Friday, August 26, 2016
What Will Be Stephen Harper's Legacy?
I'm not sure Stephen Harper will leave any particularly lasting impression on the Canadian public. Thinking back on his near decade in power, what do you consider his cardinal achievement?
Becoming prime minister provides no assurance you'll be very good at it. Many are fairly mediocre. I think Harper falls squarely in that category.
Pierre Trudeau stands, perhaps unfairly, as the yardstick by which later prime ministers are measured and found lacking. There have been three major governments since Trudeau - Mulroney, Chretien and Harper. For what shall they be remembered?
Mulroney gave Canada the GST and, even with this additional revenue flooding into Ottawa, nearly bankrupted the nation. He desperately sought to carve out his niche with first the Meech Lake and then the Charlottetown Accords to amend the constitution. He brought Lucien Bouchard into federal politics only to drive him back out into the arms of Quebec separatism. Mulroney's legacy is encapsulated in Stevie Cameron's book, "On the Take." Any residual doubts about the seedy side of Mulroney's regime were put to rest with the Karlheinz Schreiber affair and cash-stuffed envelopes crossing tables in Montreal coffee shops.
If Mulroney has any lasting legacy it won't be for anything positive. It was Mulroney, after all, who ushered in the era of neoliberalism and free trade on the promise of more jobs and better wages which delivered neither. Today the Reagan/Thatcher/Mulroney ideology stands debunked, rebuked even by the IMF as a malignancy on economies around the world.
Next up was Jean Chretien, the gruff, straight-talking guy from Shawinigan. Chretien did deliver three majority governments but that was largely pushing on an open door. Mulroney was enough to ensure that his majority Progressive Conservatives were handed a crushing, 2-seat catastrophe in Chretien's first win. After that the Right ruptured. Western conservatives were lured away to Preston Manning's Reform Party. In Quebec many supporters drifted to the Bloc Quebecois. With the Right in disarray, Liberal victories were all but assured.
The Chretien government did wrestle Canada's near lethal national debt and deficit to the ground. They went from an annual deficit in the $37-billion range to annual surpluses, paying down a significant chunk of the national debt along the way. In fairness this was largely the work of Chretien's finance minister, Paul Martin. It was also achieved by slashing federal transfers to provinces, municipalities and territories.
On Chretien's watch Canada came within a hair of losing a Quebec sovereignty referendum. The federal government was pretty blase about the whole business, confident of success, until the polling numbers showed the sovereigntists were winning. It took a massive effort by Canadians of all walks from all corners of the country to save Canada's bacon. Not exactly Chretien's greatest moment.
And then there was the scandal that Stephen Harper rode to power, the Sponsorship Scandal. This happened on Chretien's watch. Fortunately for Paul Martin it occurred while he was sidelined by Chretien over his ambitions to replace the prime minister.
Add it all up and you wind up with another mediocre premiership. In terms of the nation's collective memory, it's pretty much already forgotten.
There were no real achievements for Harper either. No Constitution, no Charter of Rights and Freedoms. No flag. No Nobel prize. Nothing much really.
He rode to office on the Sponsorship Scandal to which he promised transparency and accountability and proceeded to deliver neither - a lot of neither, nine years' worth of neither.
He wasted no time defunding the federal government and ordering slot machines and roulette wheels for Canada's chartered banks but the crash of 2008 arrived just before Harper could manage to leave Canada's financial system undefended.
Perhaps Harper's legacy should be measured by the attributes with which he governed - secrecy, deception, fear mongering and incrementalism. You always felt like he was sizing you up, ready to make his move on your wallet.
Democracy eroded significantly under Harper's rule. He gagged first the public service and then the armed forces, cutting them off from the Canadian public and transforming them into his personal partisan agencies. He used fear as a powerful weapon but he used it against his own supporters to coerce their backing. Harper was a devious manipulator.
What did he accomplish? In what way did he leave Canada a better place than he found it? I really cannot think of anything. I can't. There's a logical explanation for that. It comes from Harper's BFF(N) (Best Friend for Now), Tom Flanagan who years ago let the cat out of the bag in an address to a gathering on Saltspring Island. Flanagan described his long time friend as a man to whom vision was anathema. He utterly eschewed vision and, hence, strove to accomplish nothing of any significance. Perhaps Harper had watched Mulroney flounder on the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords and resolved never to take that sort of risk himself. Who knows?
No, I think that Mulroney, Chretien and Harper will be consigned to footnotes in history books. Mulroney at least strove for the brass ring but he failed. Harper will be remembered for the scars he left but in a decade or so they'll heal and fade and, with them, so will the memory of Stephen Joseph Harper.