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CALGARY, Alta. Feb 5, 2016/ Troy Media/ – The first cuts at a post mortem of the Harper years have taken the form of journalists’ biographies. Most deal with his years in office but some begin when Harper’s interest in politics first awakened. Nearly all are critical in the sense that the authors disapprove of Stephen Harper and all his works.
John Ibbitson is an exception. His biography begins earlier than the others and seeks to understand the person who led the country for nearly a decade. His book is critical in the sense of being analytical, not deprecatory.
Ibbitson admires Harper, not grudgingly, but for his ability to fulfill his agenda. Harper succeeded in the sense that “more people think like conservatives today” than did a decade ago. More Canadians accept lower taxes, reduced regulation, the division of powers that makes federalism real, and letting individuals get on with their lives.
Of this complex of policies, reducing the GST and cutting other taxes were the most important. By so doing, the Conservatives limited the ability of the government to intervene in the lives of citizens by reducing the bureaucrats’ life-blood: tax revenue.
Harper was a genuine federalist. Provinces take care of schools, hospitals and roads; Ottawa defends the border, Canadian interests abroad, and runs the justice system. That meant respecting provincial constitutional responsibilities and ending the charade of federal-provincial conferences that obscures responsibilities and increases acrimony.
Harper also ended equalization by stealth, which disguised real transfers by hiding them in federal program spending such as EI or research grants. Even Harper’s enemies must admit he brought an end to protracted constitutional disputes and grand schemes to unite a fractured country. “The country,” Ibbitson said, “isn’t fractured.” Does anyone care about separatism today?
In foreign policy Harper’s critics say Canada is “gone” from such places as the UN. Such critics despised Harper anyway, but it is a fair comment and it deserves a fair response: Canada showed up on the front lines against genuine adversaries.
His greatest domestic defeat was the rejection by the Aboriginal leadership of his First Nations Education Act. It could have led to fundamental changes in the lives of Aboriginal children and enabled them to escape an environment that puts them at risk, often moral risk.
Though his opponents would never admit it, Ibbitson argues that Harper has altered our basic assumptions. Harper’s views have become the new normal. In that respect, Ibbitson is too optimistic. The ease with which the Liberals have returned to their orthodoxy without creating much opposition suggests that Harper’s aspirations for a better Canada remain unfulfilled.
Ibbitson’s major insight builds on an earlier study he undertook with Darrell Bricker on the attitudes of Laurentian Canada, especially towards the West. He connected Laurentian attitudes to Harper’s experience when he enrolled at Trinity College, a residential college at the University of Toronto and a kindergarten for male Laurentian elites. The inmates excluded the suburban introvert and in response he rejected them.
The result for young Steve was ambivalence towards academics and a deep suspicion of the unearned sophistication and sheer presumption the Laurentians. He left Toronto for an entry-level job in Edmonton and started over.
In Alberta, Harper realized that the Laurentians had ruled in the interests of Laurentians. If they detested him in power (to use no stronger a verb), it didn’t matter. Such indifference to their criticism may have infuriated the Laurentians, which must have brought him some satisfaction. But fundamentally, Harper really didn’t care.
Had he flattered them perhaps he would have retained office. Unfortunately, he was not Machiavellian enough.
Barry Cooper is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary.
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