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Stephen Harper Wanted Canada to Be Great—Trudeau Wants It to Be Mediocre

Justin Trudeau (left) and Stephen Harper on Parliament Hill in 2015. (Reuters photo: Chris Wattie)
Harper has stepped down from parliament. How does his legacy look now?

Stephen Harper’s career as a Canadian politician spanned three decades, in which he belonged to three right-leaning parties, won three election victories, and served three terms as prime minister. After resigning his federal seat on August 26, he is highly unlikely to return for another stint in politics.

After losing last October’s federal election to Justin Trudeau and the Liberals, Harper stepped down as Conservative party leader that night. He remained a backbench MP for ten more months — which surprised some people, but enabled him to exit the stage in a quiet, dignified manner. He participated in 99 votes (coincidentally enough, 99 is the total number of Conservatives currently in Parliament), didn’t interfere with interim Conservative party leader Rona Ambrose’s agenda, and never rose to speak in the House of Commons again.

Naturally, the discussion has now shifted to an analysis of his political legacy.

I’ve known Harper for more than 20 years, long before I worked for him as one of his speechwriters. He’s intelligent, well-read, determined, and an astute political thinker. He’s a great admirer of Ronald Reagan, Winston Churchill, and Margaret Thatcher, among other notable conservative leaders. He holds a master’s degree in economics from the University of Calgary, and always worked to secure Canada’s financial health and future economic success.

Alas, his political ambitions came at a time when Canadian conservatives were heading into the political wilderness. The split between the Progressive Conservatives and the Reform Party of Canada (later the Canadian Alliance) between 1987 and 2003 tore apart the conservative political movement, and gave the Liberals a much easier road to power.

Harper was an influential Reform MP from 1993–1997, but left after his relations with then–Reform leader Preston Manning became strained. While serving as the National Citizens Coalition’s president, Harper watched his old party morph into the Canadian Alliance in 2000.

When the Alliance struggled mightily under the leadership of Stockwell Day, he saw his moment to become a white knight for Canadian conservatism. Harper triumphantly returned to politics, and was elected party leader in 2002. He pushed hard to unite the political Right, and merged the Alliance with Peter MacKay’s Progressive Conservatives in December 2003 to form the Conservative Party of Canada.

Harper was elected the new party’s first leader. Although he lost the 2004 federal election to Paul Martin and the Liberals, it was reduced to a minority government. He would beat them in 2006 to become Canada’s first right-leaning prime minister in 13 years.

Previous prime ministers, including Conservatives (Sir John A. Macdonald, Brian Mulroney) and Liberals (Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Jean Chrétien), have each had their own ideas, issues, controversies, and political spin while in office. But Harper’s reign was unlike anything we’ve ever seen in my country — and may ever see again. 

Harper was, in many ways, Canada’s first black-and-white prime minister. Opinions about his leadership were intensely strong, and contained very few shades of gray. You either admired what he accomplished or disliked everything he did, didn’t do, thought that he did, or the mere mention of his name. (This unusual, emotional response of visceral hatred, which was termed “Harper Derangement Syndrome” by National Post columnist Kelly McParland, stuck for many years.)

Harper never stopped thinking about strategic communications, public relations, and political tactics. Politics was a 24/7 profession to him, not a 9 to 5 job. He wasn’t terribly interested in bipartisanship, even though two of his three governments were of minority status. He also had a frosty relationship with the Canadian media. 

Yet, his leadership was rather remarkable. As hard as Harper worked to rebuild the once-shattered Canadian conservative movement, he worked even harder as prime minister in his quest for Canadian greatness at home and abroad. He wanted his country to achieve its hopes and dreams, and to never accept being second-best in any capacity.

Was he successful? On many levels, yes.

Harper reduced the overall size of government in his near-decade in power. He trimmed the fat of the bloated bureaucracy, and decreased federal revenue as a ratio of GDP by nearly 15 percent. He lowered personal and corporate-income tax rates, created targeted tax credits to help Canadian families, and introduced effective programs such as the universal child-care benefit and tax-free savings accounts. He put in a supreme effort to arrange a Canada-EU free-trade deal, as well as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Harper also transformed Canada from a follower into a leader on the international stage.

He was a strong supporter of the War on Terror, and the rights of liberal democracies. He repaired icy relations with the U.S. caused by previous Liberal governments, and worked well with Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He provided important leadership in Afghanistan, criticized China on its human-rights record, blasted Russia for its actions in Crimea and Ukraine, and condemned Iranian dictator Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his anti-Semitic behavior (and boycotted his 2009 United Nations speech). He also transformed Canada into Israel’s best friend and ally.

In contrast, Trudeau — a media darling, and the King of Selfies — is predictably beginning to push Canada back onto the road to mediocrity.

For instance, his campaign promise of three consecutive years of federal deficits of no more than $10 billion (CDN) was exposed as preposterous when the deficit hit $29 billion (CDN) in year one. Harper’s cost-saving strategy to increase the age at which people first receive Old Age Security payments from 65 to 67 was reversed by Trudeau. The Liberals have also scrapped the universal child-care benefit, reduced the allowed personal contributions to tax-free savings accounts, and are planning to increase taxes on the wealthy.

When it comes to foreign policy, Trudeau is starting to brush away many of Harper’s impressive gains.

When it comes to foreign policy, Trudeau is starting to brush away many of Harper’s impressive gains. This includes withdrawing Canada’s (largely symbolic) six CF-18 fighter jets from the war against ISIS, and returning to the role of “honest broker” in relations with Israel and the Palestinians.

No wonder my country is sitting at the kiddie table once more.

Yes, Harper made his fair share of mistakes while in office. He implemented some mediocre policies and occasionally spent taxpayer dollars like a drunken sailor — his lack of commitment (at times) to fiscal conservatism was frustrating to watch.

No political leader is perfect, of course. Rather, it’s a question of whether the positive attributes far outweigh the negative. In my view, Harper was an effective and successful prime minister. He reduced aspects of state interventionism, stimulated the country’s economic engine with tax cuts and small government, promoted the concept of individual rights and freedoms more than any previous prime minister in recent memory, and gave Canada a real boost in confidence on the world stage..

Harper recently started the Calgary-based Harper & Associates Consulting Inc. in partnership with three trusted political aides: Ray Novak, Jeremy Hunt, and Rachel Curran. He will reportedly work with international clients, and help them with their various needs.

If Stephen Harper’s performance as a consultant matches his performance as Canada’s 22nd prime minister, he should accomplish great things in his post-political life. I, and many others around the world, wish him nothing but the best.

— Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and Washington Times contributor, was a speechwriter for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.

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