The Alberta talk shows and Twitter traffic have been overwhelmingly positive. But like all legacies, Harper’s will be mixed. A balanced budget in 2015 has to be measured against the string of deficits that preceded it, after Prime Minister Harper inherited a sizeable surplus from the Martin/Chretien era. Over nine years as PM, Harper added significantly to the national debt. Harper ran deficits seven out of nine years and added over $150 billion in red ink.
Also factoring into his legacy is where Harper’s government chose to spend — and where it didn’t. Spending on public safety increased. So did spending on defence — at least at first, before it got squeezed by other priorities. Spending on culture and the environment was cut. Direct program spending was cut; transfers to the provinces and to individuals went up.
He will be remembered for — and is proud of — cutting the GST. It was a popular measure, but economically it’s very difficult to determine who prospered as a result, and how. Income splitting, the Child Tax Credit, targeted tax credits (fitness, arts, transit passes), an increase in the basic personal exemption — all Harper tax policies, all praised by his supporters and damned by his critics.
His tax policies seemed to be tilted against single parent families and parents without children. His dizzying array of targeted tax cuts complicated an already bloated tax code. As a result, taxes are generally down — but compliance costs are up.
Harper liked to boast about being a great job creator. While it’s true that the economy added 1.2 million jobs since the 2008 recession, many of them were part-time or low-wage. Manufacturing jobs were lost. Harper’s employment success was premised largely on the energy sector boom — which went bust towards the end of his mandate.
The Harper years might be remembered for their emphasis on international trade. He implemented trade deals, such as the one with South Korea, and negotiated others (the European Union and the Trans Pacific Partnership). But exports as a percentage of GDP actually fell during the Harper years.
Fiscal conservatives and free market worshippers were appalled by Harper’s industrial and subsidy policies. He kept all of the regional development agencies and created an entirely new one for Southern Ontario, a very important region politically. During the recession, the government approved a $9 billion auto industry bailout of Chrysler and GM.
So although the Harper years culminated in a serious effort to balance the books, that was late in the game — after years of targeted tax cuts, increased spending and stimulus. Government spending, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of GDP, actually increased during the Harper years.
So Harper’s economic legacy is mixed. His management style and effect on democratic governance are a lot less ambiguous.
Not only did Harper lose a parliamentary vote of confidence in 2011, he did so after having been found in contempt of Parliament. Among Canadian prime ministers, this is an accomplishment that belongs to him alone. The contempt finding was in response to his government’s refusal to disclose to MPs costs related to certain programs. (MPs asking the government to open its books? How dare they.) He also prorogued Parliament in 2008 to sidestep what would have been another lost confidence vote after taking away per-vote subsidies for political parties.
His muzzling of scientists, his insistence on backbenchers and cabinet ministers reading from scripted and approved taking points, his hiding of non-budget items in enormous omnibus budget bills, his frequent clashes with independent officers of Parliament and a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court … these, I fear, will amount to Harper’s lasting legacy.
Never has a Canadian government been more secretive or had such a confrontational relationship with the national media. As a result, it had to engage an alternative comms strategy involving web-based TV programming and millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded political advertising to announce and explain government programs and priorities.
I recall a speech Stephen Harper once gave to an American audience when he was the head of the National Citizen’s Coalition. He described Canada’s parliamentary system as a glorified electoral college, the only real function of which was for MPs to provide unequivocal support to their party and their party leaders. That was prophecy; Harper caucuses could be counted upon to be utterly compliant, and sycophancy was awarded with promotion.
Those of us in caucus naïve enough to believe that our job was to represent our constituents to government — not the other way around — found ourselves on the outside looking in.
When Harper was leader of the Official Opposition, he gave impassioned speeches railing against time allocation and omnibus bills. In power, he took both to dangerous extremes — invoking time allocation over 100 times after enjoying a majority of MP votes to ensure passage of the motion.
Towards the end, he indulged in the type of angry conservatism we now see being demonstrated south of the border by Donald Trump. C-51, the judicial wars against the niqab and Omar Khadr, the barbaric cultural practices snitch line — all were attempts to inflame fear and intolerance to win votes.
Where once there might have been a principled conservative in Harper, years in office and the corrosive effects of gaining and holding power led him to say and do things he would have bristled at while in Opposition.
His economic accomplishments, such as they were, have vanished already. Our economy is lagging again; fiscally, Canada is back in deficit. His governance style, his attempts at converting parliamentary democracy into executive government — these will take much longer to reverse.
And that’s the crowning irony of the Harper years: An MP originally elected under the Reform banner left a legacy of democratic decay.
Author: Brent Rathgeber