Stephen Harper is no exception. Marketed as the archetypal Strong Leader, he ends as a rickety Wizard of Oz. Out of office, he was left wriggling and exposed when the curtain of power was drawn back. It revealed a very small man in a very big office. He didn’t so much leave public life as skulk away.
He gave not a single interview after getting waxed in the 2015 election by Justin Trudeau. Las Vegas proved more attractive to the MP from Calgary Heritage than the House of Commons, where, post-defeat, he lurked rather than sat. And while he was doing little for his constituents other than cashing his paycheck, he did find time to set up his political consulting company in Calgary after a few visits to U.S. casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson. Adelson is the man who has promised, but not yet delivered, $100 million to support Donald Trump’s presidential bid.
Even Harper’s resignation was an in-house Harper job, controlling — and distorting — the message until the very end. Steve writing his own report card, as he did while in office. (Did Ray Novak shoot that cheesy video?)
In other words, Harper ends like a lot of politicians — all shipwrecks of their former selves. As a newly minted Reformer, he started out full of energy, ideas and promise. He ends the political phase of his life having become one of the people he used to rail against. He has a lot of company. Think of Deborah Grey and her pension two-step, or Dingwall the Entitled. Harper is now elbows-out at the same trough.
Item: When Prime Minister Jean Chrétien called an election for June 2, 1997, Stephen Harper and the National Citizen’s Coalition targeted MP’s “gold-plated pensions.” Liberal MPs Anne McLellan and Judy Bethel were targeted in degrading attack ads. Both women had their heads placed on pigs’ bodies while wallowing in a cash-filled trough. Harper christened them “pension porkers.”
It took 20 years for Stephen Harper to become a pension porker himself. But his head could as easily be placed on the body of an alpha wild boar, given that the man who once pilloried McLellan and Bethel for their pensions is set to collect $5.5 million in taxpayer’s money. All he has to do is live to the age of 90.
Maybe that’s what Harper meant when he said in his farewell that “the best is yet to come.” As it is, the defeated PM will immediately receive an annual “pension” of $120,000 from Canadians. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation calls that “generous”.
There is a prize for euphemism somewhere in that. A better description? Oink, oink, oink.
The usual response from the media when a prime minister “retires” is a spate of sonorous encomiums that have the same effect on readers as a plate of bad clams. That’s because they have as much sincerity and truth in them as the obituary of a small town’s richest citizen. So there will be pieces praising Harper’s discipline, his electoral victories, his iron adherence to message.
A disciplined politician? No. A dictatorial megalomaniac. Those electoral victories? Only admirable if you applaud gross mendacity, the politics of personal destruction and no small amount of cheating.
And adherence to message? What did that mean in Harper’s case, apart from bending reality out of shape to suit his warped view of the world, and what Canada is all about?
How strange it is that a man who closed embassies rather than practice the fine art of diplomacy, and never saw a war he didn’t want to join, now wants to advise others on foreign affairs.
Can Canadian politics get much more warped than what Harper pulled during the 2015 election? Sucking toes for votes with a crack-smoking mayor while touting family values. Trying to drive a wedge between majority and minority Canadians by exploiting the politics of bigotry over issues like the niqab — despite the court rulings against the Conservative position. Vowing to set up a rat line to expose “barbaric practices”, using the unforgettable sales team of Kellie Leitch and Chris Alexander.
Stephen Harper was Donald Trump before Trump was Trump, right down to the bigotry, fear-mongering, divisiveness, scapegoating, and profound anti-democratic impulses that had Canada’s entire parliamentary structure tottering, according to experts like Peter Milliken and Robert Marleau.
While others will remember amusing episodes involving personal encounters with Harper, I will remember the look on the face of Canada’s former nuclear safety commissioner, Linda Keen, while she recounted her personal destruction at the hands of his government because she wouldn’t sell out her mandate.
It was the same look I saw in Richard Colvin’s eyes when the former diplomat was smeared by Harper and Peter MacKay for the high crime of telling what he knew about the as-yet-unresolved Afghan detainee affair.
I saw the misery in Munir Sheikh’s face as he recalled how he was run out of the public service because he wouldn’t let his minister publicly lie about him.
Finally, there was Kevin Page — fired by liars for telling the truth.
There’s not much here to feel good about. Harper confabulated his way through a decade of political parlour tricks. He presented himself as a fiscal conservative who balanced the books. He dealt from the bottom of the deck to get there: selling GM shares at a discount and helping himself to the EI surplus and the Contingency Fund. And, oh yes, he took a chainsaw to the budget of Canada’s veterans to pull off his oleaginous accounting, no matter how badly they needed their service centres.
Here’s the real story. This ersatz economist delivered seven consecutive fiscal deficits and ran through the $13.8 billion surplus handed to him by the outgoing Liberal government of Paul Martin in a single year. The country’s economy grew at a snail’s pace, wages stagnated — and then the Great Navigator denied that the Great Recession of 2008 was happening during the federal election of the same year.
Throughout most of that time — while he was smothering critics, stifling information flow, practising vigilante justice on people like Mike Duffy and Helena Guergis without facts, attacking the Supreme Court, promoting unconstitutional legislation and surrounding himself with people even Trump might not feel comfortable with — nobody called him out for what he was. They were too afraid, because this guy took down numbers.
So instead of describing him as a fascist — as Libertarian leader Gary Johnson has publicly tagged Donald Trump in the United States — the media and political class in Canada called Harper “controlling”.
When you read all those airbrushed pieces today, aimed more at the office than the man, remember how much rubble must be cleared away from the Harper years before this country will recognize itself again.
And don’t look for a Harper nostalgia wave any time soon.
Author: Michael Harris