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Federal Politics
Election 2015

The Long, Long Ego Trip of Stephen Harper

A one-man show from fringe to power. Our underestimation only fuelled his contempt.

Crawford Kilian 21 Oct

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

With Justin Trudeau as our new prime minister, most Canadians are looking forward, projecting their hopes and fears on a future very different from the past. But let's take a minute to look at the past and consider how to prevent it happening again.

Like roughly 70 per cent of Canadians, I spent the last decade trying to figure out a man named Stephen Harper. (The other 30 per cent just liked him enough to vote for him.) The Tyee alone has mentioned him in well over 500 articles, seeking to understand the man's motives, politics, actions, and methods.

Now, as the dust settles on the election, we should consider a new possibility: Harper did what he did for no reason except to show he could do it. It's been one long ego trip.

My first dim perception of Harper must have been 1990s news stories quoting him as a right-wing advocate for lower taxes, but he was lost in the attention the media gave to Preston Manning and his ludicrous Reform Party. They were all just fringe malcontents of no interest in the serious struggle between Liberals and Progressive Conservatives.

Live and learn. Absent-mindedly, we watched him ascend to power, until he actually staged a hostile takeover of the Progressive Conservatives and proceeded to a hostile takeover of Canada itself.

If, as John Stuart Mill observed, "The Conservatives were ever the stupid party," then the stupider parties, alas, were ever on the left. They enjoyed a high opinion of themselves while the right won elections.

We need to give the man his due. Stephen Harper was one of the brightest persons to be prime minister since Pierre Elliott Trudeau, perhaps the brightest ever. But while Trudeau studied Canada and published his findings in books like Federalism and the French Canadians, Harper studied Canada and kept his own counsel.

A mind like a Martian

A suburban kid in mid-century Canada, Stephen Harper had a mind like one of H.G. Wells' Martians, an intellect "vast and cool and unsympathetic" to his fellow Canadians. He saw us as wannabe Swedes, trying to make the country into a welfare state. But Harper knew better.

Well-funded think tanks and lobbyists supported right-wing causes. With their help Harper herded western Canadians -- almost as alienated as he himself -- toward a conveniently empty spot on the political spectrum.

Step by step, Harper moved his right-wing fringe toward power. The Liberals, PCs, and New Democrats failed to recognize what a threat he was, which must only have intensified his contempt for them -- and for the rest of us, we who preferred to watch Jean Chretien struggle with Paul Martin.

By the end of the coalition debacle, however, it was clear to even the dimmest of us that he was way smarter than the likes of Jack Layton, Gilles Duceppe, and Stephane Dion. Canada had suffered the political equivalent of a home invasion. The grownups were tied to their chairs in the kitchen while the invaders ransacked the place. Maybe we kids even got a touch of Stockholm syndrome, identifying our own wellbeing with that of our captors. They were scary, but we admired their outrageous confidence.

Perhaps that sneaking admiration helps explain how Harper caught his opponents on the hind foot again and again, for almost 10 years. But as his regime approached this election, something about his style of government seemed increasingly odd and hard to explain.

The Liberals maintained their role as the "natural governing party" by treating their own party as an important Canadian institution; Liberal politicians and backroom boys might often serve themselves, but they served the party first. The Liberals headhunted good candidates and made them superstars as MPs, cabinet officers, and prime ministers. When Pierre Trudeau entered politics, he was just one of the "three wise men" Lester Pearson had recruited from the Quebec intelligentsia.

It must have been challenging to lead a cabinet full of prima donnas, but it made Liberal politics fascinating and lively. The Progressive Conservatives and the New Democrats by comparison seemed earnest, self-righteous, and dull.

The Liberals' best pupil

Harper in a sense was the Liberals' best pupil, studying them more closely than any academic political scientist. He wanted to destroy the Liberals and make his own Conservatives the new natural governing party. He must have understood the Liberals' success as a kind of hockey or baseball dynasty, with smart managers bringing strong new players onto the team as the older ones wore out (and moved to the Senate).

Yet Harper seems to have deliberately rejected that proven formula for success. Instead he built a one-man show, with a supporting cast of nonentities and ignoramuses.

Better said, he took over Preston Manning's one-man show, a Reform Party prone to bozo eruptions. The only change he made was to clamp down on the bozos, who were at least bright enough to know their futures depended entirely on doing their boss's bidding.

If Harper built an institution during his regime, it was the Prime Minister's Office, which has gained enormously in power since 2006. He systematically neglected some institutions (like Parliament), deliberately crippled others (like the Senate and Statistics Canada), questioned some (like the Supreme Court), and treated a few, like the Canadian Forces, as disposable.

His own Conservative Party of Canada now seems as disposable as the military. A handful of loudmouths like John Baird and Jason Kenney might be trusted to speak on their own, but even they stuck close to their talking points. And several of those loudmouths left his government rather than run again.

And this raises the question of succession. Harper was too good a politician to deny his own transiency. If he really wanted to see this country transformed, he should have planned for the long-term, not a mere decade.

Puppets and puppeteer

Yet he famously failed to recruit any wise men or women who might be plausible successors. His reliance on the likes of Dean Del Mastro and Paul Calandra as his parliamentary mouthpieces only heightened the contrast between the puppeteer and his puppets. Some speculate that Baird left in hopes of returning to rebuild the party after Harper's departure, but even he would be a very hard sell -- especially against the likes of Justin Trudeau.

So we are left with a quietly appalling conclusion: Stephen Harper was on one of the greatest ego trips in history. He studied the system, gamed it, and gained power over Canadians for close to a decade. It wasn't to promote some conservative ideology; conservatism was just another throwaway gadget, a convenient utensil. He used it to promote himself, not to promote conservatism. Whether the party survives his departure is of no concern to him. He was a dancer in darkness, dancing for no one but himself.

We dare not forget him. By his long success, Harper made himself the model for the next vast, cool intelligence that comes out of the Canadian suburbs. The alienated voters of his base will recognize the next Harper when they see him (or her). Distrusting Parliament, the Supreme Court, and the civil service, they will put their hopes in another solitary saviour.

Until that second Harper comes along, the victorious Liberals and shattered New Democrats had better unite to rebuild the institutions now in disarray, and work hard to prevent a reprise of the last dark decade.  [Tyee]

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