Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, offers a very different approach — but one that makes good sense in the Canadian context: He underpromises and overdelivers.
Conservatism was seen until recently as a doomed philosophy in a Canada permanently governed by a large and ideologically sprawling Liberal party with brief intervals of power granted to a “Progressive Conservative” party that, as its name suggests, was like a schizophrenic confined in a state asylum.
Harper has been described (by an admirer) as “Canada’s Nixon” — a cerebral politician who quietly calculates the steps necessary to gain his objectives and then, having also calculated the opposition to them, methodically sets about achieving them.
The objective of replacing both the Liberals and the “Red Tories” as governing parties by a genuinely conservative party was surely too ambitious even for a Nixon. There must have been many disappointments, second thoughts, and adaptations along the way. Still, that is what has actually happened, and Harper was a leading player at every stage of the game.
He first set about undermining the Tories by helping to found a rival conservative party, Reform; then he amalgamated Reform with rump Tories to form the Conservative Party of Canada; next he led the CPC into minority government on a “softly, softly” program of moderate reform; finally, last year, he gained a clear majority and made the CPC the natural party of government in an election in which the Liberals fell into third place.
This is an impressive record by any measure. Still, conservative Canada-watchers such as Mark Steyn, David Frum, and indeed me have sometimes suggested that Harper’s gradualist conservatism in government was so gradual that it was unlikely to shift Canada rightwards — to a smaller state or a more self-reliant society or a more patriotic national self-image — to any real extent.
After six years, social conservatives do feel let down — though not very far down, since they had modest expectations of a political leader who has avoided issues such as abortion and embraced conventional views on immigration. For other conservatives, however, that judgment looks questionable in ways large and small.
Building on the earlier budget-tightening of Liberal prime minister Paul Martin, Harper has cut the size of government to one of the smallest in the advanced world. Canada’s tax burden is now similarly low, at about 31 percent of GDP. And its budget deficit, though somewhat higher as a result of the 2007–11 world recession, is on course to disappear by 2013. Overall, Canada’s economy is one of the freest, according to the Heritage Foundation’s index.
More subtly, Harper has embarked on a series of measures to restore the cultural atmosphere of Canadian life along pre-Trudeau lines: promoting the armed forces and restoring pride in Canada’s military record (a very glorious one in truth); installing royal portraits in Canadian embassies; imposing a language requirement — French in Quebec, English elsewhere — for permanent residents; and, just recently, giving government support to repealing the anti-free-speech powers of Canada’s misnamed Human Rights Commissions. Even on immigration, which has risen under his government, Harper has made it serve Canada better by tightening refugee provisions, cracking down on fraud, shifting from permanent to temporary worker visas, revoking passports fraudulently obtained, and moving from “family reunification” to economic need as the main basis of policy. Canada’s postwar drift from lumberjack to cross-dresser, as in the Monty Python song, has begun to reverse.
Moreover, the pace of gradual change is accelerating. Having complained in early 2011 that Harper had disappointed the Canadian West by failing to tackle federal intrusions on its rights and interests, journalist Kevin Libin had to return to the topic post-election and concede that Harper had now delivered on every count. See full article here.
Abolishing the Wheat Board and the federal gun registry may seem modest measures from the outside, but abandoning Canada’s obligations under Kyoto was neither small nor gradual; it was a sharp and frontal challenge to a U.N.-sponsored world consensus. And it was accepted with relatively little resistance within Canada — suggesting that Harper had gone a long way towards establishing conservatism as the nation’s new governing philosophy.