Canada’s first post-Laurentian Prime Minister

A conceit of ruling elites throughout history has been that their worldview represents the natural order, a spontaneous consensus, the sensible way. Any other view is radical, dangerous, irrational or heretical. Stephen Harper’s advancement of an alternative to a Canadian worldview that dominated the nation’s political life and political economy since before its founding is the central fact of his prime ministership. As Canada’s 22nd prime minister, Harper demonstrated another, fundamentally different, way to govern our country: it was intellectually grounded, politically sound, conservative yet broadly representative, and distinctly Western. Far more than his policies and initiatives – most of which are subject to dilution or reversal – the idea of another way is Harper’s legacy.

The “Laurentian Thesis” has fallen into obscurity, yet for decades it was the dominant school of Canadian history, advanced by such luminaries as Donald Creighton and H.A. Innis. Stripped of its apologists’ rhetorical garments, the Laurentian Thesis held that Canada was founded to advance the political and commercial interests of the old Upper and Lower Canada, a society clinging to the shores of the St. Lawrence River. The gigantic western lands annexed soon after Confederation would furnish cheap natural resources and hungry markets for eastern products. Their addition was a business deal; their political status would be that of colony. This view was neatly embodied in a period cartoon of a dairy cow straddling Canada – feeding on the verdant grassland of the West and being milked in Quebec and Ontario. Canada would be run by, of and for the centre and the nation’s progress would be choreographed by the elites descended from the two former colonies.

For decades, the Laurentian Thesis was seen by most historians and political scientists as not only the way things were, but the way things should be. In opposition, a succession of Western politicians devoted their careers to securing the rights and improving the status of their region or province. After Saskatchewan’s Frederick Haultain, the first Territorial premier, most of them were Alberta premiers; John Brownlee, Ernest Manning, and Peter Lougheed. Reform Party founder Preston Manning was the only one who did not fight from the subordinate ground of provincial leadership, but he was unable to become prime minister. Through it all, the Laurentian Thesis endured in fact if not in name. Recently the idea was revived as the Laurentian Consensus in The Big Shift by Darryl Bricker and John Ibbitson. Their book, written in the wake of Harper’s 2011 majority election triumph, posits a largely demographic-driven shift of power from central to western Canada.

The story of the young Harper’s move West, conversion to conservatism, and determination to fight for his adopted homeland, has been amply told. As with thousands before him, physical and intellectual detachment from the Laurentian environment divorced him from its political and ideological assumptions. Harper’s experiences in a new, dynamic region triggered a stark realization – that the central Canadian establishment’s received wisdom was wrong. The Laurentian Thesis, though smothering, is conceptually weak, perhaps because it is so manifestly self-serving.

In retrospect, Harper could easily have become premier of Alberta. He might have been a great one. But he would have been just another in a line of provincial politicians who, however successful, were ultimately stymied. Harper’s genius – and good fortune – was choosing to fight on the national stage after transforming his regionally based yearnings into a coherent national program at three levels: policy (or ideology), party organization, and governing style. It was truly another way – and also the first comprehensive and winning alternative to the Laurentian Thesis.

Harper laid the Progressive Conservative Party’s remnants to rest and built the new Conservative Party of Canada firmly upon conservative principles. He tempered the radicalism of its Reform and Alliance party predecessors, to appeal to a cross-section of Canadians large enough to form a governing coalition. It was still significantly to the right of the decayed, unstable and frequently losing Red Toryism of Stanfield, Clark, Campbell, Mulroney et al. If the next Conservative leader refrains from tearing down what Harper built, his legacy of party-building provides the platform as well as the animating ideas for regaining political power.

Intimate familiarity with central Canada coupled with a changed political perspective gave Harper the MP, opposition leader and prime minister no reason to seek affirmation from the Laurentian elite, let alone ingratiate himself to them, as previous Conservative leaders and uncounted Western MPs had done. Instead, his West-imbued, small-government conservatism put him in collision with the Laurentian Consensus. His government’s policies and priorities would be far removed from what Jean Chretien charmingly called “the usual operation”. That provoked his political opponents, the media, academia, the judiciary and bureaucracy – the entire Laurentian host.

Heightening the partisan rancor was the Liberal Party’s conflation of its beliefs and political self-interest with Canadian values. This had become standard practise under Lester Pearson, was greatly advanced in the assembling of what Mark Steyn later dubbed the Trudeaupian State, and would erupt in Paul Martin’s accusations in the 2004 and 2005-6 elections that a Harper government would “destroy Canada”. If you see the Liberal Party as synonymous with Canada, and see modern Canada as a government-dominated, comprehensively regulated version of the Laurentian Thesis, then the defeat of your party would, indeed, “destroy Canada”.

In office, Harper clashed with those who think Canada’s history began when Lester Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957. After last fall’s Liberal election victory, nowhere in official Ottawa was the jubilation as exuberant as in the Pearson Building, home of Canada’s diplomatic corps. Ottawa’s foreign affairs apparat, quite simply, held Harper in contempt for having a different worldview. Yet the “traditional”, i.e., Pearson-Trudeau, view of Canada’s place in the world is anything but ideologically neutral. This was evident throughout the Cold War and currently in the Arabist proclivities of our Foreign Service – which at least once served the Harper PMO with a map of the Middle East that omitted Israel.

Harper was proved right a number of times. His view of Vladimir Putin as a geopolitical menace was considered radical when he alone held it; today it is mainstream opinion. The satisfaction may prove transient, yet what could make Harper’s views more durable is their deeper rootedness in Canadian history and tradition than those of his opponents. This was most evident in his promotion of Canada’s military traditions, which resonated broadly with the public, and his organic view of the country and its geography, particularly the North. Deservedly, Harper will be forever associated with the discovery of the Franklin Expedition’s lost ships.

Harper’s opponents routinely employed the hammer of “expert opinion”. This nearly always coincided with the views of the Laurentian elite – indeed, the “experts” were typically part of that elite. This habit was obvious in areas such as criminal justice and the environment. Harper and his ministers presented logical and defensible positions. These were often backed by research and science that departed from the approved consensus, which generally meant they would be ignored or disputed by the news media.

On criminal justice, Harper advanced the view that criminals needed to be punished, victims needed to be acknowledged and protected, law-abiding Canadians should not be harassed, and self-defence was legitimate. Within the broad story of the Harper government’s criminal justice reforms, one example is telling. This was upending the previous Liberal policies of denying visas to foreign priests and nuns for fear they might overstay them, while spending tax dollars fighting to get Canadians convicted of serious crimes in the U.S. transferred to Canada – where they stood to walk free. There was indeed “another way”: treating murdering felons as bad, gentle clerics as good.

On the environment, the Harper government initially thought general agreement could be found that pollution was more harmful than carbon dioxide and government’s limited resources should be directed to areas of actual harm. This view was shared by some reputable environmentalists, notably Bjorn Lomborg. But the position gained little traction against the spectre of climate catastrophe. The fallback position, that we needed to “fight climate change”, but without destroying Canadians’ livelihoods, proved resilient and enabled Harper to rag the puck on climate change, avoiding a ruinous cap-and-trade scheme that in Europe had consumed tens of billions of dollars before disintegrating in failure and corruption. Here, as in many areas, Harper’s legacy is largely the prevention, or at least postponement, of destructive, ideologically driven policies reflecting the preferences of the Laurentian Consensus.

Harper’s way on immigration was closest to that of the elites, accepting that immigration is good and the number of new arrivals should remain high. There were important though meaningful shifts in execution, however: Jason Kenney’s cultivation of some immigrant communities’ fundamental conservatism, prioritizing Canada’s economic needs, and a rational rather than activist-driven approach to refugees. These policies’ low-key nature may increase their survivability.

In federal-provincial relations, Harper differed markedly from his Liberal predecessors who, not content with mere federal mediocrity, routinely interfered in provincial jurisdiction. He eschewed First Ministers’ conferences, which typically descend into recrimination, a list of expensive demands and the Prime Minister taking the heat for “failing” to capitulate to them. Harper’s hands-off approach didn’t prevent premiers like Danny Williams and Kathleen Wynne from pounding the federal punching bag. But his approach of allowing provinces to run their affairs reflected the way a federal state should operate and was appreciated by many provinces. It should be a model for his successors.

Earlier prime ministers believed Quebec nationalism could be co-opted. In Brian Mulroney’s case the results were injurious to Canada – particularly the West – and disastrous for the PC party. Harper saw Quebec’s separatists – hiding behind euphemisms like “sovereigntists” or “nationalists” – for what they were, and knew appeasement is the wrong way to deal with those whose singular goal is to form an ethnic state. In Harper, Quebec’s separatists realized they weren’t dealing with a pushover. He ably did business with the rest, making concessions to Quebec on the “fiscal balance”, provincial control of social programs and various symbolic areas. Quebec had been Canada’s central political obsession for nearly half a century. Under Harper, it fell off the front pages for years at a time. His demonstration that a businesslike yet magnanimous posture toward Quebec works is an example for future prime ministers.

Stephen Harper promises two-point cut in GST in 2005. REUTERS/J. P. Moczulski
Stephen Harper promises two-point cut in GST in 2005. REUTERS/J. P. Moczulski

On fiscal policy, Harper’s push to lower the tax burden on individuals and corporations arose from principle – that the earnings of individuals and enterprises belong to them, not the government. This self-evident concept is considered radical by the entire host of the Trudeaupian State. They commonly bemoan any reduction in the ratio of confiscation as “tax expenditure”. Harper’s cut to the GST, for example, was panned because it is an “efficient”, “fairer” tax. Harper took a view closer to that of Milton Friedman, namely “no tax is a good tax”. Canada’s lower federal tax burden, along with the balanced budget, are happy – if highly fragile – legacies.

Harper leaves a mixed legacy in the frequently cited area of “vision”. His disdain for grand schemes was welcome relief from Trudeau and Mulroney’s constitutional imbroglios and Paul Martin throwing billions at solutions “for a generation”. With the unfortunate but politically irresistible exceptions of auto industry bailouts and expanded regional development agencies, Harper mostly tried to get government out of the way. He ignored cries for federal loan guarantees for the massive Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline, for example. Had he buckled, expensive Arctic natural gas would now be competing amidst North America’s massive gas bubble and Canadian taxpayers would be holding the bag. Still, it wasn’t prescience that actually stalled the pipeline, but a decade of regulatory negligence if not sabotage. Harper took this lesson to heart and set about simplifying the regulatory process.

Lowering regulatory hurdles was admirable, and avoiding the proposed “National Energy Strategy” talk-a-thon was sound. But the forces arrayed against Alberta and Saskatchewan getting their oil and gas to tidewater are formidable and continue to strengthen. Harper’s government recognized this and said as much, insulting the “no brainer” in the White House and calling out “radical environmentalists”. But it avoided double-barrelled federal intervention. The voices pining for a mile-wide “national strategic energy corridor”, immune to environmental reviews, regulatory stalling or the hysterics of provincial premiers, resting perhaps on the Peace, Order and Good Government clause of the constitution, were ignored. Now that would have been a legacy – but might also have triggered violent opposition. Either way, Harper’s minimalist approach proved insufficient to the task.

Results were mixed on national infrastructure in general. Canadians were mercifully spared paying for several expensive hockey arenas. The Harper government championed the Gordie Howe Bridge in Windsor, but it remains mired in political wrangling and the inevitable worries about the (non) scarce habitat of (non) endangered species. The all-weather extension of the Dempster Highway to Tuktoyaktuk is an achievement that might pay off someday and in the meantime is very nice for its handful of users. Meanwhile, a landmark project like twinning the entire B.C. mountains portion of the TransCanada Highway, a critical economic lifeline for Alberta and a scene of frequent fatalities, was all but ignored. The Harper team’s general aversion to pork-barrelling was sound, but it seemed to be applied more assiduously in the west than the east to avoid charges of homerism.

When Harper chose to attack directly, he could achieve notable success. He kept his promises to dismantle the federal long gun registry and end the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly. Both issues met the full checklist of ideological, partisan, regional and good-government objectives – plus were powerful symbols of the Trudeaupian State and Laurentian Thesis. Closing the gun registry ended a wasteful diversion of law enforcement resources that mainly harassed law-abiding individuals. The Wheat Board’s reform crowned a 30-year battle that had included grubby instances of farmers being hauled to prison for selling the product of their labour. Eradicating rather than merely scaling back these organizations makes it much more difficult and costly for a Liberal or NDP successor to reinstate them. More important, it demonstrates to the next Conservative prime minister that it’s both possible and politically profitable to demolish an entrenched bureaucracy.

Stephen Harper’s most important legacy is not a policy or a law, however, but an act, seemingly obvious yet little remarked-upon: demonstrating that a prime minister drawn from the West can succeed without qualification. In this, Harper moved far beyond R.B. Bennett, who is universally considered a failure; John Diefenbaker, whose career arc went from meteoric success to the suspicion that he was slightly deranged; and Joe Clark, a comprehensive failure on every level: ideological, partisan, organizational, parliamentary and governing. Harper took the wreckage left over from Clark, buried it and began anew. He proved not only that a conservative westerner could become prime minister, but that he could begin as opposition leader, govern successfully with a minority while gaining popularity sufficient to win a majority.

Harper is, quite simply, a political giant, and one hopes his record will end the Conservative Party’s historical practise of turning to a Westerner only every 30 or so years. His individual policies can be undone by the ideologically opposed or the merely careless. But Harper’s distinct political philosophy, his reorganization of the Conservative Party and his successful electoral and governing formulas are a blueprint for his successors and gifts for the ages.

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