and policy achievements during the former PM's tenure.

Most significant achievement all conservatives would likely agree on is party's success in his time as PM

Former prime minister Stephen Harper, who will remain an MP for the riding of Calgary Heritage, will mostly play a quiet political role going forward. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

On his last day addressing the Conservative caucus as party leader, Stephen Harper delivered a "well-received" speech, took responsibility for the party's loss in the recent Canadian election, received several standing ovations and then quietly slipped out of the meeting, avoiding any media attention.

Rona Ambrose, the newly elected interim leader of the party, said the former prime minister "delivered an incredibly passionate, emotional and touching speech to all of us" after the Oct. 19 election that saw Justin Trudeau's Liberals win a majority.

Harper will remain an MP for the riding of Calgary Heritage, following in the footsteps of former prime minister Paul Martin, who stayed on as MP after his 2006 defeat. In fact, Harper is moving into Martin's former office on Parliament Hill.

"I think he is going to go down in Canadian political history as one of our best prime ministers ever," said Peter Van Loan, the former government House leader, about Harper.

That may well be the view of a number of true Harper stalwarts.

Many on the political right — and that includes a disparate group of red Tories, social conservatives, right-wing populists and libertarians — had high hopes for Harper when he became leader of the Conservative Party of Canada in 2004, following the merger of the Progressive Conservative and Canadian Alliance parties.

It was hoped that Harper, the first chief policy officer of the Reform Party, would not only revitalize the Conservative brand under the new party but govern in a way that was true to right wing principles.

Yet for some, Harper's departure is a bittersweet reminder of a mixed bag of political and policy achievements.

Harper's achievements

Many in those groups say the former prime minister should be given credit for sage stewardship of the economy during the 2008-09 downturn, and for getting the country back into balance relatively quickly.

This was done in part by reining in the rate of growth of government spending after years of stimulus, leaving Canada "with the best economic standing of any of our major trading partners," said Rohit Gupta, a onetime economic policy adviser to Harper.

But most importantly, he said, Harper's economic legacy will be the "breadth and depth" of the multiple free-trade deals signed under his watch. Those include, if ratified, the comprehensive European Union trade deal and the recently negotiated Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).

"That over time will be his biggest lasting impact on the economy for the good," Gupta said.

On cutting taxes, another policy priority of the right, Harper deserves praise for lowering the tax burden overall, says Aaron Wudrick, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
Harper served up a number of disappointments to those on the political right as some felt he often betrayed important conservative principles. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"The instinct of the government and this prime minister was generally to find ways to lower the tax burden rather than raise taxes."

Harper also clamped down on MPs' pensions, lowered the corporate tax rate and implemented tax-free savings accounts (TFSAs). Conservatives also cheered that he scrapped the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly, championed the development of the oilsands, and seemed to give mostly lip service to any concrete action on climate change.

His tough-on-crime approach was welcomed by many on the right, as was a new, muscular foreign policy which was unabashedly pro-Israel, took a tough stance against Russia's incursions, extended the military mission in Afghanistan, and, most recently, joined the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Disappointments for the right

But Harper also served up a number of disappointments, as some felt he often ignored conservative tenets and betrayed free-market principles.

The biggest legacy in terms of his political career is the Conservative Party itself. I don't think it could have existed without him.- Gerry Nicholls, worked with Harper at National Citizens Coalition

"I laugh when people say he was a hard right winger. Really? What did he do?" said Gerry Nicholls, who worked with Harper at the National Citizens Coalition think-tank.

"I always say they're the relative Conservatives. Relatively speaking, they're conservative compared to the Liberals or the NDP."

Harper's initial goal was to create a true ideologically right-wing government, Nicholls said, but that was soon abandoned in the pursuit of power.

"Somewhere along the line, he dumped that idea," Nicholls said. "His goals become less ideological and more politically pragmatic. Instead, he wanted to create a strong Conservative Party that could win elections."

Harper did little to reduce the size and scope of government, Nicholls said. Instead, to the horror of fiscal conservatives, the government racked up deficits and added billions to the overall debt.

Following the global recession, the debt-to-GDP ratio climbed to 33.9 per cent by 2010-2011. But it has slowly shrunk and now sits at around 31 per cent.

However,  Wudrick said that's a metric that all governments want to hide behind.

"And that's not good enough. We want to see the ratio lower, but we want to see actual nominal decrease at some point in the debt."

Social conservatives let down

His boutique tax credits to certain demographic groups and cuts to the GST were also criticized by those, like Wudrick, who favoured broad-based income tax relief. Harper was also slammed for the government's meddling in the marketplace. Wudrick said that before Harper became prime minister, he spoke powerfully about ending corporate welfare. But once in office, he expanded it. 

"We welcomed his focus on lowering taxes generally and on trying to find ways to empower Canadians individually rather than have governments do things for them," Wudrick said. "We're disappointed [in that] we think a lot of times he opted for political expediency rather than leadership, especially after winning a majority."

Social conservatives as well may feel they got the short shrift from the former prime minister.

He gave them the odd scrap, for example, choosing not to fund global abortion services. Yet he clamped down on any effort by any member of his party to raise the controversial issue of abortion in Canada. 

Party itself his parting legacy

But his most significant achievement that all conservatives would likely agree on is the nearly 10 years of Conservative Party rule.

"The biggest legacy in terms of his political career is the Conservative Party itself," Nicholls said. "I don't think it could have existed without him.

"The real political genius of Stephen Harper, and I don't think he gets enough credit for this, is that he held this party together for nine years," said Nicholls.

With files from The Canadian Press


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