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Two takes on Stephen Harper


Globe and Mail journalist John Ibbitson's new book, Stephen Harper, is well-written and certainly worth reading in the run-up to the federal election.

While there are no major new revelations (most of the insiders and his few personal friends and confidants seem to have kept quiet), it usefully pulls together a lot of contemporary history, especially in the first half of the book which covers the period before Harper became Prime Minister in 2006. This reminds us that Harper was always much more of a right-wing ideologue than a conservative populist like Preston Manning in terms of his agenda and sensibilities, and always supremely self-confident in his own ideas. 

The book is part biography and sketches in as close a look as we are likely to get anytime soon of what makes Stephen Harper tick as a person, virtues and vices included. On balance it is a positive view of the Prime Minister who emerges as a man of determination and (right-wing) principles, though deeply flawed by a tendency to ruthlessness verging on the dictatorial, and a cold, suspicious and calculating personality.

Ibbitson is clearly and openly sympathetic to Harper and the small c conservative cause, and argues that Harper as Prime Minister has permanently changed Canada. In this he is surely correct, notwithstanding the fact that other conservative journalists such as Andrew Coyne think that Harper has drifted to the centre in a pragmatic search for power.

As Ibbitson argues, Harper has changed Canada in some very fundamental ways, if often through incremental, salami slice tactics. Federal fiscal capacity has been greatly reduced by deep and continuing tax cuts, and the direct role of the federal government in Canadian lives has been greatly eroded. Federal government spending on programs has been slashed, including in areas of vital public interest such as environmental and public safety regulation.

While transfers to the provinces have been largely spared the knife until now, any semblance of federal leadership in social policy has been abandoned and the provinces will soon be largely on their own when it comes to meeting the rising health and caring costs of an ageing Canada. This is closer to the Harper in exile who authored the famous call for Alberta to build a firewall against the federal government than it is to the vision of any previous post War Prime Minister.

Harper's key “achievements” also include scrapping the multilateral and progressive Pearsonian legacy in international affairs and immigration and refugee policy, and implementation of the punitive “tough on crime” agenda.

Ibbitson generally lauds this overall shift of direction, though he is also critical of many specific actions of the Prime Minister such as the attacks on the courts, science and on independent source of opinion generally, as well as the ongoing flouting of the norms of Parliamentary democracy as in omnibus bills and the use of prorogation.

Ibbitson is less convincing in his argument that Harper is not really much of a social conservative. True, he has not supported moves by some of his MPs to re-open the abortion debate and to oppose gay marriage. But he did deliver big time to the advocates of the traditional family by re-introducing child benefits for upper income families, by ditching the previous government's child care agenda, and by introducing family income splitting which is very costly and favours very affluent single income families. For Harper, social policy has ceased to be about fairness and redistribution and has come dangerously close to promoting conservative social norms at the price of greater inequality.

Ibbitson's book also largely ignores Harper's attack on workers, as in the erosion of labour and union rights, the introduction of US style laws to limit the political and advocacy role of unions, the further trimming of Employment Insurance benefits, the attack on pay equity, and the dramatic expansion of the temporary foreign worker program as the answer to largely mythical labour and skills shortages. He also largely ignores Harper's appalling record when it comes to environmental regulation and aboriginal rights, and the determination of the Harper government to promote Canada as an “energy superpower” at almost any cost.

Relatedly, Ibbitson's portrayal of Harper as a steadfast opponent of the so-called “Laurentian elites” is highly questionable. The term is invoked frequently but rarely made concrete. Harper may have disliked his fellow students during a very brief sojourn at Trinity College, but that did not stop him from hiring Nigel Wright, scion of the Toronto financial establishment, as his chief of staff.

True, Harper strongly dislikes the small l liberal media and academic elites (to the limited degree that artists, journalists and professors can be so-described), and this dislike is well reciprocated. And it is true that the Harper policy agenda probably owes more to conservative ideas he learned from reading Hayek and Milton Friedman and studying at the University of Calgary than to the lobbying of the corporate elite.

But Ibbitson fails to note the close links between corporate Canada and the world of right-wing think tanks of which Harper was long a participant, including as head of the National Citizens Coalition. The relationship between dominant economic interests and such think tanks in Canada has been closely documented by Donald Gutstein in his recent book, Harperism, and there can be little doubt that corporate Canada has actively promoted the agenda of low corporate taxes, weaker unions, smaller government, and less generous social programs.

A much more critical view of the Harper government emerges from another just published book edited by Ed Finn, Canada After Harper, (with an introduction by Ralph Nader) which puts Harper in the context of a more long-standing shift to the political right since the late 1980s. This covers key aspects of the Harper record on the environment (David Suzuki, Maude Barlow), the economy (Andrew Jackson), international trade (Scottt Sinclair and Stuart Trew), taxes (Trish Hennessy and Alex Himmelfarb), health care (Colleen Fuller) and fiscal management (Kevin Page) to name a few. The authors write from different perspectives on distinct topics, but all see the most recent government as a decisive further step in the wrong direction.

The authors also identify some key elements of a progressive and democratic agenda that might be pursued, if and when the Harper government loses the election. Like John Ibbitson, though from a different perspective, there is an underlying sense that Stephen Harper may have permanently changed Canada. It remains to be seen how far the opposition parties are prepared to go to reverse the Harper agenda if given the chance.

Andrew Jackson is Adjunct Research Professor in the Institute of Political Economy at Carleton University, and senior policy adviser to the Broadbent Institute.

Photo: Kashmera. Used under a Creative Commons BY 2.0 licence.