Harper among the immortals

Paul Wells on Stephen Harper's longevity

Every once in a while, a mysterious Conservative emails a bunch of people to remind them that Stephen Harper is about to pass another prime minister in the longevity stakes. I got onto the recipient list when Harper passed Alexander Mackenzie in the autumn of 2010. Since then he’s passed Lester Pearson and R.B. Bennett and now he has John Diefenbaker in his sights.

Turning to the noted authority on Prime Ministerial longevity, Wikipedia, we learn that there will now be a bit of a pause until Harper begins catching up to the PMs who served two full majorities: Louis St. Laurent, Robert Borden and Brian Mulroney, at intervals through 2014 in a manner that should help goose the sales of the by-then-brand-new paperback edition of my next book. 

To beat Jean Chrétien, Harper would need to be re-elected yet again after that. And then to pass Laurier and Trudeau, re-elected yet again. Sir John A. Macdonald and Mackenzie King look safe in their top perches, and frankly I hope my third book can be about a different topic, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

What have we learned? Maybe a little more than nothing. Beginning, arguably, when he passed Pearson early this year, Harper moved out of the group of prime ministers nobody remembers, and into the group everyone will. Quick, name something Arthur Meighen did, or Mackenzie Bowell.

Now, obviously longevity isn’t a sufficient condition of prime ministerial significance. When Trudeau retired from politics the first time, in 1979, he had already been prime minister for 11 years and my predecessor Allan Fotheringham wrote a column that pretty much wrote the guy off. “He leaves office as he entered it — a steely mind and unbendable personality that the voters, in the end, tired of trying to unravel,” Doctor Foth wrote. “In retrospect, he was a lousy leader…. That was his fatal weakness. But he gave it a try. Give him credit for that.”

Fotheringham’s dismissal made sense at the time. The 1980 referendum, the Constitutional repatriation (and the National Energy Program) still lay ahead, in a short second career that would outweigh everything Trudeau had done before.

But it should be clear by now that longevity is a necessary condition for any prime minister who wants to carry weight in the history books. Harper has already had an influence on Canada’s political culture, its foreign policy, on the practice of federalism and the evolution of social policy. Now he can start to make a difference comparable to anything Pearson and Diefenbaker made. If he wants. Harper’s (first?) coveted majority is already seven months old.

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