How Harper’s Philosophy Transformed Canada for the Better
The dust has finally settled following the 2015 federal election. A new government has been sworn in. Outgoing Parliamentarians have departed. A leadership race to select the permanent Official Opposition Leader will soon commence. A Speech from the Throne is expected for early December. Ottawa is gradually returning to post-election normalcy.
Yet, after nearly ten years as Prime Minister and more than twenty-five as a Parliamentarian and conservative thought leader, while Stephen Harper’s presence is missing, his ideas and influence endure. There is no question that Mr. Harper has left a durable mark on the Canadian conservative movement and federal public policy. As we will argue, he has changed Canada, and for the better.
Stephen Harper became Prime Minister in 2006 with the most developed and clear views about the role of government vis-à-vis the individual, family, and civil society of any Prime Minister since Pierre Elliott Trudeau. He had spent most of his adult life thinking about these issues and setting out his vision in clear and dispassionate speeches and writings over the course of several years. Indeed, one can argue that Mr. Harper was a conservative intellectual and policy thinker first and a politician second.
While his prime ministership involved the common trade-offs that any successful politician must make to grow and retain democratic support, there is no question that, over time, he slowly and methodically carried out his plan to reshape federal policy from the liberal technocratic consensus that had dictated the federal agenda for the previous decades.
It is worth emphasizing this point. Our argument is not that everything Harper did was directed in the first place by his intellectual view of the role of government vis-à-vis civil society. He was, after all, a politician who needed to win, and frequently did what was necessary to win.
Our argument is that Harper had the most well-developed view of government’s role since Pierre Trudeau and that understanding this worldview is critical to understanding his approach to federal politics and policy.
Harper did not seek power for power’s sake. He had a vision for Canada, a vision steeped in Canadian conservative history going back to Sir John A Macdonald, a vision that deeply informed his politics and his actions as Prime Minister.
At its core the intellectual basis of Mr. Harper’s agenda was a fusion of traditional conservatism (or as he often referred to it, Burkean conservatism) and classical liberalism that can be aptly described as “ordered liberty.”
His traditional conservatism was evident in his predisposition to “incrementalism” (a Burkean poise reflecting an epistemological modesty) and his policy agenda which saw a role for government to support key civil society institutions (such as marriage and the family) and socially-beneficial behaviours (such as educational attainment and personal savings), but did so by promoting choice rather than central planning and inflexible bureaucratic programs.
His classical liberalism came through in his relentless, though incremental, reduction in the overall tax burden, his focus on controlling discretionary federal spending, and a preference for incenting individual rather than collective action.
Indeed, Mr. Harper shifted the so-called “goal posts” of federal policy the furthest in modern Canadian political history and has created a solid intellectual foundation of ordered liberty from which future Conservative leaders can build.
This essay will contextualize Stephen Harper’s governing record in his ordered liberty philosophy as articulated over the course of his time in public life. It will draw from his speeches and writings to show his well-developed and clear conservative worldview on a range of subjects, including tax and fiscal policy, social policy, criminal justice, federalism, and restoring the country’s historical consciousness.
We will then show how Mr. Harper’s amalgam of traditional conservatism and classical liberalism came to be seen not just as a coherent intellectual framework but also as a basis for building a robust political coalition. His invocation of social conservatism, in particular, was part of a deliberate effort to build the movement’s political appeal and expand its network of supporters, activists, and ultimately voters.
We will then provide a case study of his key achievements over the course of his nearly ten years in office and the extent to which they complied with the ordered liberty worldview that he set out before becoming Prime Minister.
The paper will then conclude that future conservative leaders must draw from Mr. Harper’s worldview and policy record to achieve or match his level of success. It will argue that his conservative vision of a constructive, yet limited, state that supports key mediating institutions such as the family is not only the right political agenda for the Conservative Party, but the best policy programme for the country
II. Harper’s Philosophy
He would be flexible in method – surprisingly, almost maddeningly so at times – but he would never lose sight of the long game, which was to transform Canada, if it would let him, into a profoundly different place.
Paul Wells, Right Side Up (5).
This essay makes the case that Wells was exactly right, though we would argue that Harper transformed Canada into a profoundly “better” place. And we go deeper, arguing that he was motivated by a deeply Canadian conception of “ordered liberty” by which we mean an intellectual fusion of traditional conservatism and classical liberalism that finds a historical antecedent in Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald.
This section traces the development of Harper’s conception of ordered liberty. His vision of conservatism was not formed following his election as Prime Minister in 2006. It has deep roots. We start with his early-life experiences including his transformational move from Toronto to Alberta that produced in him a deep antipathy to Pierre Elliot Trudeau and the prevailing views of the Liberal elite. This aversion ultimately drove him to Ottawa with Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government in the hopes of unwinding what he saw wrong with the previous Liberal regime. His subsequent disillusionment with Prime Minister Mulroney and the Progressive Conservative Party caused him to retreat to university to pursue training in economics, but also resulted in a parallel personal pursuit of reading the classics and discovering classical thinkers.
As his studies drew to a close he was attracted to Preston Manning and the Reform Party and was drawn into the creation and evolution of the party and eventually to stand for election and sit as a Member of Parliament from 1993 to 1997. His ongoing disillusionment with Manning’s populism led him to revive his thinking about what a “Taxpayers’ Party” ought to comprise and represent. But his time with the Reform Party also demonstrated to him that social conservatives should and would be a critical part of any future conservative coalition. Following his departure from public office in 1997, he spent more time thinking about how to construct a lasting winning political coalition that fused the various elements of his intellectual thinking. The best and earliest¾though far from the final¾expression of this fusion was a speech he gave to Civitas in 2003. It is not an exaggeration to say that that speech formed the intellectual foundation for his ten years as Prime Minister.
That intellectual foundation is what we¾and indeed, he¾would call “ordered liberty.” It is a fusion of traditional conservatism and classical liberalism. It is a deeply Canadian concept that finds its roots in Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald.
II.II Early Political Experiences
Stephen Harper grew up in the Leaside neighbourhood of Toronto. And since in Canada how you vote is quite often best determined by where you live, it is not entirely surprising that, to the extent he paid attention to politics as a youth, Harper was intrigued by Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s leadership and governing philosophy. He was even a member of the Young Liberals Club at his high school, Richview Collegiate Institute. William Johnson in Stephen Harper and the Future of Canada (19) suggests that Harper’s admiration for Trudeau stemmed from the latter’s fight with secessionists in Quebec, though that may be a retrospective reading as, at least in this respect, Harper’s admiration for Trudeau continued into his later years.
As he later wrote, Harper had an opportunity to have lunch with Trudeau in 1977 but “sudden and unexpected circumstances did not permit it to happen.” And while it may be interesting to wonder what might have been had the young Harper actually had that lunch with the then-Prime Minister, there is no denying the oversized impact that Trudeau had on his intellectual and political development¾Harper himself called Trudeau “a living legend, someone who had provoked both the loves and the hatreds of my political passions.” It is hard to imagine stronger words.
The biggest impact Trudeau had on Harper’s intellectual development occurred following Harper’s family move to Alberta. It was during this period that the Trudeau government launched its National Energy Program (NEP) to expand federal control over the energy sector. Harper witnessed first-hand the negative consequences of this centralizing market intervention. As he recalled in an essay following Trudeau’s death in 2000:
By the time Mr. Trudeau embarked on the National Energy Program, I was living in the West. I witnessed first-hand the movement of an economy from historic boom to deep recession in a matter of months. A radical, interventionist blueprint of economic nationalism, the NEP caused the oil industry to flee, businesses to close, and the real-estate market to crash. The lives of honest, hard-working Albertans were upended, and I came to know many of those who lost their jobs and their homes[…].
This experience left a lasting impression on Mr. Harper. Shortly after the imposition of the NEP, Harper enrolled at the University of Calgary to study economics. As he wrote in that same article, “In 1977, economics and finance didn’t much matter to me. Beginning with the NEP Mr. Trudeau would show me that they did matter[…].” In short, the NEP drove the young Harper to study economics.
It was during his student years that Harper abandoned his early Liberal allegiances and threw himself into organizing for the Progressive Conservative Party’s Jim Hawkes in the lead-up to the 1984 election, which ultimately saw the Progressive Conservatives assume political power from the Liberals. During the campaign, Mulroney’s message of economic and fiscal reform¾including reversing the NEP¾appealed to Harper’s burgeoning conservatism.
When the Tories were elected in September 1984, Harper had one more year of study to complete his economics degree. The first year of the Mulroney government was a buoyant one for Conservatives (and conservatives). They undid some of the big-government excesses of the Trudeau era and were riding high in opinion polls. Public optimism was up.
Harper watched all this and wanted to be a greater part of it. So when he completed his degree he agreed to come to Ottawa to work for Hawkes. He would take his economic learning and his animus towards Trudeau’s brand of liberalism to Ottawa and help the country chart a better course.
But it was not to be. While Brian Mulroney’s government was more market-oriented than its predecessor, its willingness to put political considerations ahead of market or economic considerations soon disillusioned him.
As Hawkes later said:
I think with Stephen, at that age, you had to look at an economic textbook, and in particular at the school of thought favourable to free enterprise. The rules or the findings related to the development of a free enterprise economy were the ideas he held dearest… that’s the way he looked at the world[…]. (qtd. in Johnson 36).
Harper’s reaction to the NEP and his economics training had pushed him towards the ideas of classical liberalism: open markets, free trade, and minimal government. He was hopeful that the Mulroney government would enact major free-market reforms. Hawkes was given responsibility to review the unemployment insurance program, and Harper plunged in. He came to believe that the necessary reforms to a program that essentially paid a large number of Canadians not to work were self-evident. As Hawkes has said, “He felt there should be clear-cut answers to problems. You should implement the best economic decision, and then it would work over time” (Ibid.).
But as the Mulroney government worked to find consensus on these things, the ideas Harper held dearest were frequently not the over-riding concern. “That whole experience, I think, disillusioned him,” Hawkes recalled. “So he left my office, I think, totally committed to pursuing a Ph.D. and teaching in a university as his primary career” (Ibid.).
It would not be the first time Harper left active politics to hone his thinking.
II.III Intellectual Interregnum
Harper’s intellectual development at this point proceeded down two parallel tracks. On the one track were his graduate studies in economics with some of Canada’s foremost small-c conservative thinkers including Robert Mansell and Frank Atkins. His master’s thesis, entitled “The political business cycle and fiscal policy in Canada,” would blend his background in government and study of economics. The abstract starts and concludes as follows:
This thesis investigates the premise that Keynesian fiscal policy is subject to the influence of political parameters that lessen the influence its effectiveness as a stabilization tool. The premise is founded upon the assumption that policymakers are motived by political goals, rather than the social optima assumed by traditional macroeconomic policy prescriptions[…]. Countercyclical and electoral elements emerge as the most important factors in explaining fiscal policy. While the electoral factor represents a major constraint upon the practice of appropriate fiscal policy, the results tend not to support the premise of deliberate electoral engineering predicted by the theory.
In short, the multivariate analysis showed that electoral cycles in fact mattered, but not always in ways Harper had expected.
Harper’s frustration with politics, including his experience with Hawkes, is highlighted by this thesis. Harper’s time in Ottawa had been punctuated by disappointment in the tendency of politicians to compromise on matters of principles or to manipulate policy for political ends. He believed that there was¾or there ought to be¾a proper functioning of fiscal policy that could be dictated by theory and rationality. But politics and political actors frustrate this theoretical abstraction. He had seen it up close, and now his research backed it up.
One professor that had an oversized influence on Harper during this intellectual interregnum was Robert Mansell. As his biographer Johnson put it:
Mansell had a concern that was close to Harper’s heart, from his aborted experience working with Jim Hawkes on the reform of unemployment insurance. Mansell was convinced that the programs that transferred wealth to the poorer provinces were so constructed that they had the perverse effect of maintaining poverty and dependency rather than creating prosperity (60).
The idea that even well meaning government programs created disincentives or unintended consequences was an important part of the classical liberal tool kit. The dominance of unintended consequences should make one suspicious of large, sweeping and overarching government programs, to prefer incremental to radical change, and to favour less government to more.
In the acknowledgements section of his thesis paper, Harper makes it clear that his studies were not always his top priority. He writes that Frank Atkins, his supervisor, “went to considerable pains to keep on track a difficult student who frequently had other pressing priorities.”
Among those competing priorities was the second of the parallel tracks: a serious study of the classics of political economy and Harper’s increasing embrace of classical thought. The two tracks overlapped in a course on the history of philosophy that introduced him to the works of the great philosophers. But this was also a personal pursuit, a road travelled with his friend doing a Ph.D. in geology, John Weissenberger. The two of them began to read, talk about, and study thinkers such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Friedrich Hayek, David Hume, Edmond Burke, and Jeremy Bentham.
According to one biography, Harper and Weissenberger “pored over the 1944 classic work of Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, The Road To Serfdom […] reflecting on the Canadian economy in the 1980s, what Hayek had written made sense” (Johnson 46). They also studied Thatcher and Reagan¾both influenced by the thinking of Hayek¾and wondered why similar a conservative ascendancy had not occurred in Canada.
If you think this is fanciful post-hoc reconstruction of history, recall that it was this same drive that had Stephen Harper write a pre-history of the NHL while serving as Prime Minister. Stephen Harper is someone who, intellectually at least, can walk and chew gum. Indeed, he was deeply engaged in an intellectual inquiry at this time that would shape his own thinking about how the world works and how the conservative movement needed to present itself and its solutions to Canadians.
Tom Flanagan, a larger than life influence on Harper in subsequent years, also reports a Hayekian epiphany on his own intellectual development:
Like many people of an academic bent, I went through various phases of political belief when I was young. I thought of myself as a conservative, liberal and social democrat at different times in my twenties and early thirties, until I encountered the works of Friedrich Hayek in 1977. Reading The Constitution of Liberty and later the three volumes of Law, Legislation and Liberty convinced me that Hayek was fundamentally right about his central concept of spontaneous order (Flanagan, Harper’s Team 1).
In fact, if there was one thing that united many of Harper’s key advisors over the years, it was a fondness for Hayek. Though it is fair to say that his advisors typically held those beliefs tighter and closer than Harper did himself. Harper’s ideologies got tempered with time and experience as Prime Minister, not to mention the pressures of politics that require one to shave off some of those harder edges.
Most folks with a passing familiarity with Hayek tend to focus on his writings about the threat posed by scientific socialism to liberty. His famous essay entitled “Why I am not a Conservative” has led some to assume that Hayek was hostile to conservatism and thus an unlikely intellectual inspiration for a future conservative leader. But Flanagan and others have made a cogent argument that Hayekian thought is not hostile to traditional conservative conceptions of “prejudice” and gradual change and indeed shares in Burke’s predisposition to organic, spontaneous order and unwritten social rules. As Flanagan has written:
A less widely recognized aspect of Hayek’s thought is his moral traditionalism. He saw the spontaneous order of society as a filter for separating the beneficial individual innovations out of what John Stuart Mill called the “experiment of living” that all of us conduct. The results of this testing process are embodied in habits, traditions, customs, and conventions that can be followed without being rationally articulated (Harper’s Team 2).
Thus Hayek brought together the two strands of modern conservatism, what Flanagan calls “economic or fiscal conservatism, and social or moral conservatism.” Indeed, a nuanced reading of Hayek showed the potential for congruity between the classical liberal and traditional conservative intellectual traditions that is worth briefly discussing to better understand Harper’s journey to a conception of ordered liberty.
Classical liberalism emerged in reaction to the collapse of feudalism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was a worldview that rejected hereditary privilege and, in its place, set out a vision of natural rights and an emphasis on individual freedom in social, political, and economic life. The corollary was a vision of a limited, representative government bound by the rule of law and justice that sought to maximize freedom in all spheres, including the marketplace. Classical liberals believe that wealth is best created by the mutual cooperation of individuals through the spontaneous order of the free-market economy and that property, trade, and markets are the foundations of economic dynamism. This primacy placed on the individual and the presumption of freedom are its central principles.
Traditional conservatism also developed in the eighteenth century in response to the English Civil War and the French Revolution. It differed from classical liberalism in a number of important ways. Conservatism starts from the premise of a transcendental and enduring moral order that takes for granted that human nature is constant and there are permanent moral truths. Or as its primary proponent stated, “the principles of true politics are those of morality enlarged.” This means that virtue outweighs freedom as an animating principle and individuals are situated in a much larger human experience for which they represent a small and insignificant part. Similarly conservatives emphasize the importance of traditions and customs¾representing collective wisdom developed and tested over time¾to shape our inherited institutions and cultural norms. Or as Burke argued, “A disposition to preserve and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman.”
This gratitude for what we have inherited is reflected in an epistemological modesty and the “principle of prescription” whereby rights were granted in an evolutionary process over time rather than through a prepolitical process apprehended through the exercise of abstract reasoning. As Burke said, “power to be legitimate must be according to that eternal, immutable law, in which will and reason are the same.”
Conservatives share the classical liberals’ emphasis on private property as a bulwark against state coercion but do not place the same primacy on individualism or market economics. Instead conservatism values subsidiarity and the attachment to one’s family, community, and civil society. The preoccupation with order and virtue and a skepticism of the implicit benefits of progress are the key characteristics of traditional conservatism.
Hayek’s work in the twentieth century provided some basis for an intellectual consensus between the two schools of thought, particularly in the North American context. Hayek shared much of Burke’s worldview regarding the nature of society, the role of reason in human affairs, the proper role of government, and, to a certain extent, the nature of moral and legal rules. Yet he refused to self-designate as a conservative because conservatism was largely concerned with conserving the status quo and he wanted to change it in the direction of greater freedom. This formulation was appropriate for much of continental Europe where the inherited wisdom was largely illiberal. But North America is different. The inherited tradition is liberalism and, so for conservatives, the goal has been to protect and cultivate our classical liberal foundation. Hayek recognized that this reality differentiated North American conservatism and created common ground between classical liberals and conservatives.
Another model for amalgamating classical liberal and conservative thought was the fusionist school in modern American conservatism. By mid-twentieth century, classical liberals and traditional conservatives in the United States were engaged in deep and often detonative philosophical debates about first principles. These intellectual disputes¾often centered on the tension between freedom and order and liberty and virtue¾were fundamental to the movement’s coherence and ultimately its political success. As William F. Buckley Jr. once wrote: “the conservative movement in America has got to put its theoretical house in order.”
Fusionism became the intellectual glue that held classical liberalism and traditional conservatism together. The basic premise was that highest societal goal ought to be virtue, but true virtue could only be rooted in individualistic acts absent state coercion. Otherwise virtue became the prerogative of the state and susceptible to the shifting sands of technocracy. It was based on the concept that conditions for genuine virtue could only be founded in a political culture that respected and protected individualism. Freedom and tradition were thus not competing tensions, but rather the basis from which a modern liberal society would prosper and benefit from the voluntary exchange of resources and ideas. Virtue could only reside in the individual. The state ought to protect personal freedom, but otherwise leave virtue up to the individual, families, communities, and civic and religious organizations. Fusionism became a powerful converging idea that intellectualized modern American conservatism and brought the warring factions into a strong political coalition.
Harper may not have articulated a similar vision in the mid-1990s, but he had¾with the help of Weissenberger, Atkins and Mansell¾acquired all the intellectual tools to do so. Indeed, Flanagan had already begun to set out the prospects for a Canadian fusionist experience. As he wrote, these two groups ought to come together, if for nothing else, than to fight a “common enemy – the hypertrophic welfare state, dominated by a soi-disant progressive elite, that wishes to remake society according to its own rationalistic vision”. This so-called progressive elite would come to be documented in different works of Canadian history and political science. Historian Jack Granatstein called them “The Ottawa Men.” Doug Owram described them as “The Government Generation.” Most recently, Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson categorized their thinking as the “Laurentian Consensus.”
Or as Harper preferred: the Liberal elites who had dominated Canadian political life for much of the twentieth century. And he was about to embark on a path for which a central goal was to build a political movement and party that would upset that hegemony in the twenty-first century.
For it was not just intellectual pursuits that made Harper a “difficult student who frequently had other pressing priorities.” He was beginning to display a unique capacity to situate himself in the world of ideas and the political arena.
II.IV Back to Politics
Another fan of Robert Mansell’s work was Preston Manning. And in addition to visiting the University of Calgary to talk with Mansell and his students during the mid-1980s, Manning was also contemplating what he called a Western Assembly on Canada’s Economic and Political Future planned for May 1987. In Manning’s own words:
The common issue that brought us together was a feeling of being left out of our own country. We felt that the West’s constitutional concerns were never given the same priority by the national government as those of Quebec. Nor were the West’s economic aspirations ever given the same priority as those of southern Ontario. We believed the solution lay not in mere protest or threats of separation, but in developing a short list of constructive changes, that is, reforms, to the Canadian federal system and finding an appropriate political vehicle to promote that list in the federal political arena (Manning, The New Canada i).
Mansell was among those who Manning wanted at the Assembly, but he had other commitments and suggested that Harper attend as his replacement. By that time the two men had gotten to know and respect each other through their mutual interactions with Mansell.
Harper was not part of the original Reform Association and so went to Vancouver as an observer. He brought with him an essay written with his friend John Weissenberger called “Political Reform and the Taxpayer.” In essence, it was an argument for a “Taxpayers’ Party” built on primarily classical liberal principles. It would be “a genuine conservative option […] which would represent the public interest of the taxpayer […] against the expenditure demands of special interest groups” (Qtd. in Flanagan, Wave 6).
The primary outcome of the Western Assembly was to plan a founding convention for a new political party¾The Reform Party¾in Winnipeg in October 1987. Manning was suitably impressed with Harper that he gave him a key speaking role at the founding assembly.
Harper wrote a speech for the Winnipeg Convention entitled “Achieving Economic Justice in Confederation.” In that speech he tried to fuse two subjects: the sense of western grievance that was at the core of the Vancouver Assembly, and his own ideas for creating a “Taxpayers’ Party.” As part of the latter he said that the welfare state was not a “sacred trust” as Mulroney had been saying, but rather “the taxpayers’ burden.” As Flanagan wrote:
Harper’s speech was a significant step towards creating a conservative western party, rather than the non-ideological party that Manning had said he wanted; yet Manning was quite taken with the speech, and he appointed Harper chief policy officer (Wave 7).
Harper was twenty-eight years old.
But right from the outset, there was a critically important intellectual tension between the leader and his chief policy officer. Manning wanted a populist regional party that would evolve, eventually, into a populist party with national reach. All that was needed, in Flanagan’s words, was to wait for a populist wave that would carry the party to power. And if that did not happen within thirteen years, the experiment would be abandoned – as a result of a party sunset clause which Manning set for November 1, 2000.
“Steve Harper” ran for the Reform Party in Calgary West against his former boss Jim Hawkes in 1988. He lost by a wide margin and the party won no seats. But 1989 was a heady year for the Reform Party, seeing its first MP elected, Deborah Grey in March and its first Senator, Stan Waters, in November.
This “success” caused much introspection in the party and brought Harper and Manning’s disagreement over direction of the party out into the open. It is worth quoting Flanagan at length on this disagreement because it cast significant light on the trajectory of Harper’s political thought:
Both Preston Manning and Stephen Harper believed some change was necessary, but their views were very different, and the difference between them illustrates the internal tension between populism and conservatism that has marked the party’s history. In March 1989, Harper sent Manning a memo containing a root-and-branch critique of what he saw as Manning’s strategy, namely “that the Party should emphasize its geographic nature while downplaying its ideological content.”
As an alternative Harper proposed that the Reform Party could and should become “a modern Canadian version of the Thatcher-Reagan phenomenon.” It should seek its core supporters in the private-sector middle class of Canada’s urban areas, offering these voters a market-oriented ideology. Building on that economic base, it “should tailor its broader, ‘social’ agenda to gain a sizeable chunk of the urban working class and rural sector ‘swing’ vote without alienating its urban private sector middle-class ‘core.’ The key is to emphasize moderate conservative social values consistent with the traditional family, the market economy and patriotism.”
Directly challenging Manning’s belief in the obsolescence of ideology, Harper argued: “The Reform Party must continue to be moderate in tone, but it is pointless to attempt to avoid the ‘Right’ label. Instead, the Party should shape the term and stress what it wants the term to mean, i.e. the ‘Economic Right,’ ‘Moderate Right,’ ‘Principled Right’” (Wave 14-15).
What is significant about this is Harper’s fusion for the first time of social and economic conservatism in the context of building a political coalition of the right. Harper was moving beyond the more pure classical liberal conception of a “Taxpayers’ Party” to a more robust and larger coalition of traditional conservatives and classical liberals. It is the beginning of Harper’s development of a philosophy of ordered liberty.
It is a concept with a rich Canadian history.
III.V Ordered Liberty and Sir John A. Macdonald
Ordered liberty finds its roots in the British constitution and was the animating idea behind Sir John A. Macdonald’s political career, ultimately helping to shape the British North America Act. It is often forgotten that Canada’s founding political party was called the Liberal-Conservative Party. Macdonald’s early political vehicle was not just a coalition of moderate Reformers and Conservatives from Canada West and bleus from Canada East, but rather an intellectual union of conservatism and liberalism. And Macdonald, himself, came to personify this powerful synthesis of ideas.
Of course, Macdonald was the consummate politician. He was a nation builder who understood that compromise was integral to knitting together Canada’s vast geography and diverse population. But to assert, as some political scientists have, that he was devoid of first principles belies a more sophisticated reading of his intellectual and political sensibilities and the wellspring from which they sprung. He was hardly insulated from the rich political debates taking place in Europe and America. He borrowed from the liberal and conservative traditions and came to subscribe to a set of ideas that can best be described as “liberal-conservatism,” or what modern American conservatives call “fusionism.”
Macdonald’s liberalism was evident in his support for individual liberty and minority rights and his promotion of economic development and national progress. His support for French language and Catholic minority rights are well documented. Macdonald’s bicultural alliance with George-Etienne Cartier was more than just a political marriage of convenience. It reflected a commitment to the basic principle that individuals ought to be able to maintain their culture and worship according to their own beliefs. This is one of the reasons that University of Calgary scholar, Tim Anderson, has argued, “philosophically, Macdonald was a liberal.”
He also subscribed to liberalism’s predisposition to economic and social development and national progress. Macdonald’s nation-building experiment was, as one biographer has put it, “at its core an absurdly romantic project” (Richard Gwyn, Sir John A. 294). It required a large-scale ambition to achieve political reconciliation, populate the growing country, and promote economic opportunity. And Macdonald’s programme to see his vision come to fruition mostly reflected a classical liberal poise. The prevailing assumption was that government should be “unobtrusive and cheap” and economic individualism and private enterprise should be the primary sources of market decision-making and economic activity. His government was prepared to invest in public infrastructure to facilitate transportation and trade, but these interventions were about supporting the market economy rather than supplanting it. Macdonald’s abiding faith in markets and progress were signs of underlying liberalism. But his liberalism was tempered by conservatism.
There is no doubt that Macdonald had significant conservative sensibilities. Conservatism was the dominant ideology throughout most of Upper Canada during his formative years, and, for Macdonald, it can be argued, it was as a much a general weltanschauung as it was a practical programme of political ideas. The intellectual outcome was a liberalism suffused by conservatism that was concerned with, what one Macdonald scholar has called, “a virtuous and ordered liberty” (Rod Preece, “The Political Wisdom of Sir John A. Macdonald” 471).
Its implications for Macdonald’s political ideology and the Conservative Party can be seen in much of his political vision and record, including his critique of American frontier democracy. In general terms, his conservatism stood opposed to the egalitarian excesses of the Jacksonian experiment in the United States. He favoured, for instance, loyalty to the Crown, had a great respect for law and order, a hostility to the universal franchise, and an abiding skepticism about change as a virtue in its own right.
And, perhaps most importantly, according to Wilfrid Laurier University scholar Rod Preece, he thought that unfettered liberalism needed to be bridled by prudence and order. Liberty without order, Macdonald instinctively believed, “would disturb the integrating regularity of life; it would be mere license masquerading as liberty, destroying virtue, duty, and honour.” At its core, then, this concept of “ordered liberty” reflected the view that individual liberty ought to be pursued¾indeed, only could be pursued¾in a context of familial and social relationships, a legal and moral framework to restrain individual appetites, and common values and precepts that connect individuals and communities. Striking this balance between liberty and order came to shape Macdonald’s own worldview and would ultimately reflect itself in his government’s agenda.
Under Macdonald’s leadership, the Liberal-Conservative Party came to exteriorize his unique blend of liberal-conservatism. It was a successful formula that not only advanced the economic interests of the country, but also furthered the political imperatives of his party. Macdonald’s political views, it has been argued, came to bring expression to the aspirations of the new country. As historian John English put it: “the Conservative Party [became] the political embodiment of the spirit of 1867” (English, The Decline of Politics 331). The party’s diverse coalition of Upper Canada Tories, moderate Reformers, and traditionalist bleus exemplified the broad appeal of his national vision.
It ought to have been a powerful lesson for future Conservative leaders. Few heeded it. Stephen Harper ultimately saw its virtue and came to incorporate it into his political thinking.
II.VI Toward a new Political Party
Following the election of Deborah Grey in 1989, Harper moved back to Ottawa to become her executive assistant and speechwriter. But his increasing conflicts with Manning resulted in his having smaller and smaller roles in the party. A key source of tension was over Manning’s treatment of the 1992 Charlottetown Accord referendum, which Harper strongly opposed, but toward which Manning was lukewarm and his increasingly influential advisor on such matters¾Rick Anderson¾supported.
Harper came close to not running for the Reform Party in 1993 as a result of ongoing disagreement with Manning and his advisors over the direction of the party. Yet his election and the subsequent four years in Ottawa cemented his cerebral and political reputation with not just his colleagues but also with much of establishment Ottawa.
As Wells writes, “all of these characteristics made Harper the first-call Reformer for most Ottawa reporters during the first Jean Chretien government. And when we called, Harper wasn’t stingy with his opinions” (Right Side 8). It was four years of training on how to operate in Ottawa, and he did so across from a master, Jean Chretien. Often, early in his term as leader when confronted with a thorny issue he would ask “What would Chretien do?” as a way to think through the right response.
During this period Harper also led the party’s response to the Quebec referendum, in no small measure because he was one of the few Reformers who could do an interview in French¾yet another intellectual feat for someone born and raised in Leaside who then spent his adult life in Calgary. It was Harper’s approach to Quebec and his authorship of the Quebec Contingency Act in 1996 (Private Members Bill C-341),establishing conditions that would apply to a referendum regarding Quebec separation that became the foundation for Chretien’s Clarity Act of 2000. It was part of a two-pronged approach to address Quebec’s grievances. The other was a reaffirmation of classical federalism whereby all provinces¾including Quebec¾were given more power to enact (primarily) social policy.
But, ultimately, Harper’s disagreement with Manning’s populist direction for the party, led him to leave elected office in 1997 and instead he became the head of the National Citizens Coalition. In that capacity he was free from partisan restraints to comment on politics in Canada and set out his vision for a conservative alternative to the Liberal orthodoxy.
Harper returned to the theme of uniting social and economic conservatives with an essay he wrote with Tom Flanagan for Bill Gairdner’s edited compilation After Liberalism. In it he returns to the tension between “Burkean conservatives and classical liberals” stating that “whatever separated them was less than what united them, namely a preference for small government, open markets, the rule of law and opposition to governmental dirigisme” (Flanagan and Harper, “Conservative Politics in Canada” 175-7).
Harper’s conception of ordered liberty was beginning to take a more defined shape. But it also started to fuse with his ideas of what it would take to create a lasting political coalition. It became more than just a way to intellectually order his thinking but also became the basis for a coalition on which a strong, lasting small-c Conservative party could be constructed.
Its clearest statement came one year after he had won the Canadian Alliance leadership, but before he joined with Peter Mackay to create the Conservative Party of Canada. His private remarks to Civitas in 2003 were his most detailed and thoughtful expression of his emerging governing philosophy involving a fusion of tranditional (or as he called it Burkean) conservatism and classical liberalism. It is worth quoting significant portions of that speech at length with some guiding commentary.
Harper starts by aligning the political act of building a coalition with the intellectual act of constructing a consistent ideology.
What is the “conservative coalition” of ideas? Actually, conservatism and conservative parties, as we’ve known them over the decades, have always been coalitions. Though these coalitions are complex and continually shifting, two distinctive elements have long been identifiable […]. Properly speaking, they are called classical or enlightenment liberalism and classical or Burkean conservatism.
The one called “economic conservatism” does indeed come from classical liberalism. Its primary value is individual freedom, and to that end it stresses private enterprise, free trade, religious toleration, limited government and the rule of law.
The other philosophy is Burkean conservatism. Its primary value is social order. It stresses respect for custom and traditions (religious traditions above all), voluntary association, and personal self-restraint reinforced by moral and legal sanctions on behaviour.
Harper then reaches back to his intellectual interregnum of studying the classics and positions his thinking in intellectual and historical context.
The essence of this conservatism is, according to Russell Kirk “the preservation of the ancient moral traditions of humanity. Conservatives respect the wisdom of their ancestors; they are dubious of wholesale alteration. They think society is a spiritual reality, possessing an eternal life but a delicate constitution: it cannot be scrapped and recast as if it were a machine.”
In the nineteenth century these two political philosophies, classical liberalism and Burkean conservatism, formed the basis for distinct political parties that opposed one another. On the one side was a liberal party in the classical sense – rationalist, anti-clerical but not anti-religious, free trading, often republican, and usually internationalist. On the other side was an older conservative party – traditionalist, explicitly or implicitly denominational, economically protectionist, usually monarchist, and nationalistic.
In the twentieth century, these opposing forces came together as a result of two different forces: resistance to a common enemy; and commitment to ideas widely shared.
The common enemy was the rise of radical socialism in its various forms. In this context, Burkean conservatives and classical liberals discovered a commitment to a core of common ideas. Both groups favoured private property, small government and reliance on civil society rather than the state to resolve social dilemmas and to create social progress. Domestically, both groups resisted those who stood for public ownership, government interventionism, egalitarian redistribution and state sponsorship of secular humanist values. Internationally, they stood unequivocally against external enemies – fascism, communism and socialist totalitarianism in all its forms […].
He then returns back to aligning the building of a political coalition and the two strands of ordered liberty: Burkean conservatism (social conservatives) and classical liberalism (economic conservatives).
The truth is that strong economic and social conservatives are more often than not the same people, and not without reason. Except at the extremes of libertarianism and theocracy, the philosophical fusion has become deep and widespread. Social conservatives more often than not demand the government stop intervening in individual decisions, just as classical liberals often point to the religious roots of their focus on the individual. As American humorist P.J. O’Rourke has observed: “the great religions teach salvation as an individual matter. There are no group discounts in the Ten Commandments, Christ was not a committee, and Allah does not welcome believers into paradise saying, ‘you weren’t much good yourself, but you were standing near some good people.’”
O’Rourke also summarized the moral and civilizing importance of markets by reminding us that, “the rise of private enterprise and trade provided a means of achieving wealth and autonomy other than by killing people with broadswords.” Private enterprise and trade, as Adam Smith pointed out, can turn individual selfishness into useful social outcomes. In fact, the founder of classical liberal economics came to his theories as much by his study of moral philosophy as anything else.
Harper then goes on to suggest that conservatives need to increase their emphasis on the social conservative side. As a practical matter, this was a prudent calculation as the Reform and Alliance parties were largely a fusion of social conservatives and populists. But it was also a reaction to his experience in the Mulroney government, which was a fusion of economic conservatives and Quebec nationalists. So what Harper was hoping for was a construction of the primarily economic conservatives from the Progressive Conservative side of the coin with the primarily social conservatives from the Reform/Alliance side of the other coin.
And Harper does this by arguing that modern liberalism and the political parties it sustained had become relativistic and unprepared to censure social permissiveness and destructive behaviour, and that conservatives needed to appeal to those Canadians distressed by this development.
What this means for conservatives today is that we must rediscover the common cause and orient our coalition to the nature of the post-cold-war world […].
The real challenge is[…] the social agenda of the modern Left. Its system of moral relativism, moral neutrality and moral equivalency is beginning to dominate its intellectual debate and public policy objectives.
The clearest recent evidence of this phenomenon is in the international affairs in the emerging post-cold-war world – most obvious in the response of modern liberals to the war on terrorism. There is no doubt about the technical capacity of our society to fight this war. What is evident is the lack of desire of the modern liberals to fight […].
This is particularly striking given the nature of the enemy here, the Bin Ladens and the Husseins, individuals who embody in the extreme everything the Left purports to oppose – fundamentalism, fascistic nationalism, misogyny, bigotry.
Conservatives need to reassess our understanding of the modern Left. It has moved beyond old socialistic morality or even moral relativism to something much darker. It has become a moral nihilism – the rejection of any tradition or convention of morality, a post-Marxism with deep resentments, even hatreds, of the norms of free and democratic western civilization.
This descent into nihilism should not be surprising because moral relativism simply cannot be sustained as a guiding philosophy. It leads to silliness such as moral neutrality on the use of marijuana or harder drugs mixed with its random moral crusades on tobacco. It explains the lack of moral censure on personal foibles of all kinds, extending even criminal behaviour, with moral outrage at bourgeois society, which is then tangentially blamed for deviant behaviour. On the moral standing of the person, it leads to views which range from radical, responsibility-free individualism to tribalism in the form of group rights.
Conservatives have focused on the inconsistency in all of this. Yet it is actually disturbingly consistent. It is a rebellion against all forms of social norm and moral tradition in every aspect of life […].
Harper then moves on to how a modern conservative party must tread through the often-dangerous waters of social conservatism. His solution? Focus on values. He argues this is necessary because on many of the big economic questions, conservatives had been modestly successful in shaping a political consensus and the Liberal Party was increasingly accepting of market-based policy solutions.
In this environment, serious conservative parties simply cannot shy away from values questions. On a wide range of public policy questions, including foreign affairs and defence, criminal justice and corrections, family and child care, health care and social services, social values are increasingly the really big issues.
Take taxation for example. There are real limits to tax cutting if conservatives cannot dispute anything about how or why a government actually does what it does. If conservatives accept all legislated social liberalism with simply balanced budgets and corporate grants – as do some in business community – then there really are no differences between a conservative and a Paul Martin.
There is, of course, much more to be done in economic policy. We do need deeper and broader tax cuts, further reductions in debt, further deregulation and privatization, and especially the elimination of corporate subsidies and industrial development schemes. In large measure however, the public arguments for doing so have already been won. Conservatives have to be more than modern liberals in a hurry.
The truth of the matter is that the real agenda and the defining issues have shifted from economic issues to social values, so conservatives must do the same.
This is not as difficult as it sounds. It does not require a radical redefinition of conservatism, but rather a shifting of the balance between the economic and social conservative sides that have always been there.
In particular, Canadian conservatives need to rediscover the virtues of Burkean conservatism as a key component of that balance. Rediscovering this agenda, to paraphrase Ted Byfield, means not just worrying about what the state costs, but also worrying about what the state values.
For example, we need to rediscover Burkean or social conservatism because a growing body of evidence points to the damage the welfare state is having on our most important institutions, particularly the family. Conservatives have to give much higher place to confronting threats posed by modern liberals to this building block of our society.
We also need to rediscover Burkean conservatism because the emerging debates on foreign affairs should be fought on moral grounds. Current challenges in dealing with terrorism and its sponsors, as well as the emerging debate on the goals of the U.S. as the sole superpower, will be well served by conservative insights on preserving historic values and moral insights on right and wrong […].
And he concludes with some important warnings about the social conservative agenda. These are the seeds for Harper’s insistence that the party stay out of the abortion debate (for which there is no denominational consensus and for which too many pro-lifers took an “all or nothing” stance on the issue). On the positive side, Harper points out that cultivating an agenda compatible with social conservatism should bear fruit among the growing ethnic and immigrant communities.
Rebalancing the conservative agenda will require careful political judgment. First, the issues must be chosen carefully. For example, the social conservative issues we choose should not be denominational, but should unite social conservatives of different denominations and even different faiths. It also helps when social conservative concerns overlap those of people with a more libertarian orientation.
Second, we must realize that real gains are inevitably incremental. This, in my experience, is harder for social conservatives than for economic conservatives. The explicitly moral orientation of social conservatives make it difficult for many to accept the incremental approach. Yet, in democratic politics, any other approach will certainly fail. We should never accept the standard of just being “better than the Liberals” – people who advocate that standard seldom achieve it – but conservatives should be satisfied if the agenda is moving in the right direction, even if slowly.
Third, rebalancing mean there will be changes to the composition of the conservative coalition. We may not have all the same people we have had in the past. The new liberal corporatist agenda will appeal to some in the business community. We may lose some old “conservatives,” Red Tories like the David Orchards or the Joe Clarks.
This is not all bad. A more coherent coalition can take strong positions it wouldn’t otherwise be able to take… More importantly, a new approach can draw in new people. Many traditional Liberal voters, especially those from key ethnic and immigrant communities, will be attracted to a party with strong traditional views of values and family. This is similar to the phenomenon of the “Reagan Democrats” in the United States, who were so important in the development of that conservative coalition […].
The rediscovery of the conservative agenda requires us to maintain the coalition of ideas that is the heritage of enlightenment liberalism and Burkean conservatism. Yet contemporary reality requires us to reemphasize the Burkean tradition as a key part of our conservative agenda. In other words, while retaining a focus on economic issues we must give greater place to social values and social conservatism, broadly defined and properly understood.
The importance of this speech cannot be overstated. It not only represented the full evolution of Harper’s intellectual and political development. It was the first time that he had given it expression and he chose to do so to a meeting of the country’s leading conservative thinkers. It signaled his intellectual maturation and his emergence as the most important conservative in Canada.
Harper returned to these themes at the 2009 Manning Centre conference. He said: “Conservatism cannot be just about freedom. It must be about policies that help ensure freedom will lead to good choices, to responsible choices in the economy, to prosperous choices with wider benefits to all of us.” Family and faith¾two cornerstones of traditional conservatism¾were, in Harper’s articulation, critical to harnessing freedom and using it to virtuous ends. As he put it, “Freedom must be used well, and freedom can only be sustained if it is used well.”
And in a 2015 column to mark the two-hundredth anniversary of Macdonald’s birth, he wrote: “of the greatest importance for all of us, perhaps, was that Macdonald appropriated from the British constitution its conception of freedom, of “ordered liberty,” of the balancing of popular and minority rights, of (in terms of the era) equality before the law and governments responsible through the legislature to the voters.”
The emphasis on “enlightenment liberalism”, or classical liberalism, is deliberate. Harper was not embracing¾and never did embrace¾modern libertarianism. While he recognized common cause with libertarians on the role of markets and threat posed to economic freedom by socialism, he never did reconcile himself with the libertarian tendency towards social permissiveness and moral relativism, and the characterization of individuals as economic automatons without broader connections to one another in society. And, of course, his private remarks to the Manning Centre cautioned against an overemphasis on political or economic freedom not tempered by deeper values can lead to negative social and economic outcomes. This emphasis on conservatism¾on the use of the state to support the essential building block of families for instance¾would come to play a major role in his governance.
Our central argument is that Mr. Harper became Prime Minister in 2006 after more than thirty years of intellectual reflection and analysis. His role as the Reform Party’s founding policy chief, his time as a Member of Parliament and then as a conservative activist, and finally his experience in merging the Progressive Conservative Party and the Canadian Alliance provided considerable opportunity for trial and error and for him to refine different aspects of his worldview. The outcome was a fusionist conservatism rooted in the mainstream of Western political thought and Canada’s own political tradition but different than the prevailing liberal orthodoxy of his formative years and of federal policy and politics for much of the post-War World II era.
There is no doubt that Harper’s embrace of the “ordered liberty” composite is sincere. But it was more than just an intellectual evolution that led him in this direction. It was also a political assessment of what could ultimately form the basis of a lasting, stable conservative governing coalition. And he rightly came to believe that an agenda focused on marrying the best of classical liberalism¾reflected in its respect for the individual and commitment to economic and social dynamism¾and the foundations of Burkean conservatism¾manifested in its recognition of the long-term benefits of virtue and tradition¾was a winning political formula over the short- and long-term.
He did not immediately reach this conclusion. It was a long process of political introspection. He witnessed first-hand the limitations of the Progressive Conservative Party’s ideological flaccidity and overdependence on Quebec nationalism. He also had reservations about Preston Manning’s underlying populism because he believed that it was unstable and risked taking the party in unproductive directions. And he observed the prospect of long-term Liberal governance unrooted from any intellectual compass. The prognostications seem foolish in hindsight but it is easy to forget that, in the early 2000s, much of the punditocracy anticipated that Paul Martin would win the largest majority government in Canadian history and go on to serve as Prime Minister for the foreseeable future.
It was in this context that Harper came to see virtue in the powerful lesson of Macdonald’s fusionist record. Bringing Burke back into the fold of Canadian conservatism rooted its thinking and expanded its political appeal. By placing a greater emphasis on social values and social conservatism¾not defined by single issues, but rather a Burkean worldview that placed traditional institutions such as the family at the heart of its agenda¾conservatism could truly be a powerful political force that would contest and win more elections in the twenty-first century than it had in the twentieth.
But we should also repeat an earlier caveat. While we argue that Harper’s ordered liberty was a driving force in his politics and policy, it was not the sole or only force. Like any successful leader, Harper was influenced by the vagaries of political winds and expediency. He took advantage of his opponents’ weaknesses and his own strengths in ways that can hardly be argued were driven by intellectual considerations.
Yet, as we will now argue, in many important ways, his conception of ordered liberty drove much of his political and policy agenda. Indeed, understanding his conception of ordered liberty is critical to understanding his prime ministership and how he strove to transform Canada for the better.
III. Reshaping Canada
Mr. Harper’s political project was a long-term one. The first half of this essay set out his intellectual evolution and his intellectual underpinnings of his governing agenda. This section explores key components of his record to illustrate not only his legacy of accomplishment but the extent to which his governing record was rooted in his well-developed worldview. Of course, there would be some contradictions and deviations, often in the pursuit of necessary political goals, along the way. But, while it may not always have been obvious, Mr. Harper was gradually reshaping Canada according to an image he had set out prior to becoming Prime Minister.
III.I Harper’s Incrementalism
A defining characteristic of Harper’s prime ministership was his predisposition to incremental reform. There were few “national strategies” or sweeping reforms. He was satisfied to adopt small, incremental, doable policies that may not have always reached a conservative destination but were, for the most part, important steps in the right direction.
Some may argue that Harper’s incrementalism was a consequence of leading minority governments for more than half his tenure as Prime Minister. Others would dismiss it as timidity that left too much of the system that he inherited from the Liberals largely intact.
Neither of these interpretations pays sufficient attention to Harper’s conservatism. Incrementalism finds its origins in the traditional conservatism of Burke. Indeed, the idea that politicians ought to show epistemological humility in reforming the institutions and policies that they inherit is one of Burke’s most defining insights. Burke believed in a model of gradual change, what one biographer has described as “evolution rather than revolution.” Harper concurred.
Conservatives wish, by and large, to conserve. We tend to see world through a historic lens. We are grateful for what we have inherited and are cognizant of the process of trial and error that refined it. We are skeptical of large-scale, government-imposed social change. We worry about the inadvertent consequences of disrupting the status quo. Our instinct, in short, is to exercise reform carefully. This does not meaning conserving for the sake of conserving but rather conserving as a way of incrementally bringing forth the latent possibilities of a Canadian regime of ordered liberty.
Harper’s own incrementalism is not the self-rationalization of a leader dissatisfied with what he accomplished. He set out his vision of incremental reform prior to becoming Prime Minister. In his 2003 Civitas remarks, he said:
[…] we must realize that real gains are inevitably incremental[…]. We should never accept the standard of just being “better than the Liberals” – people who advocate that standard seldom achieve it – but conservatives should be satisfied if the agenda is moving in the right direction, even if slowly.
In practice, incrementalism means focusing on practical results rather than abstract debates and pursuing long-term conservative goals through short-term, gradual change rather than sweeping reforms. One can discern this strategy of incremental reform in large parts of Harper’s legacy. The most durable and arguably the most important reforms he undertook were enacted in steps in order to find compromise and mitigate controversy. The aggregate outcome of these short steps was a gradual shift in a conservative direction. Some examples will be discussed in greater detail later in this essay but two warrant brief attention here.
Reducing the federal tax burden was a priority of Harper’s dating back to his time as senior policy advisor to the Reform Party. He subscribes to the wide body of empirical analysis that shows the economic impact of high levels of taxation. He is also driven by the view that individuals, families, and communities are better placed to make decisions about their priorities and needs than the government, and therefore the tax burden imposed by the state ought to be minimal. To these ends, Harper slowly chipped away at federal tax revenues. He started by cutting the GST by two percentage points and subsequently lowered the general corporate tax rate by six percentage points. Thereafter he enacted income splitting for families and pensioners, established Tax-Free Savings Accounts, and introduced a number of tax expenditures for families, seniors, and workers. The result is the federal tax burden as a share of GDP has fallen to its lowest level in more than fifty years and Tax Freedom Day¾the Fraser Institute’s estimate of how many days per year an average Canadian must work to pay his or her tax bill¾is now nearly two weeks earlier. This is an important accomplishment but it was not achieved by dramatic reform such as an overhaul of the federal tax system. Rather Mr. Harper adhered to his long-term plan to reduce the federal tax burden and, in turn, the government’s fiscal capacity, and enacted of a set of policies to fulfill it.
Another less obvious example of incrementalism is Harper’s record on development assistance for mothers and newborn children. Development policy under previous governments was too consumed by shifting academic debates about the role of aid, which was spread too thin around the world, and was too centralized and bureaucratic. Harper was drawn to child and maternal health because the solutions were practical and the outcomes were measurable. He understood that the problem would not be solved in the short-term but with targeted state action, in conjunction with civil society groups, we could make a meaningful difference. It would necessitate trial and error, adaptation for certain circumstances, and the testing of partnerships with different groups but we could begin to improve the lives of the world’s most vulnerable. As he put it in a 2014 speech, “over the last four years, we have learned a lot. We now have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t.”
This predisposition to pursue gradual change and focus on what works rather than abstraction is a key to understanding Mr. Harper’s governing philosophy and his record. It disappointed his critics who wanted more radical change. But the results speak for themselves. He has left a durable mark on taxation. The new government has, as Laval University economist Stephen Gordon has noted, accepted, by and large, a historically-low revenue baseline; for instance, direct payments to families for childcare rather than an institutional program (the Liberal Party’s Canada Child Benefit is a grudging recognition of his vision), as well as on a range of other policy matters. By proceeding in a careful and gradual way, Harper ensured not only that his policy reforms would be sustained in the short-term, but that they would help shape federal policy into the future.
III.II Undoing the Liberal Agenda
Part of any government’s record involves undoing what it views as its predecessor’s unsuccessful agenda, and pursuing the counterfactual policy action of what might have arisen if its opponents had been given the opportunity to control the government’s policy levers. This is a natural consequence of democratic governance. The new Liberal government will doubtless undo certain aspects of the Harper agenda and address emerging issues differently than a Stephen Harper-led one would have. But these different choices¾no matter how small¾ultimately add up to represent a substantive difference with respect to tone, content, and direction.
Early in his mandate, Harper managed to undo some significant initiatives of his predecessors. Anyone who has served in government knows that inertia is arguably the most powerful force in executing one’s agenda. And hence undoing bad policy ought to be hailed as a victory¾a step forward¾a conservative coup. This is more than partisan politics. It found root in Mr. Harper’s underlying traditional conservatism. Good governance was as much about reversing bad ideas from the past and responding to new challenges differently than one’s predecessor as it was about undertaking new reforms. And the items that Harper undid were mostly recently attempted large-scale national projects that offended his incremental tendencies and classical liberal predispositions.
Thus conservatives celebrate Harper’s termination of policies such as the Kelowna Accord. The agreement, reached by Prime Minister Martin and Aboriginal leadership on the eve of the 2005-06 federal election, was expensive, open-ended, and more preoccupied with reinforcing the negative aspects of federal support for First Nations governance than it was about improving its weaknesses. The 2006 Conservative budget discontinued it. And, in its place, Conservatives moved forward on a number of modest, achievable, outcome-based (in a word, incremental) policy changes on the First Nations file such as investing in clean drinking water, improving educational attainment, strengthening rights for women and girls on reserve, and enhancing transparency and First Nations governance. There is, of course, plenty further to do to improve living standards for Aboriginals and bring them into the mainstream of Canada’s economic potential, but halting the Kelowna Accord was an important step in the right direction.
Similarly unwinding Mr. Martin’s under-funded national child-care plan represented a major accomplishment for the conservative movement. Had the Liberals been successful in establishing a new federal role in subsidizing institutional, state-run child-care (and we ought to remember they were close), they would have completed a left-wing, big-government vision that been part of federal political discourse for nearly twenty years (as long as the Liberals had promised, but failed to deliver it). It was a grand scheme that represented the worst technocratic impulses of modern liberalism. Families were to be expected to conform to the one-size-fits-all design of the system or risk losing financial support. It did not matter that recent Statistics Canada data show that nearly 60 percent of Canadian families with children under age four use home care or private care, such as relying upon grandparents to care for their children. Harper rightly ceased this program and diverted the resources to provide universal, direct payments to all families irrespective of their child-care choices. This was an important Conservative policy accomplishment that has left a durable mark on federal support for families.
Another example is Harper’s controversial decision to withdraw Canada from the Kyoto Accord. The Accord was an international climate change agreement that excluded some of the world’s largest emitters. Instead it represented a massive wealth transfer from developed countries¾who were not really expected to meet unattainable emission targets¾to developing countries who were exempted or able to meet their targets as a result of economic decline precipitated by poor policy choices. Its impact on the climate was insignificant and its threat to the economies of countries such as Canada, if ever fully implemented, would have been dramatic. The previous Liberal government must have been cognizant of this empirical truth, and instead used the Kyoto Accord as a political slogan rather than a meaningful basis for reform. Mr. Harper chose to be direct and forthright with Canadians. He formally pulled out of the accord and sensibly vowed that any future global agreement must involve all major global emitters and be aligned with our largest and most important trading partner and neighbour, the United States. The outcome of his leadership is that current international discussions now involve countries like China and India, and will ultimately ensure meaningful climate action without placing Canada’s economy at a comparative disadvantage.
The list of “undoing” or counterfactual policy action – that is, poor policies that an alternative government would have enacted – is lengthy. At different points in the past ten years, the Liberal Party has championed corporate tax increases, a massive growth in federal spending relative to what has transpired, and a weak and equivocal foreign policy. Harper resisted these calls and in so doing provided a sensible, conservative governing alternative.
Some of our conservative brethren would doubtless argue this is not enough. Successful conservatism ought to be more than simply being “better than Liberals.” Fair enough. But we should not lose sight of the fact that Harper never had throughout his prime ministership the type of principled, conservative opposition that he provided to the Liberal governments of the 1990s. In face of recurrent calls for “more” spending, regulations, and federal action, he consistently pursued his agenda of conservative reform and found ways to advance his programme without overreaching or putting himself too far ahead of public opinion.
III.III Harper’s Taxation and Social Policy
Incrementalism and correcting the past mistakes of the previous government are important aspects of Harper’s agenda. But, of course, they are not sufficient evidence of a conservative record. History will rightly remember him for more than just gradual reform and ceasing the errors of his predecessors.
One area of significant reform is taxation and social policy, particularly related to families and children. This section draws heavily from a forthcoming essay by Boessenkool in the Canadian Tax Journal. There had been considerable debate in Canada, dating back to the 1960s, about how the tax system ought to treat children, but little progress had been made. When Harper was elected in 2006, the tax system implied that the government’s preference for children decreased with the income of the family in which those children resided. In fact, until recently, middle- and upper-income families received effectively the same tax treatment for having children as they did for purchasing a physical asset such as a boat.
Ordered liberty suggests that government need not¾and indeed, should not ¾be neutral when it comes to certain socially-beneficial institutions and behaviours such as marriage, having a child, purchasing a home, saving for retirement, or bolstering civil society. The Burkean strand of the fusionist conception would find it acceptable for the government to support these key institutions and behaviours.
The real question, then, is not whether the government should support them but how? The answer for modern liberals had become centralized spending programs that required conformity and left little room for experimentation or choice.
Harper, by contrast, came to believe that the solution lies in advancing these preferences incrementally, on the margins, in ways consistent with what Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein’s outline in their book Nudge. They argue that there are instances in which people can be “nudged” towards outcomes that are patently superior for the individual and society, but where it can be demonstrated that our brains are wired in ways that cause us to pick the inferior over the superior.
Nudge argues that real people (as opposed to the libertarian utopia of pure economic automatons) need a small bit of what the authors call “libertarian paternalism” to nudge them to make better choices when faced with such challenges as: short term pain for long term gain; the inability to learn from practice for life’s big and/or difficult decisions; and the degree of difficulty some choices pose. This is consistent with the Burkean predisposition to strengthen core institutions of society.
The authors define nudges as follows:
A nudge, as we will use the term, is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not (6).
Nudging is almost always a matter of changing or adjusting incentives so they overcome the challenges listed above. Thaler and Sunstein talk about both financial and non-financial nudges. And while governments can create non-financial nudges (such as government advertising or using its “bully pulpit”), Harper’s focus was the use of financial nudges delivered through the tax system.
Why nudge via the tax system? Because it can be an efficient, simple, and fair delivery mechanism.
Using the tax system is consistent with the classical liberal desire to maintain a greater preference for private choice over government involvement. Indeed this is the argument frequently used to justify tax credits for children rather than the provision of state-provided institutional childcare.
The underlying argument is a classical liberal one: asymmetric information between the public and the government means that state-support delivered through tax expenditures is more efficient, and responds better to individual preferences than the same program delivered as spending from a government department.
Or to borrow the language that Harper frequently used in his campaign speeches and elsewhere: it is better to leave money in the hands of taxpayers for them to determine how to spend it than to give it to government for spending programs.
As an example, if we decide we want government to encourage fitness, should the government design a program to subsidize and choose which gyms or activities should get public money, or should it allow Canadians to deduct the cost of such programs from their taxes and make such choices themselves? In terms of outcomes, surely the latter would produce better outcomes by encouraging more bottom-up experimentation rather than top-down policy design. It also suggests that the administration of tax credits should bias towards looseness rather than tightness.
Or to put it another way, given the same amount of resources, Harper’s ordered liberty worldview would prefer a tax system that recognizes the cost of raising a child and child-care expenses over a government run day-care program.
Critiques of these kinds of nudging¾those who criticize so-called “boutique tax credits” ¾are often just fronts for the view that the government should not exhibit bias towards certain institutions or behaviours, which the traditional conservative rejects. But if we accept that something should be done, then we should try and do it in a way that minimizes administration costs, or avoids duplicating them. The tax system already collects much of the data required to adjust incentives, and the administration of the tax system is increasingly automated. Subsidy programs generally require application and evaluation forms and processes to be created and separate bureaucracies set up to administer. A carte blanche rejection of “boutique tax credits” directed to areas where something should be done would foolishly increase costs of administering a program.
The use of tax expenditures also responds to the “ability to pay” arguments: that those with more should pay more, and those with less should pay less. For example, a taxpayer with a child has less ability to pay because of obligations to that child. The same does not hold for someone who buys a boat. Children, a conservative would argue, are not like boats, as children bring benefits to society at large that go beyond the benefits to the individual family. So government should recognize those benefits by reducing the tax burden of those with children. Families have a continued obligation to care for their children, unlike boats, which can be sold. Families can also accidentally have additional children, but there are no cases of families accidentally acquiring a boat. In short, a certain amount of the family’s income should be considered non-discretionary, and thus omitted from taxable income.
Harper accepted this line of reasoning and was prepared to use the tax system to support key institutions and social behaviours. These tax relief measures were rooted in the premise that taxpayers should see their tax burden fall to help defray the costs associated with starting a family, raising children, incurring costs to earn income, acquiring a home, saving for the future, and bolstering civil society. And he was prepared to use tax expenditures, or “boutique tax credits,” as his critics described them, to do so.
The range of measures that he enacted is too long to list. But key ones included income splitting for families and pensioners; tax credits to help with the costs associated with raising children, including the Children’s Fitness Tax Credit and Registered Disability Savings Plans; tax relief for aspiring apprentices and the employers who hired them; the First-Time Home Buyers’ Tax Credit to help aspiring homebuyers enter the housing market; the enactment of Tax-Free Savings Accounts to incentivize savings and capital accumulation; and a series of augmentation to the Charitable Donations Tax Credit to support charitable giving.
Harper’s use of tax expenditures to promote key institutions and behaviours attracted frequent criticism from liberals and libertarians. Calls for direct spending programs or tax neutrality were commonplace. Often these critics argued that Harper’s introduction of tax expenditures were politically motivated to target key Conservative constituencies. It is hard to dispute that politics were not a part of the calculation. And, while many of his tax measures could be justified along the policy lines set out above, some were more frivolous and difficult to defend on intellectual grounds. But, overall, what Harper’s critics failed to appreciate is that these policies were often a manifestation of his fusionism between classical liberalism and traditional conservatism. In effect, it represented classically liberal means to conservative ends.
And, in any case, Harper’s tax record is more than simply tinkering on the margins. His broader tax-cutting agenda began in earnest with the two-percentage point reduction to the GST and persisted through his last budget. Technocrats can quibble about which taxes he chose to cut but the general poise of his programme cannot be contested. He cut taxes for all Canadians and is leaving government with the lowest federal tax burden as a share of GDP in more than fifty years. The net outcome of his agenda¾a nearly 15 percent reduction in federal revenues to GDP¾is a significant accomplishment that ought to warm the heart of any classical liberal.
Fundamentally, Harper’s taxation and social policies were not just rooted in a preference for personal choice. They sought to reduce the “marriage penalty” and establish horizontal equity to ensure greater fairness for families with children across income levels. These are meaningful policy objectives that at times have gone unnoticed, but should not be dismissed. They represent a major step forward for conservatism.
And while the new government has pledged to unwind aspects of Mr. Harper’s tax and social policy agenda, much of its foundation will remain firmly in place. He has left a durable, influential mark when it comes to the relationship between the state and individual and families in the areas of tax and social policy. His electoral defeat will not change that legacy.
III.IV Harper’s Fiscal Policy
Prime Minister Harper’s fiscal policy record has been a major source of debate among conservatives. He leaves office with the federal government spending considerably more than when he arrived. He ran the largest deficit in Canadian history at the height of the global economic recession. Many of the major federal expenditures¾such as Employment Insurance¾remain largely unchanged. This is enough for many right-wing economists and commentators to argue that his fiscal record is a disappointment.
Not all of this criticism is unfounded. No doubt Harper would accept that there was room for improvement. But this critique is incomplete to the extent that it fails to analyse the composition of federal spending and ignores the political and economic context of his prime ministership.
Federal spending grew significantly in the early years. This can be attributable to a number of factors. A minority Parliament required political compromise. Neither the Prime Minister nor many members of his government had been power before and it took some time to understand the system and internal dynamics that drove “program integrity pressures” and “sunsetting programs.” The result is that in a macro sense at least the Harper government’s accomplishment on fiscal policy was limited.
The global economic recession and the political showdown that followed further deferred much progress on reducing the size and scope of the federal government. The Prime Minister’s decision to adopt a major fiscal stimulus programme returned the government to a budgetary deficit and ended the trend of debt repayment. The design and composition of the stimulus plan will be addressed in the next section.
Yet, despite these early setbacks, Harper was clear that he believed that federal spending ought to be truncated. The government was too big and too much of its spending was too duplicative, wasteful, and ineffective. He sought a more limited, more effective role for the federal government. These views¾which Harper had expressed for more than twenty years prior to becoming Prime Minister¾were rooted in his classical liberalism. Fundamentally, it was about reducing the size and scope of the state and the extent to which “big government” limited freedom and choice for the individual and crowded out the mediating institutions of civil society.
Part of the solution involved reducing the resources available to the state. The Harper government enacted significant tax reductions such as the two-percentage point cut to the GST and a six-percentage point cut to the corporate tax rate in part to restrain the government’s revenue-generating capacity. These major tax reductions have helped to bring federal revenues as a share of GDP to its lowest level in more than fifty years. Even if the new Liberal government proceeds with its campaign pledges to hike taxes it will start with a historically low revenue baseline.
The other part was restraining the growth of government spending. The Harper government established a “strategic review” process beginning in 2007 to regularly review direct program spending which is the share of federal spending (besides debt-service payments) excluding major transfers to persons such as Old Age Security and major transfers to other levels of government such as equalization. The process was reasonably successful in reallocating ineffective spending, but was temporarily halted during the stimulus period and only resumed following the 2011 election.
The real success of controlling federal spending commenced after Harper earned his majority government. The 2012 Budget enacted meaningful reforms to federal fiscal policy and the government’s “footprint.” Several federal entities such as the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, the National Council of Welfare, and Assisted Human Reproduction Canada were eliminated outright. Programs were eliminated or consolidated. Services were streamlined and modernized. The net result was a positive step in the right direction.
But Harper’s vision began with the premise that federal support for the provinces and territories ought to be protected. He made meaningful reforms to federal transfers – such as capping the equalization envelope and enacting a per-capita formula for the Canada Health Transfer and slowing its annual growth, but his principled vision of federalism and a clear-eyed assessment of the politics of “health-care cuts” meant that major transfer payments would not be cut.
Instead the government would squeeze and control federal “discretionary spending.” Direct program spending has fallen year-over-year for the past four years, the first time this trend has occurred in decades. Reductions in direct program spending were so significant that total expenditures¾including the transfers which have been growing at six and three percent per year respectively¾actually experienced a net reduction in in 2010-11 and 2012-13. To put it in numerical terms: total federal spending grew by 0.2 percent per year on average from 2011 onwards and direct program spending actually fell by 1.5 percent annually over the same period. This type of sustained fiscal discipline ought to be lauded especially when considering that both opposition parties consistently called for more spending throughout this period.
And more broadly, Harper took other steps to put federal fiscal policy on a solid footing over the long-term. The most significant change in this regard was the decision to gradually raise the eligibility age for Old Security from 65 to 67. The change attracted considerable political derision but there is little debate that it was the right thing to do. It is part of the reason that both the Department of Finance and the Parliamentary Budget Office have conducted analysis showing that federal finances are sustainable into the future. One hopes that the new Liberal government is ultimately persuaded to reverse its campaign promise to reverse this change over the course of its mandate.
Overall, Harper’s fiscal policy record is generally positive. More could have been done to curb spending early in the mandate. But the second half of his prime ministership is generally marked by fiscal probity, particularly when one considers his commitment to protect major federal transfers from net reductions. He balanced the budget on the timetable set out in the Conservative Party of Canada’s 2011 election platform and left the government on track to achieve its debt-to-GDP target of 25 percent by 2021. There is more to be achieved in the future; however, Mr. Harper’s fiscal record establishes a solid baseline for his successor.
III.V Harper’s Fiscal Stimulus
Fiscal stimulus and deliberate deficit spending seem out-of-place in a conservative assessment of Mr. Harper’s record. There is little doubt that he never anticipated he would lead a financial bailout of General Motors and Chrysler during his time in office. It is also unlikely anyone would have predicted that he would have the distinction of running the largest budget deficit in Canadian political history. But the economic and political context was unique and one can argue that Harper responded with the most conservative stimulus programme conceivable in light of the circumstances.
The decision to adopt a Keynesian-oriented fiscal stimulus programme followed significant political pressure in a minority Parliament context and a growing international consensus that governments needed to take extraordinary action in face of the global economic recession.
Harper ultimately came to the conclusion that his government ought to engage in stimulus spending. This decision generated some criticism from conservative analysts. But most mainstream economists were prepared to accept¾and some even advocated for¾short-term action to restore confidence and bolster economic activity.
One can make a compelling argument that the Harper government’s fiscal stimulus package was constructed along conservative lines to the strongest extent possible. The plan was rooted in Canadian federalism, incorporated tax relief as a major share of its overall composition, and contained an exit strategy from the outset.
A significant share of the stimulus spending was transferred to lower levels of government and directed to local priority infrastructure projects. Rooting the plan in federalism ensured that no new federal bureaucracy needed to be created, stimulus entered the economy quickly, political accountability was shared with the level of government closest to voters, and the projects had local support and ongoing utility.
More than 45 percent of the total stimulus package was comprised of tax relief¾such as a doubling of the Working Income Tax Benefit to help marginal workers¾and this does not take into account the one-percentage reduction to the GST which took effect in January 2008. An analysis by the Brookings Institution found that this share of tax cuts to spending was the fifth highest among G-20 countries.
It is worth emphasizing the utility of the second GST reduction in injecting stimulus into the Canadian economy at the height of the global recession. Indeed, one of us has written that the reduction from 6 percent to 5 percent may have been the Harper government’s most important policy action during this period. Using any metric¾such as timeliness and degree to which a policy was targeted and sustainable¾cutting the GST was an effective policy response.
Notwithstanding the tax relief measures, much of Canada’s stimulus programme was indeed temporary. As early as January 2010, Harper told global leaders that it was “not too early to start thinking about a strategy to exit them [stimulus programmes].” He warned his audience at the World Economic Forum in the same speech that if not checked long-term deficit spending would ultimately lead to renewed inflation, rising interest rates, circumscribed private investment, and sluggish economic performance. Thus the 2010 Budget set out a plan to withdraw the stimulus and eliminate the budgetary deficit. Some questioned the government’s ability to eliminate the table on its timetable but it stuck to its plan¾including constraining the growth of new spending for five consecutive years¾and recorded a budget surplus in 2014-15. As economist Stephen Gordon noted, the Harper government has a “track record of doing almost exactly what it says it will do [with respect to fiscal policy].” In fact, it is worth noting that the government’s timetable for eliminating the deficit adhered to the Conservative Party of Canada’s 2011 platform’s fiscal forecast within less than $1 billion.
And, as mentioned earlier, all of these steps were taken in the face of sustained pressure from the Liberals to increase spending and prolong the deficit. Instead the Harper government navigated a difficult economic and political environment and found a way to execute on a stimulus programme that did not offend conservativism.
III.VI Harper’s Economic Policy
Apart from the experience with fiscal stimulus, Mr. Harper has a substantial pro-growth policy record. More could have been done. There is plenty of policy analysis in favour of reforming Employment Insurance, liberalizing protected industries such as the airlines, banking, and telecommunications, and cutting corporate subsidies more generally. But generally the Harper government made the right choices with respect to macroeconomic policy and economic competitiveness. The major pillars of Harper’s economic policy were trade liberalization, immigration reform, and corporate tax reductions and he made substantial progress in all three areas.
Canadian trade policy was marked by inaction and missed opportunities when Harper took office in 2006. The previous Liberal government had inherited the gains made by its predecessor and then exhibited stand-patism that reflected its ambivalence to free trade. The problem is the rest of the world hurriedly reached bilateral agreements and Canada was put at a competitive disadvantage.
The Harper government took important steps to reverse this inaction and to give Canada the largest trade network in the world. Market access went from a disadvantage to an economic advantage over the course of his prime ministership. His government reached historic trade deals with the European Union, South Korea, and most recently, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The result is that Canada’s trade network has grown from five to fifty-one countries in the Americas, Asia, and Europe, representing more than 60 percent of the global marketplace. This type of market access¾assuming the new government follows through on implementing these agreements¾will provide Canada with a major long-term advantage with respect to attracting capital and global mandates. Honda’s decision to move a product line to Canada in March 2015 to leverage the new market access granted in the Canada-EU trade agreement is an early example of this potential.
The Harper government also inherited a broken immigration system that was marred by backlogs and divorced from labour market needs. It was a “passive” system that was neither serving prospective immigrants searching for economic opportunity nor the needs of Canada’s economy. The solution was not to cut absolute immigration levels; in fact, Canada welcomed 2.6 million permanent residents and swore-in 1.6 million new Canadian citizens during the Harper government’s tenure. But it did require a shift in immigration policy toward “active” recruitment based on economic considerations.
And that is precisely what the Harper government¾particularly under the leadership of then-Minister Jason Kenney¾did to reform our immigration system. There are too many reforms to highlight in detail, but the underlying principle was to ensure that immigration policy was serving Canadian economic interests and creating the conditions for immigrants to integrate and find opportunity here. Major reforms include enacting a new fast and flexible system for skilled trade workers and those with job offers, establishing the new Canada Experience Class stream to make it easier for foreign students trained in Canada to obtain permanent residency status, and increasing standards for language proficiency and work experience. These policies generated some criticism from the opposition parties but the outcome was a modernized immigration system that will serve Canada’s long-term economic interests.
The Harper government’s corporate tax reductions were also not immune to criticism. The initial reductions in the federal corporate tax rate were enacted by the previous government, but in opposition the Liberal Party came to oppose them and, in fact, made their opposition to the scheduled tax cuts a central plank of their 2011 party platform. Mr. Harper did not reverse course though. He continued with his plan to lower the rate from 21 percent to 15 percent giving Canada one of the lowest corporate tax rates in the industrialized world and the lowest marginal effective tax rate on new business investment in the G-7.
Canada’s new competitive tax system is already paying economic dividends. Tim Hortons’ decision to relocate its head office to Canada in 2009 was an early sign of the economic impact of the Harper government’s tax policy and the subsequent transaction involving Burger King showed the potential to bring investment and jobs to Canada.
While some provinces have recently raised their corporate tax rates, the Harper government’s determination to lower the federal rate has helped to shape a consensus in favour of corporate tax competitiveness in Canada. One proof point is that the new Liberal government once again reversed its position and is now in favour of maintaining the rate established by Mr. Harper.
Harper’s macroeconomic reforms in the areas of free trade, immigration, and corporate taxation may be among his most lasting policy accomplishments. They provide an economic advantage for the country and will help to lay the foundation for future investment and job creation.
III.VII Harper’s Foreign Policy
Reshaping Canada’s foreign and defence policy was another priority for Mr. Harper. Canadian policy under the previous government had, according to Prime Minister Harper and conservatives more generally, become too equivocal and too passive. It lacked moral clarity on big issues such as global terrorism and the Israel-Palestinian conflict. It lacked the capacity and the willingness to use “hard power” to protect Canadian interests or assert our basic values. The “middle power” and “honest broker” mythologies came to represent the totality of Canadian foreign policy. It diminished Canada’s standing and relevance in the world. Mr. Harper was determined to change that.
Yet foreign policy was not a major issue in the 2006 election campaign. It is fair to say that his value proposition to voters in his first successful election was focused on pocketbook issues. In fact, following the election, many commentators wondered how he would assert himself in foreign affairs. The liberal intelligentsia bloviated about his lack of worldliness and worried that Canada’s international standing would suffer. The Prime Minister quickly acclimatized himself and asserted his foreign policy vision.
Harper’s foreign policy differed from his predecessor’s in tone and substance. He spoke in unequivocal terms about Canadian values and interests. He quickly broke with the foreign policy commentariat on China’s human rights record and a series of controversial votes in the United Nations on Israel. He told a UK audience in July 2006 that the British Empire’s mark on Canada was “largely benign and occasionally brilliant.” Simply put: the early Harper foreign policy represented a major departure from the establishmentarian positions of the past.
He would continue to break from the Liberal orthodoxy for the remainder of his prime ministership. But it was more than just divergence for the sake of discontinuity. He began to develop what Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson has called the “Harper doctrine,” rooted in his conception of ordered liberty.
Harper’s amalgam of classical liberalism and traditional conservatism manifested itself in different ways in the foreign policy sphere. It meant asserting the rule of law, standing up for minority rights, and helping the vulnerable. But it was underpinned by realism – recognition that forces such as culture, religion, and ethnicity must not be underestimated.
His classical liberal leanings were evident in his support for Israel’s right to exist and its right to protect itself from threats. He made Canadian foreign policy more unequivocal than it had been in the past on these matters and it made him leading the western voice in support of Israel. His liberalism was also a motivation for his strong denunciation of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the Crimea and his offensive poise towards Ukraine. Russia’s unilateral rewriting of borders and its disdain for the rule of law offended basic classical liberal precepts. And, of course, he launched the Office of Religious Freedom inside the Department of Foreign Affairs and made the protection and promotion of religious freedom a major plank in his foreign policy.
But while Harper would become a vocal critic of human rights abuses and a supporter of regime change in certain cases such as in Libya, it would be wrong to characterize his foreign policy as neoconservative. He exhibited a clear-eyed, realist predisposition on many of the major foreign policy questions of his prime ministership. His foreign policy was not rooted in abstraction. This is the basis for the focus on military reinvestment and a focus on “hard power” rather than the Liberal preoccupation with “soft power.” He was skeptical of multilateralism and strengthened Canada’s relationships with like-minded countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. He was also less bullish on the possibilities represented by the Arab Spring than most of his international counterparts. And he was one of the first western leaders to raise alarms about the rise of ISIS and the instability its expansion was creating in the Middle East.
This combination of idealism and realism¾liberalism and conservatism¾made Harper’s foreign policy unique. There is no question that it attracted significant domestic criticism. But the fact is that Canada’s international reputation rose during his tenure and his own leadership garnered often positive reviews across the political spectrum, including from Melinda Gates who heralded his efforts to improve child and maternal health, and National Review columnist Jay Nordlinger who called him “the Leader of the West” for his support for Israel.
The new government has already promised to revert back to the “honest broker” poise of the 1990s and, according to media reports, the professional foreign service is pleased to return to a more familiar tone. But there is no question that Mr. Harper’s foreign policy became an important part of his prime ministership and that his fusionist philosophy provided a solid intellectual basis for it.
III.VIII Harper’s Criminal Justice Record
Mr. Harper’s criminal justice agenda is another part of his record that was frequently criticized by the liberal establishment but which found its roots in his fusionist worldview. He enacted dozens of pieces of legislation and increased resources for law enforcement in order to reform the system and enhance public safety. His record is substantive and will no doubt remain one of the most significant¾and controversial¾aspects of his legacy.
Early in his political development, Harper saw that criminal justice reform was an issue that tended to align conservatives and classical liberals. Neither would see a proper role for the state to detain an individual for the purposes of correction. A conservative would view detainment an acceptable tool to protect social peace and order. A classical liberal would see detainment as acceptable only if it was to protect liberty and private property. But despite these differing motivations, there was intellectual overlap and Harper saw it as an opportunity to strengthen his coalition on a non-economic subject.
It would be wrong though to characterize the Harper government’s criminal justice agenda is simply motivated by politics. The system that it inherited was seriously in need of reform. Liberal relativism and a tendency towards sociology often placed “root causes” over public safety and the interests of victims. The previous government was aided in this policy direction by a generation of left-wing judges who were often prepared to espouse their personal views from the bench. The system was largely broken and the Harper government began in earnest in 2006 to fix it.
Harper’s reform agenda persisted throughout his tenure. The list of legislative changes¾including raising the age of sexual consent, strengthening the sex offender registry, enacting the Victims Bill of Rights, and establishing consecutive sentences for a range of violent crimes¾is lengthy. The totality of the agenda was a reshaping of the criminal justice system to focus on public safety as the primary consideration.
The most controversial feature of Harper’s reform agenda was his use of mandatory minimum sentences. The use of this legislative provision to limit judicial discretion in sentencing faced criticism from the Canadian Bar Association and occasionally drew the ire of the Supreme Court of Canada. But the Prime Minister was unapologetic; in fact, he said as recently as during the election campaign that he was “absolutely philosophically committed” to the policy.
At its core a legislated mandatory sentence is about Parliament asserting its law-making authority over discretion of judges. The need for the use of this policy stemmed at least in part from a clear need to modernize our Criminal Code sentencing provisions in certain cases and to provide a stable sentencing range for these offences. It may involve a slight curtailing of judicial discretion but the upside includes clear guidelines for the legal system and society overall. As one think-tank study has put it: “…mandatory minimum sentences are an important tool for ensuring – not inhibiting – justice in sentencing” (Lincoln Caylor and Gannon Beaulne, “A Defence of Mandatory Minimum Sentences” 2).
Another controversial decision was the Harper government’s elimination of the long-gun registry. The registry had become a symbol of the previous government’s incoherent criminal justice agenda and its lack of understanding of rural life. It ballooned in cost totaling more than $2.5 billion and became a burden for law-abiding firearm owners with minimal effect on public safety. As a Simon Fraser University professor wrote: “The evidence shows that the long-gun registry has not been effective in reducing criminal violence” (Mauser, “Why the Long-Gun Registry doesn’t work – and never did,” National Post). Yet, despite its high cost and limited utility, Liberals continued to defend the registry and oppose Harper’s efforts to stop it. This episode is a useful example of the liberal technocratic tendency to utopian assumptions of centralized solutions and Harper’s realist, or conservative, view of the world. He saw the inherent flaws with a long-gun registry that treated criminals and law-abiding citizens essentially the same and instead toughened laws and sentencing provisions for those offenders who committed crimes using firearms.
Overall, Harper has left the criminal justice system in a far different condition than he inherited. It is possible that the new government will reverse aspects of his agenda but it is unlikely that it undertakes a full-scale rewrite. Harper has incrementally changed how we conceptualize the criminal justice system and what its priorities ought to be done.
III.IX Harper’s Vision of Federalism
There are few areas in which Mr. Harper has reshaped Canada more significantly than federalism. Federalism has been at the heart of his conservative vision from early intellectual development. He came to see it as the basis to reduce the size of the federal government, to accommodate different regional interests and priorities (including Quebec nationalism), and to further decentralize decision-making closer to the individual and family. As discussed earlier, it was one of the issues that most animated him, and his record in restoring a conception of classical federalism stems from this deep personal belief.
Harper had a long record of writing and speaking about Canadian federalism and the need to restore greater provincial and territorial autonomy prior to becoming Prime Minister. Indeed, he co-authored several newspaper op-eds in the early 2000s with one of this essay’s authors on the potential for a new “decentralist agenda” for Canada. He was also famously a co-signatory of the “Firewall Letter” which called on then-Premier Ralph Klein to pushback against the Liberal government in Ottawa’s centralizing vision with an “Alberta agenda.” His advocacy for classical federalism was long-standing
It also has strong intellectual roots in his amalgam of classical liberalism and Burkean conservatism. Classical liberals and Burkean conservatives may not find uniform agreement on every issue but federalism is certainly a point of convergence. A classical liberal would argue that local control is the best protection for individual liberty. It provides for greater choice and allows for an individual dissatisfied with local governance to migrate elsewhere. A conservative would share this preference for local control because he or she supports community action over centralized bureaucracy. It provides for local trial and error and experimentation over conformity. This intellectual basis was a major source of Harper’s vision of federalism in Canada.
But witnessing decades of federal intrusion into provincial jurisdiction was also a powerful factor. The then-Liberal government had little interest in the actual responsibilities of the federal government and instead seemed more determined to dictate provincial policy decisions through new federal mandate and cost-shared programs. For example, it imposed significant conditionality on provincial health-care delivery as part of the 2004 Health Accord.
Harper’s electoral victory in 2006 was in part a recoil against this centralizing vision. His commitment to “open federalism” distinguished him from the other party leaders. And he took significant steps to deliver on this vision during his time in office.
The first step was growing major transfer payments as he did in the 2007 Budget. The budget provided $39 billion over seven years in incremental transfer payments to the provinces and territories and set out a vision of unconditional transfers distinct from the previous government’s modus operandi. The message was that the federal government would provide stable, predictable, long-term transfer payments and then it would be up to the provinces and territories to decide how best to use the funding. Critically no new conditions would be placed on this new funding. Provinces could, by and large, spend as they saw fit.
The second step was to shift to equal per capita funding to the provinces. This was a principle that Harper had supported prior to becoming Prime Minister. He abhorred the idea that some provinces were “more equal than others”, as he put it, and believed that equal per capita payments¾at least for the major transfer programs¾was critical to restoring fairness to fiscal federalism. The 2007 Budget shifted the Canada Social Transfer to an equal per capita payment in the immediate term and legislated that the Canada Health Transfer would assume an equal per capita formula when the Health Accord expired in 2013-14.
The third step came with the Harper government’s controversial decision not to negotiate a successor to the Health Accord. Instead the government announced its funding plan for ten years beginning in 2014-15, and, with the exception of the Canada Health Act, imposed no new expectations or considerations. It is safe to say that it shocked the provincial governments. They had expected a long and protracted negotiation in which they would be able to work together to extract as much new funding from the federal government as possible. Indeed, the negotiation of the Health Accord had lasted late into the evening in 2004 and only ended when then-Prime Minister Martin ceded to most, if not all, of the premiers’ demands. Harper’s funding announcement, without new strings attached, left it to the provinces and territories to deliver health care without federal involvement
The final step¾at least with respect to major transfer payments¾was to protect them while the government cut spending in order to eliminate the deficit. As discussed earlier, Harper’s deficit elimination plan focused on federal discretionary spending and left major transfer payments untouched unlike his predecessors who paid lip service to cooperative federalism but then implemented massive cuts to health and social transfers.
The result of Harper’s vision of classical federalism is that Ottawa was no longer the voice of sanctimoniousness and unhelpful intrusions into health care, education, and other provincial responsibilities. The separatist threat has never been at a lower level, and, as a result, national unity is stronger than it has been in several decades. And Harper’s own conservative coalition has not frayed along regional lines as Mulroney’s did. It is a good example of his intellectual and political aptitudes and the useful marriage of his conservative and classical liberal philosophical underpinnings.
III.X Restoring Canada’s Historical Consciousness
A major part of Mr. Harper’s legacy is his effort to strengthen Canada’s historical consciousness. The previous Liberal governments had tended to diminish Canada’s rich history and instead focused on contemporary symbols. Part of the Liberal Party’s presentism could be explained by ideology¾liberalism is, if anything, progressive¾and part of it could be attributed to politics and a focus on symbols associated with Liberal governance such as the repatriation of the Constitution. Irrespective of the motivation, there is little debate that the result was a federal agenda that paid little attention to Canada’s founding, our record of military valour, and our Northern heritage.
Harper was determined to change this. He saw a rightful role for government to promote Canadian history and nationalism as a unifying force and the basis for active citizenship. This commitment to restoring Canada’s sense of history was a reflection of his traditional conservative instinct. A conservative recognizes his or her place on the arch of history and is rooted in the understanding that, as Harper put it in his 2009 Manning Conference remarks, “we are part of a chain in which we honour and build upon those who came before us and in which we hope and look out for the future of those who will come after us.” The Harper government’s efforts to reconnect Canadians to our history were, in this sense, a manifestation of his conservative worldview.
But it would be wrong to dismiss the political appeal of restoring a renewed sense of patriotism. The Liberal Party had been successful in subtly associating itself with Canadians’ conception of national identity. It was reflected in the attachment to universal, public health care, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and other symbols of Liberal governance. To the extent that Harper’s long-term political objective was to establish the Conservative Party of Canada as a credible governing alternative, one can argue it was critical to create a conservative historical narrative. He needed to emphasize the conservative aspects of Canada’s historical experience. This agenda would have several facets.
A major effort was undertaken to promote Canada’s founding and the principles that underpinned it. This involved, for instance, dedicating resources to commemorate the two-hundredth birthdays of Sir John A. Macdonald and George Etienne-Cartier, and the anniversary of the Charlottetown Conference. These efforts introduced a new generation of Canadians to the history of Canada’s founding. It was about reversing the lazy interpretation of Confederation that had emerged in academic circles that dismissed the intellectual foundation of the exercise and characterized as a whisky-drenched fait accompli rather than a major accomplishment of statecraft. It was also about showing that Conservatives (and conservatives) had been central to Canada’s historical trajectory.
Promoting Canada’s rich military tradition and recognizing the current work by the Canadian Armed Forces was another facet. The previous government had been able to cut defence spending with little political consequence in part because the gulf between the military and the general public had widened. Canadians had little connection to the military, its members, and its general mission. Our historical consciousness of Canada’s rich military tradition had atrophied. Harper reversed this and began to rebuild a bridge between the military and civil society. This agenda was reflected in the extensive commemoration of the War of 1812 and Canada’s contribution to the First and Second Word Wars. But it also had a more contemporary focus. The government established a National Day of Honour to recognize the efforts of Canadian service men and women and it restored the Royal designation to the Army, Navy, and Air Force to establish a historical continuity. These efforts¾combined with the country’s direct involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq¾created the conditions for a powerful resurgence of civic nationalism and pride in our military. The spontaneous expressions of this newfound regard for the military included “Red Fridays” when Canadians wore red to show their support and the crowds who gathered along the “Highway of Heroes” to show respect and admiration for those Canadians who gave their lives in service to the country.
The Prime Minister’s Northern vision is the final facet of his plan to promote Canadian nationalism. He saw in the North the basis of a distinctive Canadian identity and a conservative vision dating back to Macdonald and Diefenbaker. As he said his first visit to the North as Prime Minister in 2006:
We grew up on the history of explorers like Hudson, Franklin, Frobisher and Amundsen. We read the stories of writers like Pierre Berton, Farley Mowat, Jack London and Robert Service. We perceived the North through the paintings of Lawren Harris and Frederick Varley, and the creations of Inuit sculptors….All of these things – and the harsh climate that touches all Canadians at least some part of the year – have planted the North deep in the Canadian soul. We live in a northern country. We see ourselves as a northern people.
He would continue to visit the territories throughout his tenure and made historic investments in public infrastructure, economic and social development, and Canada’s northern sovereignty. It became a signature part of his prime ministership and even his most vehement critics would concede that his commitment was sincere. The result of his visits and the placement of the North in his agenda provided a basis to expand awareness and interest in Canada’s history as a Northern nation. The 2014 breakthrough in the search for remnants of the Franklin Expedition was the culmination of his efforts to build a link between the historical experience and Canada’s future. It was a powerful expression of Canada’s unique Northern identity.
Overall, this commitment to restoring Canada’s connection to the past has left an indelible mark on the country. The new government’s plant to establish new “symbols of progressivism” is a sign of their anxiety that Harper has succeeded in reshaping Canada’s historical consciousness. We shall see if it is successful in reversing what he has accomplished. He has reawakened a shared sense of nationalism based on our political traditions, our respect for the military, and an attachment to the North. These are powerful expressions and it will be challenging to undermine this legacy.
Stephen Harper was elected Prime Minister after decades of serious intellectual inquiry and political calculation. The result of this effort was his fusionist conception of ordered liberty, bringing together the best traditions of traditional or Burkean conservatism and classical liberalism. This intellectual fusionism became the basis for his governing philosophy and much of what he accomplished as Prime Minister. It also served as the foundation of his political coalition. He saw in his vision of ordered liberty an opportunity to bring together voters across the conservative spectrum and to speak to non-ideologues, including new Canadians, in terms that spoke to their interests and concerns.
Indeed, we believe that to understand Stephen Harper’s political career, one must pay attention to his intellectual and political development and the primacy of his fusionist philosophy. Ordered liberty, in our view, is both the motivation and the reason that he changed Canada for the better.
We do not dispute that Harper was also motivated by the more base instincts of a successful politician. Yet on the big issues, he was motivated by his intellectual conception of ordered liberty.
His electoral defeat brings questions about what comes next for conservatism in Canada. The impending leadership campaign is bound to generate a serious debate about whether conservatism, or Conservatism, requires fundamental reform.
We think that would be an error. Fusionism has been critical to the political success of Canadian conservatism in the twenty-first century. A departure from this amalgam would represent a major step backwards for the conservative movement and the Conservative Party. What is needed is a revamp focused on the application of fusionist thinking to today’s issues rather than a full-scale overhaul. Herein lies the potential for a new conservative agenda that takes it bearings from the same intellectual impulses that underpinned Mr. Harper’s important political career. This means marrying the best of traditional or Burkean conservatism and classical liberalism. It means a vision that is rooted in a vision of freedom that is a means to the pursuit of virtue and that requires strong mediating institutions that are otherwise crowded out or undermined by big government.
We should not lionize the market but rather see it as a powerful tool for wealth creation and for harnessing self-regard for general social good. The market has practical functions in terms of allocating resources in the economy more efficiently than the alternative. But it has a much more important moral function rooted in Adam Smith’s conception of capitalism transmitting the moderating virtues of prudence, thrift, honesty, reliability, civility, and good order.
Conservatives should seek to build a policy programme that bolsters the mediating institutions that support the individual pursuit of virtue and self-meaning. Our party must continue to speak to middle-class concerns about housing affordability, employment, and raising a family, and to offer a conservative alternative to the liberal technocratic solutions to these issues.
At its core, though it should be a pro-freedom agenda that does not overstate the inherent benefits of freedom in and of itself. It is ultimately about freeing up individuals to connect to the world around them distinct and apart from their relationship to the central government, allowing for the type of decentralized, bottom-up, common life conducive to problem-solving through local trial and error.
Fortunately, as we embark on this process of renewal, we have Mr. Harper’s example to follow. In both his philosophy and in the ways he changed Canada for the better, conservatives have a powerful basis on which to build. Conservatives (and Canadians) should be grateful.
Photo: Lynch / Public Domain
Photo: Canada / Public Domain
All other photos of Mr.Harper : Stephen Harper – Facebook / Fair use