For a long time, I was of the view that the electoral and political successes of Stephen Harper, Canada’s 22nd prime minister were purely Machiavellian and straight out of the world of House of Cards. I saw the way he manipulated the message of the 2008 Constitutional Crisis in a counterfactual direction and watched cabinet minister after cabinet minister doing devious things in a way that felt distinctly un-Canadian.
However, with age comes wisdom and as we ponder the question of who to elect as the next government of Canada, we should heartily consider that Stephen Harper is not an evil person. I know my liberal and socialist friends, that this seems antithetical to the anti-neo-liberal discourse we are so accustomed to operating in. However, it makes a lot more sense to view Stephen J Harper as a slightly devious person who wants to reshape Canada in one very specific way, than to view him as a totalitarian evil. What is the one thing Stephen Harper wants to change about Canada you may ask? Well, over the past few months I think we can see a pattern emerging from some of his decisions that speaks to a fundamental decentralizing of federal power.
“But Mynt!” You must be thinking, “Stephen Harper has overseen the largest centralization of power into the Prime Minister’s Office in Canadian History.” Yes, that is true. However, that consolidation of power into his own office is only political powers, not necessarily policy powers. To get started, let me give my first piece of evidence – First Minister’s Meetings/Councils of the Federation.
Stephen Harper has only called two of these meetings, both of which were discussing the economy in the heat of the 2008-2009 financial crisis. Since then, the Premiers have met every year and Harper has attended none of those meetings. For a power hungry dictator this seems like an odd decision. He has no way of exerting his power over the provincial governments if he doesn’t show up to the table. Well, it was at the last Council of the Federation that got me thinking about this. A lot of work has been done at these meetings encouraging inter-provincial cooperation on all sorts of issues, from resource sharing to partial pharmacare to pension plans and yet Stephen Harper does not attend.
The second clue came in some news from after the Council of the Federation. Apparently, despite not showing up, the Harper government decided that the mass buying of drugs that the provinces have been engaging with to lower the price for consumers suddenly became a good idea and the feds wanted to buy in.
To say clearly what I’m suggesting here: Stephen Harper is less interested in enforcing specific policies of his own and more interested in weakening the total power of the federal government.
It’s the reason he doesn’t engage in any of the capital-L leadership we generally expect of our head of government. He doesn’t engage in what he sees as provincial or local issues unless he absolutely has to, and he is trying to shape all parts of the Canadian government to only deal in federal issues with as little interference in local populism as possible. This is the reason that safe injection sites are popping up in different places across the country without federal approval, oversight, or much punishment. This is why there is a cannabis industry working quasi-legally on the west coast. This is why, in spite of minister’s comments for show, Harper has done nothing to slow Ontario’s spending on refugee health care or its pension plan. This is why the lion’s share of the Harper government’s stimulus is given to businesses and individuals rather than infrastructure spending with lower governmental bodies. This is why Harper has spent most of his time in office appointing judges to lower courts that are less willing to strike down laws unequivocally.
Other than his policies aimed at getting re-elected, I would submit that Stephen Harper’s policy doctrine is informed by his background as an economist and political strategist from the Calgary School/Reform Party tradition that feels that the changes to Canada in the Charter era were too widespread and, to a certain extent, undemocratic. I would submit that the reason he hasn’t reopened debate on abortion or same sex marriage or wanted to publically discuss issues like prostitution and physician assisted suicide is because Harper, at heart, is more libertarian than he lets on. He wants the federal government to get out of people’s business and the courts to get out of the business of interrupting government.
This, to me, makes significantly more sense than the Harper as evil dictator narrative I’m too used to hearing among my friends. That is not to say I agree with this vision that I think Harper has for Canada. I want a Primer Minister to offer national leadership on issues and I want a strong federal government. However, this narrative offers me insight into the vision of Stephen Harper as a person rather than as a devil. And I’d rather engage with the conservatives I know on a human level rather than think they are evil sheep puppets being controlled by their evil puppet master.
So what do you think? Could this possibly be the real Stephen Harper?