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Mackay: Shaping Harper’s legacy

June 20, 2011

It is hard to imagine Stephen Harper, as calm, cool and collected as he always is, sitting down and worrying over where history will place him on the list of “Great Canadian Prime Ministers.” Mr. Harper has worked very hard to earn the reputation of being the ‘calm hand’ on the tiller that steers Canada forward, so for him to be worrying over such petty and trivial things like his legacy seems almost unimaginable. Whether you like him or not, Mr. Harper has done a terrific job of portraying government as important but boring, and in the past few years it is not hard to see that much of the ‘flash’ surrounding Canadian politics from the 1960s onward has dissipated. By portraying himself as dull, yet wholly competent, it is very easy to assume that Mr. Harper is too focused on driving Canada forward, as well as installing the Conservative Party of Canada as the natural governing Party of this country, to consider how his motives, his actions and/or his policies will cement him in the annals of Canadian parliamentary history.

But what if Stephen Harper really is concerned about his mark on Canada? For all the things that his detractors accuse him of being, lacking intelligence is not among them. Mr. Harper is intelligent, whether those who oppose him want to admit or not, and it is easy to see that every step that Mr. Harper has taken since being elected as the Leader of the Conservative Party has been carefully planned and done with much thought and care. Have there been missteps where the assumed course of action failed to go according to plan? Sure, but that is the nature of politics; one person cannot correctly predict the outcome of every event that they take part in. If you look at the bigger picture though, you see a masterful, controlling man who made almost all the right decisions to pull his Party from the brink of oblivion back into power. After almost a decade of heavy-lifting that would make Atlas proud, Mr. Harper was rewarded with a highly coveted Majority in the House of Commons; the first Conservative Majority in over two decades.

After watching Mr. Harper take every precaution in rebuilding a Party so divided, it does not seem so unfathomable that this whole time part of his motivation had been cementing his own reputation. It is now easy to see that some of the urgency behind Mr. Harper’s pleading for a Majority Government may have been driven, in part, by a desire to be remembered as the masterful tactician who revitalized a political movement that had been left for dead by its previous masters. Conservatism, while as an ideology still very much alive in this nation, had been divided in three; a minor portion who fled to Jean Chrétien’s Liberals, a much larger, less moderate group that helped drive Preston Manning’s Reform Party and another sizable portion that never left the old faithful Progressive Conservatives. Mr. Harper managed to reunite them all, as well as cultivate substantially more, in a short amount of time and in a fashion that allowed for the first Conservative Party Majority since 1988, and the first without a majority of seats in Quebec in well over half a century.

When working on Election 41, I was asked a handful of times what I thought Mr. Harper’s legacy would be were he to fail to get a Majority on his fifth try. It was certainly an interesting question. What would Stephen Harper’s lasting legacy be? Historically speaking, the negatives involving a Government tend to never be forgotten. Sir John A. Macdonald, over a century later, is still remembered as a tremendous leader who was later heavily affected by his alcoholism, as well as by his government’s corrupt tendencies. Pierre Trudeau is remembered almost as often for the National Energy Policy as he is for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Liberal Party still has yet to recover from the Sponsorship scandal that threw them out of power in 2006 and, of course, it is impossible to exclude Brian Mulroney’s various failings as well, such as the Meech Lake Accord, the public outcry over the GST and the perceived failure of his government to combat a growing national debt.

If we focus more on the negatives, we see that Mr. Harper has his share of failings as well. The G8/G20 summit comes to mind as one of the largest blunders that occurred under his watch. An excessive amount of money was spent on a what was essentially a police fishing expedition, ultimately ending in hundreds upon hundreds of innocent people being arrested and then subsequently released with absolutely no charges laid against them. The lowering of the GST under Mr. Harper has the potential to be labeled a misstep in the long-run, as it reduced government revenue that could have helped to combat the deficits that we incurred during the recession. Then, finally, there is of course the tired and oft-repeated contempt charges laid against the Conservative Government by the Liberal, NDP and Bloc opposition that will quite likely be remembered, rightly or wrongly, as a low point in modern Canadian politics. At the very least, the words “contempt” and “historic” will almost always be linked together.

Had Mr. Harper failed to get his Majority, or had the Conservatives failed in even forming the next government, it seems that Mr. Harper would have been remembered as the man who resurrected a Party that had been left in tatters, yet was unable to achieve total redemption. While Mr. Harper did enact very positive, commendable legislation, such as clamping down on lobbying, stricter campaign finance rules as well as changing our role in Afghanistan, it would most likely be the negatives that would weigh heaviest on the minds of historians, as well as Canadians.

Lester B. Pearson accomplished much with his two Minority governments and is often remembered as being ‘pragmatic’ or ‘flexible’, yet whether an overtly partisan opposition is to blame, Mr. Harper is not labeled ‘pragmatic’, but rather ‘divisive.’ It is very unlikely that Mr. Harper would have been remembered as a great architect had he failed to claim the ultimate prize. More over, had he failed to win the 41st Election, he would have been seen more as a placeholder for the next great Conservative leader to further vault the CPC to greater heights.

None of that really matters though, as Mr. Harper not only won but won big. With a Majority government, the future is now Mr. Harper’s to shape. The next four years will essentially determine where he will stand when stacked up against the Prime Ministers of both past and future. While there is no clear answer as to whether Stephen Harper was at one time preoccupied with how he will be remembered, there is no doubt that he will use the Majority he was given to not only shape Canada, but also shape the opinions we will form of him long after he has exited politics. While in the past it was easy to blame the opposition parties for obstructing your legislation, now the proverbial ball is completely in Mr. Harper’s court. There will be absolutely no excuses from here on out, and if Mr. Harper is eager to make his mark in the pages of history then he better start soon. Four years is not quite as long as it may seem.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Jon permalink
    June 20, 2011 12:21 am

    Very good commentary on, who I am sure will at least be remembered as the greatest political mind of his generation, Stephen Harper. I am not a fan of his but since Stephan Dion became leader of the Liberals in 06, it hasn’t been hard to see that the only man who has been able to really steer national opinion is Stephen Harper. With tactics that many (including I) may call Machiavellian, he destroyed two Liberal leaders and a coalition that could have easily finished his government. Was he lying in all three cases? Absolutely: he still won however. I think when I look back at Stephen Harper I will be feeling the same way that Trudeau’s opponents thought about him. I may not like his policies, but damn, he was an incredible politician.

  2. June 20, 2011 12:27 am

    Excellent point in comparing him to Trudeau. It’s interesting to see how the opinion of Harper has been shaped as he really hasn’t passed much legislation that can leave his opponents outraged. Trudeau, at the very least, enacted several policies that left conservatives feverishly mad, whereas Harper hasn’t to the same extent.

  3. June 21, 2011 10:27 pm

    Though, Trudeau was carried by his eccentric personality, his strategy….not so much. Harper, as you detailed, was carried by his brilliant strategizing….eccentric personality, not so much (the piano thing didn’t seem to catch on).

  4. June 21, 2011 11:22 pm

    I think he rocked that song, despite me laughing a bit at the irony in him singing “I get high with a little help from my friends.”

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