19 October 2015
Canada’s strong economy unlikely to save Stephen Harper
- Canada is set to change its government today: The last 22 opinion polls have all given the Canadian Liberal Party a lead. The leads range from 0.3% to a full 10% but in today’s general election nine-and-a-half years of Conservative government in Ottawa will almost certainly be brought to an end. It is not impossible that Harper’s Conservatives could still end up with the most seats – due to its superior get-out-the-vote operation and, unlike the Liberals, its vote isn’t concentrated in the big cities – but, even then, it would still lose its parliamentary majority. The two left-of-centre opposition parties – the Liberals and New Democrats – would vote down any “Throne Speech”.
- Harper didn’t quit while ahead: If a change of prime minister occurs today it will confirm what is becoming a golden rule of politics: a decade in office is enough. A much mocked Globe and Mail leader captured the national mood. Vote for the Conservatives, it argued, but not for Harper. By three to one, voters have told pollsters they wanted change in this election and only a new Tory leader would have given the Canadian Conservatives the possibility of offering that change. Stephen Harper joins Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl and John Howard as successful politicians who did not quite realise that their sell by dates had passed. Long-running leaders simply develop too many enemies (inside their parties and without), they rack up their share of scandals and get a little too close to certain vested interests (oil and gas in Mr Harper’s case).
- Canada’s strong economy: Harper’s greatest achievement is the economy. Under his stewardship Canada sits at the top of the G7 performance table. During the period of global recovery Canada has outperformed the US, Germany, Japan, Britain, Italy and France in terms of both GDP growth and job creation. Like Australia, Canada has benefited from a great raw materials boom (at least until recently) but it is also notable how Harper has guarded the public finances during this period of growth. There was no Brown-Blair spending splurge during the good years. Stephen Harper shrunk the federal government, has just achieved a small budget surplus and has cut taxes for most Canadians, expanded free trade, and delivering the developed world’s most business-friendly tax system. The roof was fixed when the sun was shining.
- The end of a distinctive foreign policy: Ottawa’s diplomatic service will probably be amongst the Canadians most pleased to see Stephen Harper go. Over the last decade Canadian foreign policy was turned on its head. Harper’s decision to opt out of the Kyoto treaty was the boldest and most controversial move of his premiership. But Canada has also been Israel’s staunchest global ally – backing the embattled Jewish state even when the likes of Britain and America hesitated. Canada has contributed to military action in Afghanistan and against ISIS. Harper has also repeatedly attacked Vladimir Putin for his interventions in Crimea and Ukraine. When Harper met Putin at the Brisbane summit last year, the Canadian PM’s message was simple: “I guess I’ll shake your hand but I have only one thing to say to you: You need to get out of Ukraine.” Some suspect much of Harper’s worldview was motivated by domestic political considerations – including appeasement of Canada’s large Jewish and Ukrainian populations – but it never wavered.
- Harper was the strictest of security conservatives. He introduced a range of new criminal penalties and increased prison populations even when crime was falling. His tough message during this election campaign about banning women wearing the niqab during citizenship ceremonies was scorned by the elites but was popular with most voters and may save a number of Conservative seats in Quebec. But the overall toughness began to grate with some. Even Conrad Black, once a fervent admirer, used an opinion piece to describe Harper as a “sadistic Victorian schoolmaster”. Mr Black has reason, however, to favour penal reform.
- It is difficult to understate how much the Canadian Left hates Stephen Harper: The Left doesn’t, of course, like the fact that he united Canada’s broken Right and became the country’s sixth longest-serving prime minister. That he defeated three Liberal leaders. That he almost completely ignored the established media – rarely giving interviews. That he introduced American-style and somewhat childish attack ads into Canadian politics – against Stéphane Dion, Michael Ignatieff and Justin Trudeau. But most of all they hate him for two reasons. Worse than keeping taxes and spending down, and introducing very traditional law and order policies to Canada, he offended the core environmental and internationalist beliefs of the New Left by taking Canada out of the Kyoto Treaty and always backing Israel. The Left accuse Harper of turning Canada into a semi-dictatorship. It’s all nonsense, of course. “By any objective comparative standard,” writes John Ibbitson in his new book on Harper, “Canada remains, today, one of the freest nations on earth. The Economist considers it the freest in the G8. As for freedom of the press, Reporters Without Borders ranks Canada the 18th-freest nation on earth, which sounds mediocre only until you realize that Canada, by this organization’s measure, ranks far ahead of Great Britain (33), France (39), or the United States (46).”
- An unhappy conservative coalition: After Harper the conservative coalition will be severely tested. Harper has run the strictest of regimes – controlling the interaction that MPs and officials have with the media and punishing any person who speaks too freely or independently. Libertarians feel Harper was too willing to use government programmes and spending as pork to win votes. Some social conservatives felt frustrated that he never attempted to amend the Canadian consensus on gay rights, abortion or capital punishment – although he did, however, introduce a variety of pro-family policies, including income splitting. Whoever follows Harper as Tory leader will have to rebuild the conservative coalition again.
- If defeated, Conservatives will be down but not out: If Stephen Harper does lose today’s election it is worth noting that his government won’t end in collapse as other long-lasting Canadian governments have ended. The last time the Conservatives were in office was in 1993. They lost 154 of their seats in that year’s post-Mulroney election, ending up with just two MPs. This time the Conservatives will remain competitive – at least if the NDP and Liberals don’t collude to introduce electoral reform. This is partly because of what has been described as “The Big Shift”. Although Canada is a liberal country, (1) power has moved to the more conservative West (with its mineral wealth and lower levels of taxation), (2) towards Pacific-facing immigrant populations concentrated in the Ontario suburbs who are more conservative and (3) towards an internet-based media culture that is less “Laurentian” (Canada’s favourite newspaper may be the New York Times – according to David Frum – but its public broadcaster has a fraction of the BBC’s influence in Britain). Jason Kenney – Harper’s likely successor if Conservatives don’t turn to a provincial premier unassociated with the Harper government – won’t start as Harper started, with next to no MPs.
- A new Liberal dynasty: If Justin Trudeau does become prime minister after today it will be a huge personal achievement. At the start of this parliament he inherited a broken party. It had been displaced by the New Democrats as Canada’s official opposition and many wondered if its decline was terminal. Even at the start of this campaign many thought the Liberals would be squeezed by the NDP into a poor third place. He has gone from third to first place in all opinion polls – giving hope to every political underdog in every part of the world and confirming the unpredictable nature of contemporary politics. This election campaign has been about non-Conservative Canada uniting behind the candidate likeliest to deliver change. When the NDP promised to match the Conservative budget framework they probably lost the “change vote” to Trudeau. During the campaign he promised a bit more infrastructure spending, a bit more taxation of the rich, and a bit more greenery – but nothing particularly radical. No one really knows who the real Trudeau is, however. The man who promises electoral reform, to investigate requiring mandatory voting, to legalise cannabis and says he admires China – or the dynamic, modern, handsome presence on the campaign trail. Canada looks set to find out. And, yes, Justin is the son of Pierre, Canada’s iconic 15th prime minister. The United States has the Clintons, Kennedys and Bushes. And this part of North America has the Trudeaus. Dynasty still rules.
- Is the BoreCon era drawing to a close?: One thing that won’t rule any more is what I’ve described as Boringsville Conservatism. The BoreCons have ruled much of the West since the global recession struck with their judicious mix of gentle deficit reduction, restrained public spending, welfare reform and cautious environmentalism. Harper was the ultimate BoreCon. Tony Abbott in Australia was another. Both are now gone or going. Britain’s general election result suggests voters are still relatively cautious and Justin Trudeau’s platform could hardly be described as revolutionary but times do seem to be moving on. Voters may be increasingly ready for something a little more radical now that the immediate economic danger has passed. As the Canadian Conservatives consider their future don’t be surprised if they choose someone more like David Cameron or Malcolm Turnbull. Someone less socially conservative, more focused on social justice issues and a little bit greener. Less vanilla, more pistachio.