It is impossible to capture the “Harper Factor” over a broad range of policy areas with a single adjective. His impact after a decade in power is not one thing. In an important way, that is the point of this book: The measure of a prime ministership does not neatly fit into a single box defined as negative or positive, deep or shallow.
For instance, his attention to victims’ rights and some of his reforms to the immigration system can be seen as largely positive. His intensely partisan approach to politics, his curtailing of access to government information and his conduct of foreign affairs, in contrast, were not.
If there is one overarching conclusion we have reached as co-editors, it is that Stephen Harper was not, in the end, a transformational prime minister.
While he was certainly a polarizing political figure — perhaps the most polarizing of his generation — it would be difficult to argue that his government fundamentally changed the course of public policy in Canada. This is not to say that some of his decisions weren’t controversial, or didn’t break with the past, and as David Zussman’s chapter explored, Harper did alter the way in which policy was developed inside government. But the analyses in this volume have shown that in many cases there was a significant gap between the scope of change announced by his government (or decried by his opponents) and the amount of change that was actually implemented.
Murray Brewster’s examination of the government’s commitment to re-equipping the military is just one example. Even in cases where the change was more dramatic, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the change will be lasting.
Stephen Harper’s approach to politics is far more likely to be a defining feature of his legacy than the policies he introduced as prime minister. Short-term political objectives often dictated the policy outcome and, in a few cases, will prove to have deeper consequences for the country. For example, the revenues lost through the cutting of the GST, one of the Conservative Party’s five key promises in the 2005–06 election campaign, prevented the government from introducing other measures that would have contributed to longer-term growth.
Canada’s relationship with China never quite recovered from Harper’s initial public repudiation of Beijing in 2006. The impact of favouring mandatory minimum sentencing over a rehabilitative approach to corrections will be borne out in the years to come as incarcerated Canadians rejoin their communities.
The supremacy of politics over policy also manifested itself in the proliferation of micro or retail policies during his time in office. These tailored measures were aimed at small pockets of accessible voters in target constituencies. The tax credit for children’s sports equipment was marketed as a tool to encourage physical activiity, but it was largely about impacting the electoral choice of parents in the suburbs of Toronto. Likewise, barring certain refugee applicants from health care services appeared designed to resonate with certain elements of the party’s base of support.
Winning three consecutive mandates and remaining in office almost ten years is a feat few Canadian political leaders have achieved, and so Harper is assured a place in history. But that is a political achievement, not a policy achievement. During his time in offce, he made a great many decisions — some of them good or even great, others bad or worse — but we are at a loss to note one signature policy achievement that will, in future years, define his prime ministership.
The Federal Accountability Act, his government’s first item of business after the 2006 victory, might prove to be the most durable. Despite the growing body of evidence that the law is in serious need of fundamental reform, the mythology built around the Act will make it very difficult indeed for future governments to make the necessary changes.
Still, the short-termism that guided so many decisions will have an impact on how Canadians look back on the mark Harper made on the country. Changes implemented in haste to address the needs of the moment may not stand the test of time. At the time of this writing, the Trudeau government was already dismantling many Harper policies — the Liberals reinstated the long-form census, announced an inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women, and restored health care services to all refugees. As well, Trudeau met with the premiers and improved access to the media. One wonders, what will be left of the Harper legacy after even one Trudeau term?
To conclude that Harper’s time in office was not transformational is not in itself a judgment on the quality of the decisions he made. To state the obvious, not all long-serving prime ministers have been transformational. Whether it was by choice or by force of personality or both, Harper opted for a more incremental, transactional approach to governing. As prime minister, he managed the country, in many cases competently. But transformation requires public leadership beyond even highly competent management.
As Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said in a 2014 speech in Ottawa,“(l)eadership is the process, not only of foreseeing the need for change, but of making the case for change. Leadership does not consist of imposing unpopular ideas on the public but of making unpopular ideas acceptable to the nation.” On many issues, Stephen Harper did not try to rally the country together or bring opposing sides to some sort of consensus. Susan Delacourt has explored how Harper was guided by an electoral strategy that focused on micro-targeting voters, rather than inviting Canadians into a big tent.
Consultations on important points of public policy, such as Indigenous affairs, the immigration system and the environment, were thin (or non-existent, as with the elimination of the long-form census). Environmentalists became traitors, people who criticized defence policy were friends of the Taliban or not supportive of our troops, those who had problems with the justice file were soft on crime, Canadians who advocated for diplomacy just wanted to “go along to get along” and all sorts of policy thinkers were summarily dismissed as “elites.” With so many groups of Canadians not invited to Harper’s table while he was in power, and with a communications strategy that throttled the flow of information, it will make it difficult for the public to settle on a shared understanding of his contribution even years from now.
Transformational impact on public policy requires that at least some of the major changes a prime minister introduces last beyond her or his time in office. Indeed, each long-serving prime minister who has had that kind of impact in the last half-century had a signature policy achievement that was celebrated ten, twenty and thirty years after its implementation: Diefenbaker’s Bill of Rights, Pearson’s Medicare, Pierre Trudeau’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Mulroney’s free trade agreements and acid rain treaty. Those signature achievements have ensured each of them has shaped the lives of Canadians well after leaving office.
While unforeseen events may, in future, change current public perceptions of a specific Harper policy, it is difficult at this stage to identify what that lasting contribution to Canadian public policy would be. Longevity in office allowed Stephen Harper to have a significant impact on Canadians while he was prime minister. But his focus on the transactional means that impact will not likely be felt much beyond the current generation.
Author: Adrian Wyld