Stephen Harper Five Years On

Yes, Canada, he’s been Prime Minister for five years!

Those of you outside this place called Canada are perhaps dimly aware of Conservative Stephen Harper, the economist and political activist who was elected to the head of a minority government on January 23, 2006. Minority governments are generally very short-lived here; it’s a testament to Harper’s strategic acumen that he’s lasted this long. Lingering doubts about his intentions mean that Canadians have not given him a majority government – yet.

Harper is vilified routinely by what passes for a left in Canada.  He’s regularly accused of things he would not dare bring to Parliament, such as restrictions on access to abortion, or a return to the death penalty. He’s consistently accused of damaging national cultural programs when it was Liberal governments that truly  put the ax to institutions such  as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Some even suggest that he’s responsible for Canada’s role in the war in Afghanistan, forgetting that Conservatives and Liberals have agreed on the policy from the get-go.

Harper surprises. He is the Prime Minister who offered a national apology for Canada’s historic crime over residential schools for aboriginal children. He’s also an economic nationalist, when it suits his purpose, witness his government’s decision to block the sale of the province of Saskatchewan’s potash industry to an Australian company.  And just when you think he’s nothing but a complete “suit”, Harper sits at the piano and plays rather delightful renditions of Beatles’ and Rolling Stones’ tunes.

On the dark side, Harper is a control freak.  He is the face and the lips of Canada’s government. Back bench MPs, civil servants, even cabinet ministers, quail at uttering anything that does not echo what the great one has already decreed.

More grievous still, the Harper government’s environmental record is woeful.  However, in that respect, sadly, he cannot be accused of being out of step with the electorate. Canada, as a whole, with the possible exception of Quebec, treats climate warming as a mere nuisance about which nothing truly serious needs to be done. Harper reflects national values.  Toronto, after all, the country’s biggest city, just elected a mayor who ran against public transportation, and for the redemption of the fossil fuel burning automobile. Further, any party with a hope of achieving government and the need to win votes in Alberta is committed to the rampant expansion of the oil sands project in northern Alberta.

Overall, Canada’s Prime Minister is a man of his country’s time.  He’s to the right of the mythic Canada that liberals (and Liberals) cling to. He survives, and will, perhaps, endure, because he’s toughly competent. Like the Canadian banking system, about which he and his government exhibit so much pride (and take too much credit), Harper is not flashy, but nor is he out of control. Unlike Jean Chretien, he has not allowed political scandal to erode his government. Unlike Paul Martin, Harper has the good political sense to focus on small accomplishments and steady management rather than shooting for the moon.