Stephen Harper 3.0?

Posted on April 19, 2011 in Governance Debates

Source: — Authors: – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Mon Apr 18 2011.   By Edward Greenspon, Columnist

Is Stephen Harper getting ready to channel his inner Pierre Trudeau? For five years as prime minister, Harper, lacking sufficient confidence from the people or Parliament of Canada, has been forced to play the role of a modern Mackenzie King, the long-serving prime minister who did only what was necessary, and not necessarily even that, along the way to five election victories.

Appreciating that Canadians are not nearly as conservative as he and his party, he ditched any pretense of an activist agenda in favour of the art of bobbing and weaving. After the 2004 election, a visitor told Harper he would need to reposition himself as less of a right-winger. That’s impossible, said the then-opposition leader, explaining that Canadians understood his political brand too well and that an integral component of that brand was the consistency of his beliefs.

But he was wrong. He has found success by being generally inconsistent in his beliefs, or at least his actions. In the process, he has repressed the right-wing activism that attracted him to politics in the first place and done things (large spending increases, pork-barrelling, stuffing the Senate with party insiders, intervening in all areas of economic activity) that were anathema to Stephen Harper 1.0. The repeated choice of compromise over conscience may help explain his prickliness.

Who knows, perhaps Harper 2.0 is the real Harper now — cautious, middle-right of the road, electable; the firebrand turned minimalist King. Then again, one can still catch glimpses of the old radical Harper, the determined movement conservative with designs on changing Canada. He seeks to reverse the tide of decades of increased control over firearms. He has taken a small step toward rolling back the right of women to choose, at least Third World women accessing Canadian maternal health programs. He has articulated a vision of our armed forces steeped more in the fighting spirit of Vimy than the diplomatic finesse of Suez. He has demonstrated a deep distrust of the judiciary, the public service, built-in checks and balances and the collection of facts.

The last prime minister who set out to change the country was Trudeau. (Brian Mulroney’s free trade agreement was more a product of intelligent opportunism than long-held conviction.) Trudeau was dedicated to the propositions of keeping the state out of the private lives of its citizens, expanding the rights of individuals through a Charter of Rights and Freedoms and making a larger place for the French fact in Canadian institutions. Although veering off course periodically, he stood for strong national government (who will speak for Canada) and equal opportunity for all. Unfortunately, his prime ministership was waylaid by a difficult world economy and his often indifferent or wrong-headed management of the ensuing challenges at home.

In many ways, Harper is the anti-Trudeau. He is far more economically oriented. He is predisposed to provincial prerogatives over central government. He is suspicious of the Charter. He stands for a small state (even while growing it for tactical advantage).

Should he win a majority or what might look like his final minority, the question is whether a Harper 3.0 will rise up — and, if so, to what degree it will consist of an activist program of Canada-building (Arctic development, free trade agreements in Asia etc.) or merely the rolling back of what others put in place before.

Either way, the caution of the first five years can be expected to come under pressure from within. Much has been made of the advantage to the Conservatives of ditching party subsidies. But the policy could produce an unintended consequence, one Harper might come to rue, by placing an even greater premium on highly organized and motivated networks to generate continuous streams of small donations. In other words, the social conservatives in his midst are likely to hold greater sway than they do today.

That, by itself, may do much to flush out Harper’s inner Trudeau.

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