No one would argue that Stephen Harper, leader of Canada’s Conservative party, is charismatic or telegenic. Indeed, even the newly elected prime-minister-designate acknowledged as much in the last party leaders’ debate, telling viewers in his typically understated manner that his strengths weren’t “spin and passion.” But he does have other qualities. First and foremost: The man is gutsy. Taking the biggest political risk of his career, Stephen Harper forced an election in early December when he trailed the most successful political party in the Western world by more than seven percent in some polls. On Monday Canadians voted, handing a win to Harper.
It is a remarkable turn of events. Last June, Harper appeared politically finished. He attempted to bring down the government over a dollars-for-support scandal. Days before the crucial no-confidence vote, however, the governing Liberals outmaneuvered him. In a ruthless act, Prime Minister Paul Martin offered a plum cabinet position to a Conservative MP if she’d switch parties. She did, saving the government from defeat and humiliating Harper. Even members of Harper’s inner circle quietly wondered if his time had passed. As a prominent pollster observed: “he was in a pine box with a stake through his heart.”
Facing a political crisis that threatened to claim his job, the economist-turned-politician vanished. He spent weeks privately contemplating his political future. Pundits wondered it he might quit; some party organizers hoped he would. He emerged from his self-imposed exile in mid-summer declaring himself ready to win.
And he was. Yesterday, Harper’s Conservatives edged the ruling Liberals. The Conservatives didn’t win a majority of seats in the House of Commons, but they did end 12 years of Liberal government, with the Prime Minister Paul Martin resigning in his concession speech. More importantly, they managed to reestablish themselves in Quebec–a Tory electoral wasteland for almost 20 years.
In part, Harper got lucky. The previously well-oiled Liberal machine ran an amazingly poor campaign. At one point, with much fanfare, the party released its negative advertising, including a bizarre spot that suggested that Harper would send troops into Canadian cities, implying a military crackdown. The Liberals withdrew the ad–but not before the prime minister explained that he had personally approved it. Add to the mix a new Liberal scandal involving insider trading, and the Tory promise of “change” seemed urgent.
The turning point of the campaign occurred ironically when neither candidate was out on the hustings–Boxing Day. In downtown Toronto, gang violence literally spilled out on to the busiest street in the city, killing an innocent bystander, a 16-year-old girl. Prime Minister Martin criticized the “culture of exclusion” and promised a conference with minority groups; Stephen Harper talked about justice and proposed minimum sentencing requirements. The Conservatives surged ahead in the polls.
Harper’s agenda is not particularly ambitious. He promises modest tax cuts, more military spending, some decentralization of power to the provinces, better ties with the United States, and stronger accountability measures within government. With regard to Canada’s beleaguered health care system, he is open to a greater role for private services. Even though he will need to work with other political parties to pass legislation, he can deliver much of this before Canadians head back to the polls in a year or two.
These will be challenging times. Harper must convince Canadians that his party is ready to govern. He will cut his teeth on a variety of issues–from a health-care system that even the supreme court of Canada believes kills people with its long waiting lists to the reemergence of Quebec’s separatist movement. And Harper will need to tackle these issues despite his own total inexperience in office and a dearth of talent in his cabinet. Throughout it all, he will face a Liberal party that was beaten but not routed. And, with a new leader, the Liberals can lose some of their scandal baggage.
Yet, Harper has one thing going for him: He is the most intelligent politician in the country.
In the last days of the campaign, Harper finished his speeches with a Reaganesque line: “Some people believe that this is as good as it gets. But I believe that for Canada, the best is yet to come.” And that may also be true of the new prime minister, as well.
–David Gratzer, a physician in Canada, is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.