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For the record: Stephen Harper’s lasting legacy

Former colleagues and advisors talk about the former prime minister’s place in Canadian history


 

As Stephen Harper officially began his exit from political life with a farewell speech to the Conservative Policy Convention in Vancouver, Maclean’s asked several former colleagues and advisors what they see as his lasting legacy. 

President of the Treasury Board Tony Clement . (Patrick Doyle/CP)

President of the Treasury Board Tony Clement . (Patrick Doyle/CP)

TONY CLEMENT

Former minister of Health, Industry and President of the Treasury Board; Conservative MP for Parry Sound-Muskoka

He’s going to be seen as one of the most successful Canadian prime ministers in Canadian history. It’s going to be a legacy that history will shine upon. In terms of domestic policy, he led a government that was incredibly successful in keeping the ship of state righted at a time of the worst global recession since the Great Depression. He kept taxes low. He primed the pump in terms of spending when there was a credit crisis affecting the entire world, but brought us out of the deficit when there was no further need for this kind of spending. He avoided the crises that other countries had to deal with.

I don’t think [the bad press] affected him, because he felt he was doing the right thing for the country. Maybe it wasn’t the right thing for him politically, in terms of being better liked or having adulation, but he thought it was the right thing for the country. People don’t talk about it, but we never had a national unity crisis under Stephen Harper, and that’s rare. Sometimes it was the things that didn’t happen rather than what did happen.

He was a relentless political machine that always took advantage of his advantages. I ran against him for leader 12 years ago, and in retrospect I scratch my head and ask, ‘What was I thinking?’ But here’s the thing: I ran against him, failed, and yet he appointed me to his first cabinet. He could have ground me down and tossed me into the trash heap but he didn’t do that.


Conservative MP Maxime Bernier arrives outside the offices of the Conservative Party of Canada on Thursday, April 7, 2016 in Ottawa. (Justin Tang/CP)

Conservative MP Maxime Bernier arrives outside the offices of the Conservative Party of Canada on Thursday, April 7, 2016 in Ottawa. (Justin Tang/CP)

MAXIME BERNIER

Former minister of Industry, Foreign Affairs, and Small Business and Tourism; Conservative MP for Beauce

I think one of his most important successes before becoming Prime Minister was his uniting of the right and creating the Conservative Party. It’s what allowed us to take power in 2006. After that, what I remember most is his economic record. His signing of the free trade agreement with the European Union before the Americans will give access to some of the biggest and richest markets in the world. The negotiations were long and arduous, and it was a huge success for him.

The fact that Canada best weathered the world financial crisis because of our economic policies will mark history. Before Harper, there was an idea that was basically, ‘Tax me, I’m Canadian.’ When we had a problem, the knee-jerk reaction was to increase taxes. But Mr. Harper changed the rules, and now there’s a tendency in Canadian politics that governments now will have to think twice before a increasing taxes. We reduced income taxes, we cut the size of governments and had balanced budgets without cutting transfer payments to the provinces. That is all to the credit of Mr. Harper.

The most important aspect of Mr. Harper’s foreign policy was the change in how we viewed the Middle East and Israel. Before, the ministry of foreign affairs was to be an honest broker between Israel and Palestine. Under Harper, we were bigger partisans of the state of Israel. We believed that the two states could live in peace, but having clearer policies in regards to Israel, I think it was a big change.

Tom Flanagan. (Photographs by Jessica Darmanin)

Tom Flanagan. (Photographs by Jessica Darmanin)

TOM FLANAGAN

Author, pundit and former Harper advisor; Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of Calgary

I would imagine what he would see as his greatest achievement was the fact that the federal government takes in the lowest share of tax revenues in proportion to GDP in 50 years. He didn’t radically reduce the size of government, he kind of held the line. Overall, I think he’ll look back and say I kept government from growing much bigger. It’s not a permanent victory, obviously, because things may well change under the next Prime Minister, and it looks like they might.

One thing that probably hasn’t been discussed enough is redirecting our tax and transfer policies so that more revenue flows to families with children. The Liberals have picked up on that and even expanded it. They’re cutting some of the tax credits as well as some of the higher income people, but the general idea that parents with children deserve a better break from the tax system I think is something that here to stay, and it’s a major achievement.

I don’t think there is a big signature achievement like with [Brian] Mulroney and the Free Trade Agreement or with [Pierre] Trudeau passing the constitution in 1982. It’s more like [Jean] Chrétien, who when asked what he accomplished as prime minister said, ‘What do you mean? I was prime minister!’ Harper’s term was sort of like that. If there was a signature accomplishment for Harper it was before he became prime minister, when he created of a competitive alternative to the Liberals. When that happened, people were writing about how the Liberals were going to be in power forever.


Stockwell Day delivers a speech following Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, March 24, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Stockwell Day delivers a speech following Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, March 24, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

STOCKWELL DAY

Ex-leader of the Canadian Alliance; former Conservative minister of Public Safety, International Trade and President of the Treasury Board

He demonstrated that in our somewhat superficial media world, you can still get elected on principle, that you don’t have to sway in the wind. He was very good at clearly articulating, particularly on the economic side, what were the basic principles that can make the standard of living better for everybody and make us more prosperous. And he stuck to them.

On the international front, he was never one who pandered to the superficial. He was always very clear when he met with other leaders on what he believed worked and always open to cooperating. Whether it was our position on Israel—one of the clearest in the world, I think—or drawing a map of how to deal with a country that doesn’t have the same principles that we do, like a Communist regime; engaging while still raising concerns. It was a very Canadian approach.

What a lot of people don’t realize is how attuned he was to basic MP democratic expression. In our weekly caucus meeting anybody could go to the microphone and challenge him on any position that he was putting out there. If you were prepared, and you had the facts and you could make the pragmatic case, you could win the day. You wouldn’t always have your way, but you always had your say. Caucus was a meeting among equals. And at the cabinet table, the Prime Minister would often ask a cabinet minister what MPs thought about their proposals. In spite of the massive machinery of cabinet and government, he was very focused on making sure that MPs had their say.


Conservative Senate House Leader Senator Marjory LeBreton talks to reporters outside the Senate, in Ottawa, Thursday June 6, 2013. (Fred Chartrand/CP)

Conservative Senate House Leader Senator Marjory LeBreton talks to reporters outside the Senate, in Ottawa, Thursday June 6, 2013. (Fred Chartrand/CP)

MARJORY LEBRETON

Retired Conservative Senator; former Leader of the Government in the Senate, staffer, advisor and confidant to every Tory leader since John Diefenbaker

He and our government got us through the worst economic situation the world has faced since the 1930s, with solid management and a very professional public service. We got all of the economic stimulus and infrastructure programs delivered that really gave the economy a shot in the arm. And all done without sponsorship-type scandal. That’s a major milestone.

It was a scandal-free government. There were no billion-dollar boondoggles, or cost overruns on gun registries. The Senate issue was particular to that chamber, and it was over $90,000—which ultimately, no matter how you stack it up, was repaid to the Canadian taxpayer, in rather strange, circuitous ways.

It was our government that brought in proactive disclosure in the name of transparency, and shone the light where it had never been shone before. And it was our government—I was the Senate leader at the time—that called in the Auditor General.

I’ve been through many iterations on this party. And after 10-years in government, we were defeated while still getting 32 per cent of the vote and 99 seats in Parliament. There were many years in the past that I would have considered that a victory. And there was unity. Despite what people might like to believe, the party is in very good shape and we still have great capability to raise money.

Personally, I admired his kind of no-nonsense style. He was not given over to overblown rhetoric, like Jean Chrétien. He did things for the right reasons. You’ll never see him hanging around Ottawa worrying about his legacy.


Prime Minister Stephen Harper's then Chief of Staff Ian Brodie watches from the back of the room during a photo op before the government caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in the file photo taken Wednesday, March 5, 2008. (Tom Hanson/CP)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s then Chief of Staff Ian Brodie watches from the back of the room during a photo op before the government caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in the file photo taken Wednesday, March 5, 2008. (Tom Hanson/CP)

IAN BRODIE

Former Harper advisor; University of Calgary political scientist

He’s the only Conservative Prime Minister since Sir John A. Macdonald to leave both the party and the country more united than he found it. I think that’s the most important thing. I don’t think he killed off Quebec separatism, but I don’t think it’s any surprise that on his watch the Bloc has declined to a handful of seats in the House and the PQ is in trouble in Quebec. When we got elected in 2006, the Bloc was on the upswing because of the sponsorship scandal in Quebec. It was important for someone at the time to prove that wasn’t the face of the federal government in Quebec and I think he was a success at that.

It was very deliberate. The combination of dealing with the fiscal imbalance claims in Quebec and then the resolution that recognized the Québécois as a nation within a united Canada. The Bloc voted for that resolution, as did the other parties. And I think at that point, people looked at the Bloc, and said, ‘That’s settled. So why do we need them anymore?’ It wasn’t an issue that he was looking for, but once the Bloc put it on the agenda, he dealt with it quickly, dealt with it well and didn’t look back.

He meant what he said about respecting provincial jurisdiction and made lots of low-profile moves in that regard. But I think that moment in November 2006, when the parties came together unanimously, that put to bed a sore spot that had plagued Canadian politics for more than a generation. It put an end to a lot of unproductive polarization between federalists and nationalists in Quebec. He didn’t really reap the benefits in Quebec until his losing campaign, until it was too late. But I think the party is stronger for it, and the country is stronger for it.

The last several Conservative leaders have all left office with the party deeply divided—and in some cases splintered into separate parties. He brought everybody into the tent. A lot of people underestimated his ability to be a unifier on the conservative side of the spectrum, but he genuinely won over a lot of people who were not his biggest fans at the beginning. In my lifetime at least, he’s the first Conservative leader at the federal level who can say after his time in office that the party still thought well of his time in government.


Monte Solberg, then the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development Canada and Minister responsible for Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, makes an announcement in 2008. (CMHC)

Monte Solberg, then the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development Canada and Minister responsible for Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, makes an announcement in 2008. (CMHC)

MONTE SOLBERG

Retired MP for the Reform, Alliance and Conservative parties; former minister of Immigration and Human Resources

A lot of people said he’d be very provincial and inward-looking, and he turned out to be a significant figure on the world stage. And some would say, and I’d be one of them, that he became one of the most adept people leading the G8 countries. Here he is — this hard-ass, “wants to go to war all the time,” “war-monger,” and he leads the charge on child and maternal health. That was and is being still being lauded. In fact, being lauded now more than when the decision was made. He was quite proud of the role Canada was playing, leading on childhood and maternal health.

When we first came, no question, he drew all the communications into the Prime Minister’s Office, and we couldn’t talk about issues. I think that was fine initially, but I think they went too far. I think they should have taken the restraints off earlier, case by case, minister by minister once they figured out how adept people were at communicating. They did loosen up with some people like Jason Kenney, John Baird, Flaherty — and others they just controlled the communication very tightly. I think people inferred from that he controlled everything top to bottom, and that’s not true. Not remotely true. It’s easy to criticize now, but I suspect Justin Trudeau will learn quickly that you’re as strong as your weakest link. You can have 27 strong ministers and one weak one, and the news will all be about that one weak one.

The pressure of the job caused him to change. He was never Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky, but he would joke around. And then as the pressure of the office came to bear, there was less of that. I noticed it in myself too. You get into that, you’re a hale fellow, well met. And all of a sudden you’re consumed with these issues. You get consumed with it and it’s hard to be aware of your environment. Some people are good at it; Chrétien was excellent at it. But Stephen Harper would have to consciously turn it on for public demand and then get right back in it again.

You come in to see him and Ray (Novak, Harper’s principal secretary) would say, ‘Sir, Monte’s here.’ And he’d be writing. He’s looked up for a second, but he doesn’t see me. He doesn’t know anything about what’s happening outside of what he’s working on. It would take sometimes a minute or two just for him to finish his thought and then realize it’s time to talk to one of the ministers in his office. That tells you a lot about who he is. That was his approach to everything in the office: complete devotion to trying to solve the problem at hand, then moving on to the next thing. I wasn’t offended by it. You could see who he was and what he was doing. On the other hand, I remember going up to Chrétien’s office when he was prime minister. Took my oldest son and his friend up to meet the prime minister. He says: ‘Monte, welcome! Come on in!’ And he’d show us the pictures on the wall. You could see why Chrétien was successful. But you could also see why Harper was successful. If being a man of the people is important to you, you’d like Chrétien. If you want someone dedicated with a big brain who was working on these big issues, you’d like Stephen Harper.

—As told to Jonathon Gatehouse, Martin Patriquin and Jason Markusoff

HARPER’S TENURE IN PICTURES:


 

For the record: Stephen Harper’s lasting legacy

  1. legacy = THEY DID IT TOO…. MASSIVE DEBT… ZERO GROWTH… PIPELINES= NO BRAINER… hmmm. legacy???? Legacy walks away with millions… small concellation….why the he wait? Sidles the right with failed minister of , many portfolios, printed talking points “Kim” Ambrose to take the hit. Harperlands mans’ man.

  2. These people are delusional.

    By the way, we survived the financial crisis in 2008 due to the policies of Chretien and Martin.

    • Umm…gayle,

      I’m sure you are oblivious to this….but even the Liberals understand that:

      1. Chretien and Martin were able to get rid of the deficit because of the policies of the former PM, Mulroney. It was free trade, and the gst that increased Canada’s wealth. That was part one. Part two, is that Paul martin as finance Minister enacted the policies (with some tweeking) required to get rid of over-spending, and waste. He lifted these polices straight out of the REFORM Party economic policy handbook.

      These polices, were created by a young economics student named Stephen Harper; who later became Prime Minister of Canada for 10 years.

      As for the polices of 2008…ummm…again, you are incorrect. The policies enacted were based on an economic model postulated by Keynes. Harper tweeked them a bit by reducing unproductive spending, while increasing spending that would be spread around.

      And lastly, though you didn’t mention it, there is another fairly important policy that was created by Harper; and still claimed by the Liberals.

      the Clarity Act. – Again, written by a young MP from Calgary named Stephen Harper. It was pilfered by the LIberals (Preston Manning offered the plan to Chretien before the 1995 referendum, and Chretien turned it down. After the narrow win, Chretien pulled it back out, dusted it off, and handed it to the egg-head Stephane Dion…who wrote it on Liberal letterhead, and called it his own.

      You should just say “Thank you Stephen Harper” and go back to your (no doubt) public sector job and receive a paycheque that both you and I know is far to generous for what you actually do.

      Cheers.

      • It always amuses me when people think Harper invented the concept of earning more and spending less as a means to reduce debt.

        Anyhoo, we were saved from the worst of the 2008 recession because, unlike the US and many European nations, Chretien and Martin insisted on maintaining heavy regulations on the banking industry. Harper’s policies in 2008 had absolutely nothing to do with it.

        • I think Charles Dickens first promoted the concept with his Mr Micawber character.

        • Small minds are easily amused Gayle,

          However, since you cannot refute what I wrote, I think I’ve proved my point

      • “go back to your (no doubt) public sector job and receive a paycheque that both you and I know is far to generous for what you actually do”
        Quite the unfounded assumption, James. you really are a bitter person. Constantly on the look-out for perceived benefits received by anyone who is not you..

        • Actually,

          Everything Gayle writes reads exactly like someone who relies on the taxpayer for her living. Her ignorance about anything economic, or policy driven is pretty much confirmation that she lives in a bubble

  3. Honestly, for me, what I took away from Harper’s tenure as PM was the media in this country definitely has a very biased approach to all things ‘conservative’. But this has been proven for decades now from Joe Clark, who, once he was neutered was touted by the CBC and Canadian media as pretty decent guy with some good ideas, same with Preston Manning. Unfortunately, our public funded media outlet has essentially reduced ‘news coverage’ to nothing more than pure hyperbole focused solely promoting whichever government gives them the most funding. I never understood why Harper chose to slowly eliminate the CBC, the budgetary cost was peanuts and I think if he would have played ball with them they would have given the Conservative government a much easier ride. I suppose, however, that the Liberal party and the CBC are, essentially, one of the same. Watching the free ride given to junior last week is all the evidence we need of that, if that had been Harper acting like a twit, that story would go on until he resigned, no question. With Justin it’s all forgotten and forgiven, time to show a photo album of what he and Sophie did on their anniversary.

    For me, Harper’s legacy I think was the Duffy ‘scandal’. The uproar over that $92,000 was breathtaking. I am sure Sophie’s housekeeping staff increase annually will be double that and yet the entire nation was ready to go to war over that ‘king’s ransom’ with the CBC pounding the drum. And then he was found not guilty on all charges and it’s all been forgotten about, every dollar each and every senator spends has been forgotten about. I recall at the time of the Duffy ‘scandal’ there was a report of a missing $3.1 billion (that’s billion with a ‘b’) announced by the auditor general, but, of course, some Liberals could have been implicated if that issue was pursued so Duffy’s actual residency was the issue.

    I don’t line up with either party by the way, I am just a Canadian who is concerned with what our perceptions are doing to us. To me, reading some of the dingbat craziness posted in the ‘comments’ section has me thinking that we are not that far away from becoming the polarized lunacy that has taken hold south of us. The CBC and the rest has treated the election of junior as our Trump being vanquished, I think that this eternal bias could lead to someone far, far more dangerous in Canadian politics coming to life that will not have any tolerance for a publicly funded broadcaster.

    • Why did you feel compelled to bring the PM’s wife into an otherwise reasonable argument? Has she actually asked for anything? The answer is no – read the original interview, in French.

    • Although you try to come off as non-partisan, but when you refer to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as “junior”. it contradicts that message.

      Then you characterize the Duffy scandal as an uproar of 97000.00, when the amount of money had absolutely nothing to do with it. It was the lying, the coverup and the disgraceful conduct of everyone in the PMO (and I mean everyone) that was the scandal.

      Finally, whatever do you mean by “free rein”? While they may exist, I am not aware of any member of the media doing anything other that criticizing Trudeau for his actions, and quite appropriately so.

      In fact, I would say Harper’s greatest legacy was actually convincing his followers that the media are biased for the liberals, despite all the evidence to the contrary. He was able to deflect any negative attention, no matter how much he deserved it, by claiming media bias.

    • Kevin,

      The SCANDAL about the $92,000 given to Duffy is NOT that the expenditures were unwarranted. The scandal, is that duffy was actually allowed to claim them in the first place. harper knew these were ALLOWABLE, but he told Duffy to pay the money back because it was IMMORAL.

      No wonder the Liberals were so outraged.

      Who do these conservatives think they are…..not only do they not understand “entitled to their entitlements” but they also found a way to reimburse the crown with money that wasn’t taken from the taxpayer.

      the nerve.

  4. Marjorie le Breton “It was a scandal-free government”. Now that is chutzpah! She even said it with a straight face. The 1970s pie frill around her neck probably helps to maintain focus on an oxymoronic endorsement.

  5. Harper’s time in office can be summed up in one word . Duffygate.

    That is pretty much a microcosm of the workings of the conservatives. A lot of bad decisions made by a few unelected people trying to control everything. The final result being a complete disaster which was completely denounced by the courts.

  6. Duffy scandal, the boys in short pants in the PMO office, divisive pandering and muzzling of his own MPs come to my mind.

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