The progress of Stephen Harper, Canada’s Conservative prime minister
In January, there was a rumor that Stephen Harper would appear at CPAC. Harper is the prime minister of Canada, and a Conservative. CPAC is the annual conservative jamboree in Washington, D.C. As a source close to Harper says, it took the prime minister’s office “about 30 seconds” to deny that Harper would be speaking at CPAC. The organization had indeed invited Harper; but he had declined. It was only natural for the organization to invite him: Harper is maybe the leading conservative head of state or government right now. It was equally natural for Harper to decline. For one thing, a head of state or government probably has no business speaking at a partisan gathering on foreign soil. For another thing, Conservatives up north tend to be wary of associating with us conservatives down south. The Canadian media portray us as a bunch of yahoos and extremists. Of course, we are portrayed the same way here, but we have countervailing media: right-leaning media. The Canadians have precious few such outlets.
It is the kiss of death, or at least not an advantage, for a Canadian Conservative to be known as a “U.S.-style” conservative, a Canadian Republican. A leading Conservative says, “Our whole careers, we’ve had to defend ourselves against charges of being lackeys of the American Right.” He remembers the 2005–06 election period, during which “some well-meaning fellow” published an op-ed in the Washington Times, saying that Harper was a conservative in the American image, a Great Right Hope, and the best friend George W. Bush would ever have. “We had to distance ourselves from what he wrote,” says the leading Conservative. “It actually became a major story here, that obscure column in the Washington Times.” Oh, yes. Harper wrote a letter to the editor objecting to the column. In due course, his opponents made an attack ad out of the column, quoting it on the air.
For some months, National Review sought an interview with Harper. In the end, his office declined — politely, their being Canadian and all. Did he not want attention or praise from an American conservative magazine? Was he worried about the Washington Times treatment? Could be. But he grants very few interviews even to Canadian publications. David Frum, the Canadian-born author and analyst, has another point, and a related one: Harper is a very disciplined politician. And “when there is no reason to speak, there is a reason not to speak.”
It was not so long ago that American conservatives kind of snickered at Canada. They had terrific hockey, sure, but they also had Trudeaupian socialism, and a pinko foreign policy, and this pathetic national health-care system: Why, if a Canadian had a true medical problem, he had to run here. There is much less snickering now, as President Obama takes the U.S. in a more “Canadian” direction. For several years, I worked at golf courses in Michigan, and sometimes Canadians would try to use their pretty, multicolored money, to pay their greens fees. We would smile and shake our heads. “But don’t you accept our dollar at par?” they would say. No, not on your life: We barely considered Canadian money real money. Today, the Canadian dollar is worth more than the U.S. (by a hair). “This is a source of pride for us,” says a Canadian intellectual and politico, “but it’s also a mixed blessing: A stronger dollar hurts exports.” There is an expression in golf, and it applies to currency and its perpetual fluctuations: “Every shot pleases somebody.”
Conservatives, wherever they live, can be pleased with Stephen Harper. He is a leader of the West, an advocate of freedom, democracy, capitalism, human rights — Western civilization, we could say. There are not many conservatives in the highest offices at the moment. One thinks of Britain’s Cameron, Germany’s Merkel, Israel’s Netanyahu — India’s Singh? They all have their virtues, as do other leaders. But the example to our north is particularly interesting, not least because he is a surprise: a conservative flower that has bloomed in unpromising soil.
Harper was born in 1959, in Toronto, where he grew up. This is worth knowing because he is always thought of as a man of the Canadian West. That is certainly true in cultural and political terms. After high school, Harper moved to Alberta (the province above Montana, Idaho, and Washington). He is “very suspicious of establishment elites,” says a Conservative insider. We are talking about those “who wear cufflinks and pocket squares, and eat at restaurants with ‘Bistro’ in their names.” Harper attended the University of Calgary, where he earned two degrees: a bachelor’s and a master’s, both in economics. He liked watching National Review’s founder, William F. Buckley Jr., on television. He admired the big conservative statesmen on the world stage: Reagan and Thatcher. In a 2002 interview, he was asked to name thinkers who had influenced him. He said, “I’m an economist by training, so obviously all the classical economists from Smith right up to people like Hayek, as well as some of the modern public-choice theorists — people like James Buchanan.”
Those who know him describe Harper as a rare combination of intellectual and politico. He is the idea man, the campaign manager, the candidate — all of those. He is also a “regular guy,” they say, and completely unpretentious. A “hockey dad,” says one. Like his country in general, Harper is devoted to the sport, and, in fact, will come out with a book on the history of hockey toward the end of this year. (Almost no U.S. president has come out with a book while still in office. Reagan was one. In his first term, he published Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation.)
Harper was first elected to Parliament in 1993. There were not many conservatives like him in the land — in Alberta, maybe, but not in Canada as a whole. Conrad Black, the historian and publisher, makes a point about the Liberal party: Starting in 1896, they held power for 80 out of 110 years. They were the most dominant party in the democratic world. The “natural governing party,” people called them. In 1996 — a hundred years after the beginning of this startling run — Harper co-authored a piece in which he said, “Although we like to think of ourselves as living in a mature democracy, we live, instead, in something little better than a benign dictatorship.” Right-leaning Canadians did not have their act together, being in different parties, being in a general and snippy disarray. Harper and his allies wanted to unite conservatives in one party that would challenge the status quo. Canada did not need “a second Liberal party,” he said, rather as Barry Goldwater once called for “a choice, not an echo.” In 2003, the new Conservative party was born, with Harper at its helm.
In a way, he was more fun before he became a big national leader. His tongue was freer. In 1997, he gave a notorious and wonderful speech to a group of Americans, saying, “Canada is a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term, and very proud of it.” In 2002, he said, “There is a culture of defeat that we have to overcome” — particularly in Atlantic Canada (i.e., the provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, etc.). There was a “can’t do” attitude, a feeling that nothing could change for the better, that people were stuck in an endless gray. The media judged Harper’s words grossly impolitic, but others thought he had put his finger on something important.
The Conservatives, formed in late 2003, triumphed a short time later, in January 2006. They did not win a majority of seats in Parliament. But they won more than anyone else, and Harper was sworn in as prime minister on February 6 (Reagan’s birthday).
The new PM did not go on some revolutionary tear, given his minority government, and given the temper of Canada. But it was still clear there was a new sheriff in town. It was clear in ways both symbolic and material. For instance, previous governments had established the practice of lowering flags whenever a Canadian was killed in Afghanistan. Harper stopped this practice. There was a war on, and war brought casualties. The dead could be remembered on Remembrance Day. The armed forces should not be sentimentalized. Harper also spoke of “Arctic sovereignty,” a somewhat mystic phrase in the Canadian mind. Americans, Russians, and others had better not meddle. When Hamas took power in the Palestinian Authority, Harper’s Canada was the first government to cut off funding to the PA. (The first government after Israel’s.) The media and the opposition parties were scandalized, saying this was a sharp departure from Canadian tradition. They were quite right. They were further scandalized when Harper supported Israel, unequivocally, in the Second Lebanon War.
In 2011, Harper restored the name “Royal” to the Canadian armed forces: the Royal Canadian Navy, the Royal Canadian Air Force. He is duly mindful of Quebec, and gives speeches and interviews in French, but he has also said, “We’re part of a worldwide Anglo-American culture.” He goes out of his way to acknowledge Elizabeth II as the Canadian head of state. In his first months in office, he introduced the Australian prime minister, John Howard, to the parliament in Ottawa. He emphasized shared values, “values so many in the world can only dream of, values we should never take for granted.” Two months later, Harper spoke in London, noting what Britain had given Canada: the Magna Carta, parliamentary democracy, “the entrepreneurial spirit and free-market economy” — not to mention “Shakespeare, Dickens, Kipling, Lewis, and Chesterton.” Very few Canadians talk this way, or make such acknowledgments. (Kipling!) Very few Americans do. Very few Britons do. (Last fall, David Letterman had David Cameron on his TV show. He asked the prime minister to translate “Magna Carta.” Cameron was unable to do so, or said he was: He is a graduate of Eton and Oxford.)
Naturally, many on the left were aghast at Harper’s performance in London. The media sputtered over this new sheriff. His relations with them have been contentious, and this was particularly true in the first years. Soon after he was elected, Harper said, “Unfortunately, the press gallery has taken the view that they are going to be the opposition to the government.” They are still against him. But they are not as hot against him as they once were. As the previously quoted Conservative insider puts it, they have a “grudging respect” for him. They no longer treat him as a hick from the West, someone who ought to be in the Texas legislature rather than 24 Sussex Drive (the prime-ministerial residence). If anything, he is an “evil genius,” says the insider.
The Harper style is very low-key. He ought to be hard to demonize. He is without drama, without flamboyance — without flair or charisma, some think. He is routinely compared to an accountant. Why that profession is perpetually lampooned is a little unclear. Harper’s father was an accountant, incidentally. To see the Harper style in action, go to YouTube and call up videos of the parliamentary Question Period. Opposition politicians are apt to hurl thunderbolts at him, with usual politician’s demagoguery. Harper is apt to answer softly, wearily, factually, blandly — and effectively.
He is said to have let his hair down in 2009, when he made a surprise appearance onstage at a gala concert — a concert featuring Yo-Yo Ma. Harper came out, sat down at the piano, and started to play and sing: “What would you think if I sang out of tune? Would you stand up and walk out on me?” This was a Beatles song. And he did not really sing out of tune. Repeatedly, he sang, “I get high with a little help from my friends,” which is odd for a national leader to sing. At any rate, he may have had his hair down, but he was still polite, self-contained, unassuming, and somewhat awkward. Also endearing, in this critic’s mind.
The Canadians had another election in October 2008, two years and about nine months after the election that brought Harper and the Conservatives to power. They won again, by a bigger margin. They were still a minority government, however. Then, in 2011, they won a majority of seats. As Harper said, he and his party had managed to paint regions blue, greatly reducing the red that had dominated Canada. (Up north, they still have their colors right: Conservatives are blue, and the Left is red. The reversal of the natural colors in America still rankles some of us.)
So, Harper is making progress, year by year, bringing the Canadian Right from a splintered mess to a majority government in under a decade. At his party convention in 2011, he made the following statement: “By saying what we will do and doing what we say, one step at a time, we are moving Canada in a conservative direction, and Canadians are moving with us.” He is a patient man, an incrementalist, with the long game in mind. He has a “brutal pragmatism,” says a Conservative analyst, and admirer of the prime minister. If the country is not ready for a change, he will not propose it. He is of the view that cultural shifts need to precede political shifts. Abortion on demand, national health care — these things are apparently off-limits, sacrosanct in the Canadian mind. (As one Conservative politician tells me, Canada, a supposedly moderate nation, is immoderate when it comes to abortion.)
The central government has gotten smaller, thanks not just to the Harper government but to the Liberal governments that came before: Canada was such a basket case, the “natural governing party” had to act. Harper has acted further. Canada came out of the recent recession in a stronger position than virtually any other country. Harper has cut taxes repeatedly, able to boast to Canadians that they enjoy “the lowest federal tax burden since John Diefenbaker was prime minister.” (That was during the Eisenhower and Kennedy years.) The government indulged in deficit spending, when the financial crisis hit, and now they are about $21 billion in the hole. But they expect to be in balance in 2015. Forbes magazine ranks Canada the best G-8 country in which to do business. The corporate tax there is famously low — 15 percent, down from 21 percent when Harper and the Conservatives took over. (As Charles Lammam of the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute points out, however, one has to consider provincial rates on top of the federal.) Paul Ryan cited Canada’s kindness to business in the vice-presidential debate last fall: Why can’t we be more like Canada? That is the new American plaint, from conservatives, at least. Harper is a serious free-trader: His government has completed nine different free-trade deals, and is working on more.
At the end of 2011, Canada pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement on greenhouse gases. Harper’s government claimed that a previous government had signed the protocol cynically, not intending to abide by it. Everyone knew, said the Harper government, that the protocol would hurt Canada and fail to protect the environment. Back in the bad old days, when Harper’s tongue was freer, he let loose in a fundraising letter — the year is 2002: “Kyoto is essentially a socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations.”
Imagine you work for the Canadian foreign ministry. You are a Liberal, of course, or to the left of that. And everything Harper is doing appalls you: the pullout from Kyoto, the support of Israel. Life has been painful for you since 2006. “Their idols are the Eurocrats,” says my previously quoted insider. “They hate going to cocktail parties in Brussels and Geneva and having to hear how terrible Canada has been. ‘Why is your prime minister a barbarian? When are you going to get back to normal? Where did Pierre Trudeau go?’ Harper takes a perverse pleasure in all this.”
Canada did not join the Iraq coalition, and, when the war started, Harper said his nation should have: “For the first time in history, the Canadian government has not stood beside its key British and American allies in their time of need.” Critics enjoy reminding him of his stance on the Iraq War (judged to have been a failure and a mistake). Harper has back-pedaled on Iraq, and not entirely honestly, in my opinion. Afghanistan is something different. In 2007, when he was prime minister, he visited troops in that country, saying, “You know that your work is not complete. You know we can’t just put down our weapons and hope for peace. You know that we can’t set arbitrary deadlines and simply wish for the best.” Yet it is the United States, of course, that has led the war. His relations with Obama are said to be correct, cordial, and business-like. There are many sticky issues between the two countries. For instance, Obama has refused to okay the Keystone Pipeline, running from Alberta.
Harper has increased defense spending hugely — from $14.7 billion a year to almost $22 billion. He speaks of giving the armed forces “the equipment they need and the respect they deserve.” It is all part of making Canada “a meaningful contributor in the world.”
Since World War II, Canada has been rather like Norway, famous as an international arbiter, a facilitator, an “honest broker” — barely aligned (though both Canada and Norway are founding members of NATO). Canadians and Norwegians pride themselves on playing outsize roles at the United Nations. In 2010, Canada made a bid for a seat on the Security Council. The bid failed. A newspaper report began, “In a stunning swipe at Canada’s foreign policy shift under the Conservative government, United Nations voters Tuesday rejected Canada’s bid . . .” That gives a flavor of the reaction in Canada. Many people spoke as if the country had entered some dark age. Canada had abandoned its historic position, and now “the world” was punishing it. To a traditional Canadian liberal, being rejected by the U.N. is akin to being rejected by heaven.
Harper was defiant. The bid had failed, he said, because Canada had supported Israel, the bête noire of many, many U.N. member-states. In a speech, Harper spoke of the “three ‘D’s”: demonization, double standards, and delegitimization. That was what Israel faced at the United Nations and elsewhere, and civilized people should have none of it. “The easiest thing to do is simply to just get along and go along with this anti-Israeli rhetoric, to pretend it is just about being evenhanded, and to excuse oneself with the label of ‘honest broker.’ There are, after all, a lot more votes — a lot more — in being anti-Israeli than in taking a stand.” He said that, as long as he was prime minister, Canada would stand by Israel “whatever the cost.” He added, “I say this, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because history shows us — and the ideology of the anti-Israeli mob tells us all too well, if we listen to it — that those who threaten the existence of the Jewish people are a threat to all of us.”
He is a flaming philo-Semite, analyzing and condemning anti-Semitism whenever he can. His government was the first in the world to announce it would boycott “Durban II” — the second in a series of U.N. conferences rotten with anti-Semitism. Canada naturally boycotted Durban III as well. Jewish groups have honored him with their highest awards. Harper supports Israel because it is a democratic and liberal nation, surrounded and threatened by many nations that are not. He also recognizes the right of any nation to defend itself. But there is a bit more to his support of Israel than that. He has a visceral feeling about the Jews, according to those who know him. He is disgusted by the abuse of them, in the past and in the present. Other leaders have had this feeling, among them George W. Bush.
Harper has taken a very tough line on Iran (though it is the American line that counts, of course). In September, the Canadians closed their embassy in Tehran, in part because they feared the Iranian government might sack it. In November, Canada was one of a handful of nations at the U.N. — nine — to vote against an enhanced status for the PLO. Harper’s government believes that Palestinians should win their state at the negotiating table, with Israel. This is, in fact, what the Oslo Accords call for. In recent days, Harper has opened a new Office of Religious Freedom, an office within the foreign ministry. Religious freedom is an issue of high importance to him.
I have noted that Harper is careful, incrementalist, and not a boat-rocker, to the extent he can help it. But in the realm of foreign policy, he has been unquestionably bold. In his 2011 party-convention speech, he said that Conservatives and Canada have a purpose: “and that purpose is no longer just to go along and get along with everyone else’s agenda. It is no longer to please every dictator with a vote at the United Nations. And I confess that I don’t know why past attempts to do so were ever thought to be in Canada’s national interest.” In a turbulent, unpredictable world, “strength is not an option; it is a necessity. Moral ambiguity, moral equivalence, are not options; they are dangerous illusions.”
There is much more to say about Harper, pro and even con, but you can see why American conservatives are high on him, when they know about him. As we begin the second term of Obama, Harper gives us something to cheer about. He is a leader who speaks our language, thinks our thoughts. Back in the 2005–06 campaign, his opponents used that admiring op-ed in the Washington Times against him. The next election is scheduled to take place in October 2015 — and they may want to use this piece in National Review against him. If he likes, Harper can write a letter to the editor, complaining.