If it seems that Stephen Harper has been prime minister of Canada for many years, it is not because so much time has passed, or because his government has gone through controversies of great significance. Rather, it is because the media have subjected him, like most other prime ministers, to daily coverage that has been uniquely intense and corrosive. This coverage is often in excess of actual news value, and derives partly from the sheer number of journalists and columnists that Ottawa attracts. Noting that Harper has been prime minister for less than two years may sound defensive, but it is a sim- ple statement of fact. Here are some other facts. It has only been 45 months since Stephen Harper won the lead- ership of a newly created Conservative Party, whose mem- bers, when they belonged to the various antecedent parties, has been at each other’s throats for the preceding 17 years. And it has been little more than four years since representatives of the previously warring factions estab- lished the form and policy of the new party in the sum- mer and early fall of 2003.
The short existence, so far, of the Harper government and the Conservative Party does not excuse whatever may have gone less than right or horribly wrong since the 2006 election. But these factors do suggest a time frame and con- text that should inform any rational analysis of the chal- lenges that lie ahead. When we reflect on the immediate context of these challenges, let us note that we have seen some remarkable changes in both fortune and tone among the key political actors in Canada. Canada’s Liberal Party, still in its own mind the ”œnatural governing party,” continues to be obsessed by what it sees as a rude and unjustified removal from its rightful perch.
Some Liberals believe this situation would not have occurred had it not been for the alleged incompetence, cupid- ity, craven excess and narrowness of Paul Martin’s coterie. This is wishful thinking of the rankest sort by party factions determined to find blame anywhere but in the mirror.
It is surely fair, however, to conclude that prospects would be far more favourable for the Liberals today if the Chrétienites had been more open to an orderly succession; if the victorious Martinites had been more respectful of a prime minister who had delivered three consecutive majori- ties for their party; if Ignatieff’s supporters had embraced a modest period of apprenticeship for their ”œGreat One”; and if the Rae-Ignatieff forces had been open to some pre-final- ballot collaboration at the Liberal leadership convention in December 2006.
One can even imagine a plausible scenario in which the Tories were defeated on their second budget (which did not lack controversial content) and Liberal hegemony was reinstated with a Bob Rae government. Instead, Harper and the Conservatives continue to face a Liberal Party riven by internal dissent and with a leadership that is more chal- lenged than challenging.
None of this should in any way dilute the prospect (should polls put them substantially ahead in Quebec and Ontario) of the Liberals forming a coalition with any parliamentary ally to defeat the government in the House and win back their self-proclaimed birthright. One has only to recall 1979-80 and how easily an electoral- ly defeated and headed-for-retire- ment Pierre Trudeau " with potential new leaders like John Turner and Donald Macdonald in the field " was convinced by James Coutts and Keith Davey, and by per- suasive poll results from central Canada, to return and retake the gov- ernment from the hapless Joe Clark. If power abhors a vacuum, then for the Liberal Party of Canada, potential power, easily regained, subsumes all matters of principle and personal ambition. That’s just how Canadian liberalism works.
But recent shifts in fortune and tone (which have also had their impact on the Bloc Québécois) speak to the range of possible outcomes that Conservatives need to reflect upon as we chart our future path. Conservatives are not part of a party that easily chooses the most practi- cal and successful electoral course. Even the most compelling political pragmatism strikes some more nar- row ideologues as demeaning and unprincipled. For some, it is as if the mere prospect of victory or sus- tained power reflects moral weak- ness, an unacceptable compromise with the money-changers in the temple or the minions of Beelzebub. But the privilege of governing, espe- cially in a pluralist and highly urbanized democracy, is awarded to those who, quite aside from every- thing else, actually want to govern, with all the compromise and rebal- ancing that the task requires in a pluralist society. Compromise with other players in a minority Parliament is not always a sign of weakness. Indeed, it can be a sign of strength. Bill Davis regained his majority in Ontario in 1981 because he had largely treated his opposition with respect during the preceding six years when his party governed in a minority situation.
The remarkably short time that has elapsed since the days of two warring conservative parties and the broad record of the first two years of Conservative government under- score the finely honed strategic and policy skills of the present prime minister and those closest to him. Every victory has been hard earned for Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party. The real surprise was not that the party did not win a majority in January 2006, consider- ing that it did not even exist in the 2000 election when it was repre- sented by two unpleasantly compet- itive and divisive forces on the centre-right of Canadian politics. The real surprise was that it won at all, given the determined efforts of the small-l and large-L liberal estab- lishment in Ottawa.
The careful balancing, the policies and platform of principle, the mix of candidates who ran as Conservatives in the 2004 and 2006 elections " all of these factors reflect the modernizing role Harper has assumed and executed so well since winning the leadership. For urban, maritime and central Canadian Tories largely from the Progressive Conservative side of the House, it was essential to embrace the dynamism of the new West, its economic force and its political clout. And it was Harper who provided the leadership to cement a working alliance in that regard, aided by recruits like Jim Flaherty, Tony Clement, Robert Nicholson and John Baird, and early and courageous partners like Peter MacKay. In the West, Harper’s leader- ship and the roles played by Conservatives like Jim Prentice, Monte Solberg, Chuck Strahl, Vic Toews and Rona Ambrose revealed a determina- tion to espouse a contemporary conservatism at home and abroad.
And the simple, polite and generous message of ”œopen federalism” in Quebec " combined with an election campaign that evinced limited but precise policy commitments and competent execution, and treated voters with respect " produced 17 extra seats in Ontario and a stunning breakthrough of 10 more seats in Quebec. It was a victory for balance over a monologue of the frantic. The Liberals’ panic-driven TV ads, evok- ing the bogeyman of a secret hard- right agenda by the Conservatives, were too late and too shrill to deny the Tories a victory. Nevertheless, given how cautious Canadians invari- ably are at election time, these tactics may well have denied the Conservatives a majority.
If there was a particular Liberal lack of balance on campaign and pol- icy execution that helped produce a Conservative victory, what political balance will enable Conservatives to win another mandate to govern in the future?
Assembling the different parts of that balance will not be easy. The challenge is clear: If the Conservative Party only sustains the balance that moved it to power, it may not neces- sarily be able to broaden its reach to solidify the added seats it took in 2006 in Ontario and its breakthrough seats in Quebec, much less win a majority government.
What, if any, are the structural or political impediments to achieving such a balance? There are several, not all of which are to be found inside the good and the bad of the Conservative Party. Let me start with two: a disen- gaged and unreformed public service and an apparently loophole-obsessed Department of Finance.
The Prime Minister has clearly respected the civil service and its exist- ing structure, hierarchy and internal appointment and patronage systems. The civil service, meanwhile, has yet to fully engage in supporting the Conservative government’s program. The bureaucracy might complain, with some justification, that aspects of the government program beyond the initial five-point plan outlined during the election campaign are opaque or nonexistent. But that would not justi- fy the apparently narrow advice they have given on income trusts and tax planning, their foot-dragging on new approaches to foreign policy or their lack of creative advice on other aspects of the Tory platform. Any civil service worth its salt will resist parti- san pressure to implement bad policy. In fact, that is part of its statutory duty to the country. But when a party is elected on a broad platform, the Privy Council Office and senior policy lead- ership in the bureaucracy should seek to offer ways of implementation that are reasonable, affordable and administratively competent. I voted for the 2007 budget twice in the Senate and continue to support it, despite what appeared to be the hard work of Finance and Treasury Board officials in diluting initiatives for the working poor, or tilting against the middle-class investor.
No new broad balance attempted in the Throne Speech or budget will be sustainable unless the govern- ment addresses the breakdown of the narrow and often self-serving bureaucracies that dominate Ottawa’s upper echelons.
On the ground and in the field, federal public servants are working hard, and by and large serving well. This is especially true of our men and women in uniform. But any sense of urgency at policy levels below the fre- netic offices of cabinet ministers is, frankly, hard to find. It is not accept- able for the public service to slow pol- icy progress on foreign aid, agriculture, infrastructure, defence, health and skills development. At some level, the PCO, Treasury Board and Finance bureaucracies are, if not working against Conservative policy direction, deeply disengaged from its urgency or coherence.
Another impediment is the inabil- ity of the PCO, on behalf of the Prime Minister, to ensure policy coherence. The Court Challenges Program was set aside on the totally reasonable premise that it was not necessary to prime the litigation pump, after a quarter-century of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the many court cases over that period. There was general agreement that the litigation option made available by Bill S-3 (passed in November 2005), affording protection to English and French linguistic minorities and enhancing the Official Languages Act, would be provided for in another way. Failure to do anything on this file has needlessly offended francophones, which the Prime Minister and his ministers had no intention of doing. (In the end, the ministers involved carry the can for this " as they must.) A simple regulatory or programmatic initiative, at minimal cost under existing statutes, could have averted unpleasantness.
The Prime Minister has been loyal to the idea of a nonpartisan public service. Indeed, promotions, both domestic and diplomatic, have overwhelmingly " and almost exclusively " been from within. Expecting and exacting some creativity, energy and acuity in return is not unreasonable. The second impediment to achieving balance has been the puzzling and excessive zeal among officials in Finance when it comes to closing tax ”œloopholes.”
There is apparently a ”œ”˜wait for the Tories’ drawer” pathology in that department, which means that pet peeves are emptied onto the desks of new ministers. Finance bureaucrats did this to their minister John Crosbie, and to Prime Minister Joe Clark in 1979 with the 18-cents-a-gallon tax that brought down the government. They did it to Michael Wilson and Prime Minister Mulroney on the GST, which collapsed the Tory poll numbers in the early 1990s to the point that winning an election was impossible (the party’s popularity dropped from 29 to 9 percent in public opinion polls); and they appear to have tried to do the same thing on tax policy to Jim Flaherty and Prime Minister Harper. The political impact of the govern- ment’s November 2006 decision to tax income trusts is as yet unclear. On another front, Finance Canada has always fought devolution of full min- eral royalties to the provinces and territories, and it fights on still " as if it were a political party unto itself.
There is a reason the Liberals did not embrace a higher gas tax and the GST while in power. Their political instincts told them to let the Tories pay the ”œpolitical transaction costs” in full, before embracing these self-same policies during their next inevitable time in power. Perhaps Finance offi- cials have learned that Tories will pay the transaction costs more readily " ”œTory duty” and all that. But Conservatives should be wary. Such costs are usually steep, because the actions that grow out of these policies can run against core Tory voters, whose votes may be vital in marginal ridings during the next election.
These two impediments to any Tory rebalancing act need not be fatal. But they did set the stage for the normal early-days angst of a new minority government, making it dif- ficult for Tories to define and meet our objectives. But a creative Throne Speech containing a coherent vision that engages Canadians can quickly settle the nerves of both the govern- ing and the governed, and I believe the government achieved that with the Throne Speech on October 16.
There are heartening signs in Canada and elsewhere of a new conservatism of substance and bal- ance, one that is secure in its roots and humane in its application. These include the coherent strength of the Conservative government: Prime Minister Harper’s clarity of purpose and policy integrity; the hard work of able ministers; the adept adjustment of the government to a more aggres- sive environmental stance; the open- federalism engagement for which most provinces have expressed appre- ciation; the dilution of the sover- eignist thrust in Quebec; and the serious and focused attention on defence spending and procurement.
Moreover, Conservatives have revealed the contours of a Tory policy framework that can and should broaden the party’s support base among women, among suburban and urban voters and among Quebec vot- ers. Elements of this framework include the initial work done to pro- duce a more principled foreign poli- cy, a more robust defence policy, a more sustained interest in helping low-income working Canadians, whether in the cities or on farms, and the rapid adjudication of the Aboriginal land claims process. While there is more to do, solid work has already been achieved on foreign, defence, income security and tax pol- icy. What Conservatives can always offer better than others on the politi- cal spectrum is a more realistic and pragmatic vision of Canada’s geopo- litical and economic context. That vision includes forging stronger ties with our hemispheric allies and eco- nomic partners; addressing the New Europe and the dynamism of an Asia caught in uneven growth and spurts of wealth and trade; and bringing to health care and to the fiscal and immigration systems the flexibility and adaptation that are needed in 21st-century Canada.
These are the kinds of policy thrusts that have always character- ized Conservatives at their best. As for the present incarnation of the party, the early skirmishes over media access, overly centralized PMO con- trol, message coherence and enhanced accountability very much mirror what most new minority gov- ernments face; the intensity of these skirmishes is to be expected, given the partisan personalities on all sides. In the end, Stephen Harper’s victory over Paul Martin and the end of Liberal hegemony were achieved because Harper was the leader of a party that most wanted to do a job, and Martin was the leader of a party that appeared, rightly or wrongly, most eager to keep a job. Canadians showed that they wanted, and still want, a government that gets the job done. From defence to a new hemi- sphere thrust on foreign and develop- ment policy, from courage on Afghanistan to keeping his five initial commitments, Harper is fulfilling the essential promise of the 2005-06 campaign.
Conservatism is at its best a mix of idealism and realism that tilts away from top-down state initiatives toward the community, the individ- ual and the collective responsibility of citizens to create and maintain an orderly and free society. Though it may from time to time tilt to the right or the centre, this balance reflects a Canada whose geography and geopolitical role require the skil- ful interplay of pragmatism and prin- ciple. Stephen Harper is the most ”œeveryman” prime minister we have ever had. His children attend public school. His demeanour, while shy and reserved, is articulate and thoughtful. He is above all a humane and considerate man.
Letting more of these qualities show through " for example, by shap- ing a future vision of northern devel- opment and of inclusive economies " would increase his appeal for most Canadians and might well ensure many more years of Conservative gov- ernment. His visit to Cité Soleil in Haiti was a reflection of the core humanity of his world view.
Keep in mind, however, that the worst exile for Conservatives can be government itself. A party driven by a coherent philosophy of less govern- ment, more freedom, lower taxes and a fiscally restrained bureaucracy is often not comfortable in power. The discomfort and awkwardness that sometimes characterize a new admin- istration are not bad things; at some level they should be reassuring to Canadians. We should fear most the politicians who seem instantly at home with the instru- ments of government, be they discreet or blunt.
There is a new brand of Conservatism afoot around the globe, reflect- ed in leaders like Angela Merkel, the German chan- cellor; Nicolas Sarkozy, the President of France; and David Cameron, hopefully a future prime minister of Great Britain. Unlike the rather dour and rigid tones of the waning Bush regime, the govern- ments of these new Conservatives have a practical, conciliatory and activist bent " one that is optimistic about society and realistic about government. This new Conservative approach is very much Harper’s to shape and define in Canadian terms, as his government moves into the latter half of its tenure.
How that is done, the extent to which there is idealism and opti- mism about what Canadian society can achieve, and humility and prag- matism about the relative role of politicians and government, may well determine whether the Conservatives’ time in office is a brief interregnum or the first step along a historic new path for Canada and Canadians.
Adapted from the updated trade paperback edition of his book The Long Road Back: The Conservative Journey, 1993-2006 (Harper Collins, 2007).