External Affairs

The End of the Harper Decade

Like Narendra Modi, Canada’s prime minister managed to make the political fringe-right the mainstream but the aggressive pursuit of its agenda was eventually the reason for his undoing

Stephen Harper, joined by Narendra Modi, receives a blessing from the head priest during his visit to the Laxmi Narayan Temple as part of Prime Minister Modi’s first official visit to Canada. Credit: Canadian PMO photo by Jason Ransom

Stephen Harper, joined by Narendra Modi, receives a blessing from the head priest during his visit to the Laxmi Narayan Temple as part of Prime Minister Modi’s first official visit to Canada. Credit: Canadian PMO photo by Jason Ransom

Toronto: On Monday, October 19, what Canadians call the Harper decade came to an end. The Conservative majority government of Stephen Harper was replaced by a Liberal majority government under Justin Trudeau.

For Indian readers, there are numerous analogies that can be made between Stephen Harper and Narendra Modi. Both began their careers as activists on the political right. Both brought what had been fringe right-wing ideas into the mainstream. Both are known for exerting tremendous control over what their parties and allies are allowed to say, and both are known as men of great personal discipline. In politics, both have faced a tension between placating their extremely well-organised and loyal right-wing base on the one hand, and attempting to reach out to more mainstream voters with messages of economic management on the other.

Leading two successive minority governments (2006-8 and 2008-11), then a majority government from 2011 until Monday, Harper navigated this tension expertly for a decade, selecting issues carefully on campaign and quietly making major changes to the country’s institutions while in power.

A decade of cutbacks

During the Harper decade, the long-form census was eliminated, denying social scientists and policymakers the data needed to study society and make recommendations. Government-based environmental science, based at Environment Canada, was defunded, and those environmental scientists who remained were prevented from speaking publicly about their research. University-based research funds were redirected towards business-relevant projects. Harper’s antagonism turned hundreds of the country’s scientists into unlikely activists, bringing the unusual sight of scientists marching in their lab coats with slogans like “No Science, No Evidence, No Truth, No Democracy”.

It was not just knowledge about the environment that Harper attacked, but the environment itself. A massive omnibus bill (C-45) introduced immediately after Harper achieved a majority in 2011 removed protections for the country’s waterways and forests. These changes inspired a new movement of the country’s indigenous people, called Idle No More, whose fundamental demand was for sovereignty over indigenous territory and a reconstituted nation-to-nation relationship between the Canadian state and indigenous peoples, or First Nations.

Where these indigenous rights and relationships clashed with Canada’s industry – especially its mining industry and especially Alberta’s famous tar sands – Harper, like so many Canadian governments in the past, opted for the mines. This approach to environmental issues has also helped turn Canada into one of the worst offenders on climate change, receiving grades as dismal as those of the Saudi kingdom for its behaviour in climate conferences and its failure to set any meaningful targets on emissions.

Harper’s biographers have referred to his approach as ‘incrementalist’. Over time, a series of legislative and procedural changes can have revolutionary implications. Harper is known for the centralisation of control in the Prime Minister’s Office and for a scientific approach to elections. He weathered major scandals involving corruption and bribery at the highest levels of his government, as well as scandals involving electoral irregularities and the denial of the right to vote to sections of the people. He also took on the task of reshaping the Canadian public’s view on military power. Before the Harper decade, the Canadian military was thought of (inaccurately) as a peacekeeping instrument, an army that tried to separate combatants in civil wars in Africa and Eastern Europe. This was changing after September 11, 2001 under Liberal governments, but Harper accelerated the trend towards presenting Canada as a Western military power at America’s side, projecting force and defending Western interests.

In a similarly incremental approach, Canada’s famous and extremely popular universal health care system was attacked indirectly, by cutting taxes and reducing federal-to-provincial transfer payments on which health funding depends. Harper understood well that expressing disagreement with the principle of health care for all would be politically problematic, but creating a situation in which such a principle was no longer financially viable could be done in the dark. In this, he was enabled by Canada’s centralised private media networks, most of which endorsed him at the latest possible moment in this election, in some cases through direct intervention of newspaper owners in editorial policy.

Tired of austerity

So, why did he lose? Harper lost because the gains he made for his right-wing base became so politically unsupportable for the majority of voters that they turned out in record numbers in order to prevent him from coming to another term in power. Around 14.5 million voted in the 2011 election that brought Harper to power, 5.8 million of whom voted for his party. Around 17.3 million voted in the 2015 election, 5.6 million for Harper’s Conservatives, 6.9 million for Trudeau’s Liberals, and 3.5 million for the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP).

If there are parallels between Harper and Modi, there are also parallels between the new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, and Rahul Gandhi. Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau, was a famous Liberal prime minister in the 1970s and 1980s, and his name has bought him great goodwill. Like the Congress Party, the Liberal Party had been decimated by corruption scandals and was unpopular with the large social-democratic part of the electorate because, on corporate issues like free trade, corporate taxes, and subordination to the US, it is indistinguishable from the Conservatives. But the Liberals do not favor divisive rhetoric and authoritarian culture, and are more susceptible to popular and media pressure.

The left-wing NDP began the long election campaign as the front-runner, but lost its lead by accepting the austerity-driven ‘balanced budget’ arguments of the Conservatives. When a video came out of the NDP leader, Thomas Mulcair, praising Margaret Thatcher, Trudeau’s campaign saw an opportunity to outflank the NDP on the left. While few on Canada’s left have illusions about Trudeau or the Liberals, they were also disappointed and de-energised at the NDP’s acceptance of austerity economics, as well as the complete consensus among all major parties, including the NDP, of unconditional support for Israel.

Everyone that is not the Conservative base (which is still 5.6 million voters and 31% of the electorate) woke up relieved on Tuesday morning. But that Conservative base has not gone anywhere, and will continue to exert a powerful force on Canadian politics, not least through the 99 seats still held by the Conservative party (the Liberals have 184). Harper resigned as party leader – but he was re-elected in his home riding.

Justin Podur is a Canadian writer. He is the author of Haiti’s New Dictatorship (2012), and the novel The Demands of the Dead (2014). He teaches at York University in Toronto