He came to power as an outsider from Calgary determined to knock down the eastern establishment and make conservatism a powerful force in Canada.
A decade later, Stephen Harper leaves office with only some of his objectives achieved and with a mixed record of actions that sometimes ran counter to his principles and promises.
“We can create a country built on solid Conservative values, not on expensive Liberal promises – a country the Liberals wouldn’t even recognize,” he told the 2004 party leadership convention that he won.
He believed Liberals had grown smug in power, and that taxes should be cut and the size of government reduced.
He felt a lax justice system treated criminals with kid gloves. He thought Canada’s military tradition from a past century had fallen victim to a distorted faith in the United Nations.
Politically, he was driven by three motives: Shape the Conservative party into a permanently strong force; devastate, if not kill, the Liberal party; and create a polarized system in which voters choose clearly between conservatives and socialists.
Three election victories later, his changes to Canada are noticeable.
Taxes are lower. Pity the politician who contemplates raising the GST. It won’t happen anytime soon.
Convicted criminals are spending more time in jail thanks to Harper’s law-and-order agenda (although the courts, to his seething dismay, are putting limits on those laws).
Canada’s foreign policy has been transformed – rejecting UN-style multilateralism and shunning traditional soft-shoe negotiation in favour of megaphone diplomacy.
But Harper’s dream of vanquishing the Liberals failed miserably. He had once admired prime minister Pierre Trudeau, then despised him. Now, as he exits the stage, he is watching a resurgent Liberal brand under that man’s first-born son, Justin Trudeau.
Over the decade, Canadians witnessed in Harper a leader with a seemingly dual character – accommodating at times, hard-headed at others.
It was called incrementalism. And it was most evident in the six years when he was restrained by his minority in Parliament.
Fellow Conservative MP James Rajotte recalled how Harper quietly told caucus in opposition not to expect a radical Conservative agenda overnight.
He equated the government to a “big ship,” said Rajotte.
“If you form government, you just want to change the direction a little bit,” he recalled Harper saying. “Because the longer you’re on that changed direction, you’re obviously much further from where you’d be and people haven’t noticed that much.”
But people did notice the shift. They also noticed the inconsistencies. For instance:
– Harper promised accountability, yet led an extraordinarily secretive government. Over time, the Prime Minister’s Office tightened the leash on the release of information. Ministers spoke on script; their frightened aides dared not speak to journalists on the phone. Scraps of information were released through emails and Twitter.
– A new era of “open federalism” was pledged, but the premiers were generally overlooked as partners in Confederation. The era of First Ministers’ Conferences to discuss national issues became a distant memory.
– Harper had promised to never appoint an unelected Conservative to the Senate. He broke that promise on his first day in office, sending Michael Fortier to the upper chamber. He made 58 other Senate appointments, including his former election campaign manager, his press secretary, the party’s top fundraiser and, as he would later regret, broadcaster Mike Duffy.
– He said he would never give special status to Quebec. Yet he introduced and passed a motion in Parliament declaring the “Quebecois” to be a “nation within a united Canada.”
– Harper promised to end the Liberals’ culture of entitlement, yet his office and cabinet ministers moved to scuttle questions or stifle dissent wherever it was found, whether among MPs, journalists, the parliamentary budget officer, government scientists, or even, some argued, charities that raised concerns.
– He said there would be a principled conservative approach to fiscal prudence, but when the recession struck and his minority government was threatened with political defeat, his survival instincts prevailed. To avoid being crushed by a Liberal-NDP coalition in 2008, he prorogued Parliament, then spent billions on economic stimulus and an auto-sector bailout that created a massive deficit.
– Harper promised to stand up for human rights globally and not bow down to the “almighty dollar,” yet he ultimately went to China on bended knee to talk trade, despite that country’s questionable human rights record.
– Although he identified the construction of oil pipelines as an overriding national priority, Harper publicly treated U.S. President Barack Obama with contempt for failing to realize the Keystone XL project he was holding up was a “no-brainer.” The insult, uttered on U.S. soil, did nothing to warm Canadian-American relations.
Harper did have consistent views in other areas.
His heart was never in grandiose climate change initiatives. He always thought Canada, with its resource-based economy, was being asked to share too much of the international load to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while other nations sat on the sidelines.
In foreign affairs, he picked friends (Israel and Ukraine) and publicly scorned enemies (Russia and Iran). Critics complained the pro-Israeli stance cost Canada a seat on the UN Security Council and diminished our influence in the Middle East. But Harper disagreed, and never wavered in his defence of Israel.
Before his political luck ran out this fall, Harper was still adopting a hard line on issues of culture and security – keeping tough security screening for potential Syrian refugees, insisting that Muslim women remove their niqabs at citizenship ceremonies, and declaring it was only natural that dual citizens convicted of terrorism be stripped of their Canadian citizenship.
His political opponents accused him of fear-mongering. He didn’t care. He insisted he was in sync with most Canadians, just not the “elites” who disagreed with him.
From his early years growing up in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke, Harper was hard to know. He was highly intelligent but introverted — qualities that stayed with him when he moved to Alberta and became involved in the Reform party. But he had deep convictions.
When he attended the party’s founding convention in Winnipeg in October 1987, at age 28, he delivered a speech that blasted the National Energy Policy that benefited central Canada; a “welfare state” that had “taken its logic to a modern extreme”; and a “Quebec question” in which the province was given “special treatment.”
“It is time for Canada’s federal government to significantly reduce its size and to decentralize power from bureaucrats to ordinary Canadians and from Ottawa to the regions,” he said at the time. He was, at his core, distrustful of government.
On Nov. 8, 2005, three weeks before the start of the election campaign that he won, Harper outlined his goals in a speech in Toronto.
“I think we all have more respect for those citizens who run for office to change politics, not to have politics change them,” he said. “And that is how I want to treat my time in public office. I am in Ottawa to do a job, not to join a club, not to buy into a lifestyle.
“When my political career is over, I want to leave knowing that future governments will have to be more honest, more ethical, and more accountable.”
Brooke Jeffrey, a former policy adviser to Liberal leaders who is now a political science professor at Concordia University, believes Harper came to power in 2006 intent on changing Canada.
“His Canada would be one that saw citizens rely more on themselves and less on government, a country of free enterprise, where anyone could become wealthy,” she writes in her book, Dismantling Canada.
“It would be a country with a strong moral compass, embracing a deep-seated commitment to family values, an appreciation of the importance of tradition, and a renewed respect for law and order.”
As he walked out of Rideau Hall on Feb. 6, 2006, just minutes after being sworn in as prime minister, Harper pledged to fulfil the central promise from his campaign platform — to replace a “culture of entitlement and corruption” with a “culture of accountability.”
Ironically, a decade later, Harper’s rivals attacked him with the same political charges he had successfully hurled at the Liberals.
A hard-hitting NDP ad, entitled “Enough,” featured a string of former and current Conservative politicians and operatives (including Sen. Mike Duffy) who had been charged, were under police investigation, or had their expenses reviewed since 2006.
It ended with a stinging video image of former Conservative MP and party ethics spokesman Dean Del Mastro being led to a police wagon in handcuffs and shackles.
John Weissenberger, a Calgary geologist who has been a close friend of Harper for 30 years, defended Harper in a 2013 interview when the prime minister’s principles were being questioned after years of compromises on fiscal prudence and Senate appointments that he had pledged he would never make.
Weissenberger said Harper never strayed from his deeply rooted convictions and only ever tried to accomplish his objectives in a world where compromise is necessary.
“He is basically a small-government conservative – free enterprise, free markets, personal freedom.
“It’s easy to be in your ivory tower and talk about your high-minded principles of what you might do if you’re in a given situation.
“It’s critical that you have strong beliefs and values. But the real world is the real world. You have to deal with real people.”
Weissenberger believes Harper struck the right balance.
“He is an extremely scrupulous, ethical person in his own personal behaviour, and expects that of everyone who is around him. Whether they live up to that is another question.”
Opponents weren’t persuaded.
“He certainly lost the principle,” said Liberal Ralph Goodale, who watched Harper across the aisle in the House of Commons from his early years as a Reform MP.
“I don’t know what caused him to do that. But he, I think, has become very expedient. Very unprincipled, and purely partisan.”
The NDP’s Tom Mulcair said that once Harper achieved power, he became just like the politicians he used to attack.
“He was able (in opposition) to tap into and channel a lot of the anger he felt in society about the shortcomings of previous governments. And sometimes his criticisms were spot on and they were withering. But at some point he just shut that out.”
Harper’s inner circle described a hard-working, highly intelligent man with little personal ego and more personal compassion than many ever realized.
However, in the end, for many it wasn’t just Harper’s policies that turned them off — it was how he governed. They saw a cold, secretive prime minister who lacked a heart.
Harper had become a polarizing figure long before the groundswell grew large enough to defeat his Conservative government this week.
Conservative supporters didn’t necessarily love him (he didn’t care if they did), but they did respect him for reflecting the values they wanted in a prime minister.
For them, he was the man who promised to keep government out of their lives, speak truth to international tyrants like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and not fall prey to pressure from those who wanted him to open the welcome mat to Syrian refugees, lest some of them be terrorists.
Moreover, dyed-in-the-wool conservatives also recognized Harper’s greatest political accomplishment. He had united the country’s right-wing parties in 2003 into a single entity. No longer would the remnants of the Reform party compete with Progressive Conservatives, leaving a clear field open for the Liberals to win easy majorities — as Jean Chrétien did three times.
But as with Chrétien before him, Harper found that voters can grow increasingly tired of any prime minister who approaches a decade in power.
And some Canadians’ fatigue with Harper steadily became tinged with something more visceral: hatred. For them, Harper had turned Canada into a place they no longer recognized. It was less compassionate. It was meaner.
Harper had a quick answer for those who said he was too controlling.
“I’ve only ever heard two criticisms of prime ministers,” he told the Citizen in a 2011 interview.
“They’re either too controlling or they’re not in control. Prime ministers who aren’t in control don’t last very long.”
Harper governed relatively cautiously in his first two mandates. He brought the permanent campaign to Canadian politics — elbows-up partisanship, practised 24/7. But he was constrained by the minority Parliament that forced him to sometimes make legislative concessions to the opposition.
When he won a majority in 2011, he promised to act in the interests of all Canadians, including those who didn’t vote for him.
But the end of that year, he was signalling he’d use his political clout while he had it — even if it went beyond his mandate.
“I’ve seen too many majority governments (where) bureaucracy talks them into going to sleep for three years and then they all of a sudden realize they’re close to an election.”
Indeed, Harper moved swiftly and his actions were controversial.
Canadians were told that, starting in 2023, seniors would have to wait two extra years, until age 67, before they received their Old Age Security cheque.
Massive omnibus bills that made fundamental changes to policies from different departments were rammed through Parliament.
Legislation to change the electoral system was introduced, and critics complained it disenfranchised some voters and benefited the Conservatives.
After the Supreme Court struck down the prostitution law, the Tories replaced it with another one to criminalize the purchase of sex from prostitutes.
And after a gunman shocked the country with an attack in the halls of Parliament, Harper responded with Bill C-51 – a controversial law that gave new powers to police and security agencies, and raised fears about violations of Charter rights.
Jeffrey writes that Harper’s ultimate goal in government was to turn Canada into a “beacon of hope for conservatives in the increasingly dark liberal world of ‘moral nihilism.’
“In the process, Canadians would come to see Harper’s Conservative party as the natural governing party, replacing the Liberals, who were the authors of this moral ambivalence.”
It worked for three elections, as Harper stitched together a base of niche voters – seniors eyeing their pensions, parents with kids in fitness activities, first-time homebuyers, truckers facing high diesel costs – who he appealed to with a variety of boutique tax breaks.
But he never replaced the Liberals as the natural governing party. And while he humiliated Paul Martin in 2006 and made mincemeat of Stéphane Dion in 2008 and Michael Ignatieff in 2011, Harper faced a more formidable contender in Trudeau this year.
Stability versus risk. That was Harper’s ballot box question this week, just as it had been in 2011. This time, Canadians weren’t buying it.
Nonetheless, Harper will leave politics just as he arrived: Confident in the wisdom of his ways, proud of his unapologetic approach to foreign affairs, and boasting that he has laid a strong economic base of lower taxes and a balanced budget.
He was a fierce partisan unwilling to publicly show the kinder, gentler side of his personal character very often.
He was forever the outsider.