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.


Toby said...

Harper's legacy is Justin Trudeau maintaining all his policies but with a smiling face.

The Mound of Sound said...

Let's hope not, Toby. So far you're right on the money.

Anonymous said...

Chretien's finest hour was his decision to keep us out of the Bush-Blair cock-up in Iraq. Saying no to our two biggest allies took enormous courage, something "Captain Closet" knew nothing about.

Harper will forever have a place in the history books as the first PM of a Commonwealth country to be found in contempt by Parliament.


The Mound of Sound said...

You've got a point, CAP. Thanks.

Troy said...

I did anticipate Chretien's vision of a cross country high speed internet, but it's not really came to fruition. Canada could probably have been at the forefront of all the new technology that's coming out nowadays if he'd followed through. Instead, we'll have to play catch up, once we ever get a PM who understands Canada's just being pulled in the wake of more transformative powers out there in the world, now.

Martin did sign the Kelowna Accord, but that was scuppered by Harper. Tens years of negotiation between the federal government and the provinces and First Nations all undone because of the spitefulness of Harper and those who elected him.

Harper just seemed to disdain and distrust a certain type of individual. He was the perfect real life illustration of a Charles Dickens villain. He resented those he could never be like. And he took no greater pleasure than when he was tarnishing another's legacy.

Troy said...

That being said, I can't help wondering now if it weren't because of Harper Canada's fallen behind in terms of new technology. When Chretien left office, Canada did have one of the great hardware developers in RIM. There's also Blizzard Software, at one point (during Martin's reign) probably the most successful game company in the world. There was EA's success in Vancouver, too. That would've been a great foundation to build upon for any new government, but since then, all three have reduced their fortunes. Most visibly RIM, which was perfectly indicative how little Harper cared for the Canadian identity.

Chretien was also a great yet quiet booster of the arts in Canada. Hollywood North really grew under his care. As well as Toronto and Montreal's film industry. Some of the more successful Canadian artists really hit their stride in Chretien's Canada. One can't really attribute the success of Canadian artists in the nineties to Chretien, directly, but he did understand the importance of actually funding the CBC and the NFB. The arts, most of all, suffered under Harper.

Kirbycairo said...

It seems to me that a legacy is decided, in part, by how the next generation looks at a leader and his/her time in office. In that sense it is difficult to see Harper today since we are so close to him chronologically speaking. The real question in my mind is will the next generation of Canadians, the so-called millennials, be of such political stripes that they will understand the danger that Harper posed to both democracy and to any hope of equality. If these young people do see this (some twenty years from now when they have become the dominant political class) then we have to believe that they will also by then have begun to also reject Trudeau despite his shiny teeth and smiling personality as more or less a follow-up of the ideology of inequality that his predecessors wrought.

The Mound of Sound said...

I think the next generation will, in another 20 years, have enough on their plates that judging obscure politicians from their childhood will be of little interest.

Unknown said...

Harper was probably the only prime minister Mound to govern for a select group of people, mainly his evangelical/reform/alliance base. This was to the exclusion of mainstream Canadians.

A malevolent, power seeking, anti-intellectual and talentless demogogue who will be remembered not for what he did for Canada, but for the destruction he did to Canada.

I agree with you that history will not have much to say about this mediocre non entity.

Anonymous said...

Oh bull. And the Liberals, they are here for all of us right? Justin cares equally about all Canadians, not just the Liberal base?

What a load.

Anonymous said...

Anyong.....I don't think it is too far fetched to write that Mr. Stephen Harper will be back after all his experience with overseas companies. He is just not going to give up that easy.

The Mound of Sound said...

Oh I don't think Harper will be returning to the political fold. His party is moving on. Harper's form of neo-conservatism has run its course, even in the States. The world is changing, rather rapidly, and that sort of rigid ideology has become dysfunctional.

Anonymous said...

Anyong....I still say give it a ten year lull.