Has Stephen Harper made Canada more conservative?

That we’re now discussing the character of Stephen Harper’s legacy is probably cause for optimism among those of us who aren’t his fans (legacies debated preemptively are rather like obituaries-in-waiting). Whatever one’s view of Stephen Harper, it has become fashionable to imagine his departure in a manner which goes beyond the abstract and to similarly reflect on his political career and its achievements.

A recent intervention on that score comes from the Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson, who writes, unsurprisingly, that Stephen Harper has successfully made Canada a more conservative country. As evidence, Ibbitson cites six policy areas in which the Conservatives have made recognizable changes: spending, crime, immigration, security, democracy and federalism. Writing in reply for National Newswatch, Don Lenihan offers something of a contrary view: that the tenure of Stephen Harper, far from being an era of deepening conservatism, is more one of increasing centralization and authoritarianism.

It’s hard, probably impossible, to disagree with this part of Lenihan’s analysis or its staggeringly bleak observation that such centralization risks calling the very legitimacy of our democratic institutions into question. But on the question of whether Stephen Harper has made Canada more conservative, I would offer an alternative interpretation.

The notion that the past nine years have represented, in part or in whole, a deviation from true conservatism is one shared by many observers on the left and the right. When I attended the annual Manning Centre conference last year, this was a sentiment clearly held by many delegates, some of who were understandably frustrated that their ideas would almost certainly never see the light of day in Stephen Harper’s government. One journalist I spoke to referred to the event as a meeting of the “conservative movement in exile” and the overall ethos of the gathering was more like that of Woodstock (except with more suits and crappier music) than one of the infamously regimented meetings of Harper’s cabinet. This view seems at least implicit in Lenihan’s piece, as he counterposes conservatism and centralization and suggests that the latter has little to do with conservative ideology. I’m not so sure.


If we want to seriously interrogate this notion, we have to go back to the origins of the modern Conservative Party because it’s against this period that the ostensibly deviant conservatism of Stephen Harper is often measured. Reform, forged from the twin fires of Western alienation and populist ferment in the late 1980s, was officially committed to an agenda of lower taxes and public spending, reformed federalism, and, most notably for our purposes, sweeping democratic reforms. Its founder Preston Manning even initially sought to brand the party as “neither left or right” and as “more reformist than conservative”. Sweeping into Parliament after the 1993 federal election (though just missing out on Official Opposition status to the Bloc Quebecois) Manning and his MPs vowed to break with the old habits of Canada’s staid and ossified political institutions: among other things loosening caucus discipline and rejecting several of the “perks” traditionally offered to Members of Parliament. For a time, Manning even refused to follow the traditional practice of leading his caucus from the front bench and later mused about turning Stornoway into a charity casino. images Reform members behaved, and believed themselves to be, more like the parliamentary wing of a national movement than a traditional political party in the old Liberal or Progressive Conservative molds. In their future incarnations as members of the Canadian Alliance and the [pre-government] Conservative Party of Canada, the same MPs and their supporters remained committed to democratic and institutional reform. Viewed in relation to this period, it’s easy to see why many believe the pattern of increased centralization and authoritarian control of messaging that set in more or less immediately following the 2006 federal election represents a betrayal, or at least a deviation from, the Reform Party’s original project.

I profoundly disagree.

The Reform Party was, above all else, about achieving or at least advancing conservative objectives in a country whose political culture is fairly hostile to most or all of them. These were all perfectly explicit in its program, and I’ve named a few already: lower taxes and public spending, constitutional and democratic reform and, importantly, innumerable social conservative objectives related to things like law and order and “the traditional family” (a favourite phrase of Manning’s in the early and mid 1990s) and the creation of a more homogenous, austere, and martial national ethos. Its membership was overwhelmingly socially conservative and sought to use the party as a vehicle to advance sectarian causes and, where possible, turn them into national policy.

Let us consider the Reform/Alliance democratic reform agenda a bit more closely. During his campaign for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance, Stockwell Day promised to hold a national referendum on any issue should a sufficient number of citizens sign a petition calling for one. Yet leaked Alliance documents specifically referred to abortion in relation to the proposal. Day’s eventual leadership victory was welcomed by conservative members of the press such as The Report’s Paul Bunner who enthusiastically wrote:

Mr. Day’s Alliance now represents a romantic hope for a freer country where taxes are lower and government less meddlesome, where respect is granted, not coerced, and where the whims of the intelligentsia are constrained by direct democracy.

Far from being an autonomous part of the Reform project, planks like direct democracy were promoted with a view to better advancing conservative objectives. Populism was ultimately a means rather than an end, which is why it was so easily abandoned following the transition from Opposition to Government.


This fact is also illustrated by Manning himself, who has frequently conflated populist democracy with conservatism despite his own deep commitments to the latter. Take this anecdote from his 2014 conference speech (which I was, incidentally, in the front row to witness – the version below comes from the official transcript):

Back in the days when I was engaged in political door knocking in Calgary Southwest, I was thinking about better ways to get citizens more engaged in elections when I knocked on the door of this house and the voter inside immediately asked, “What’s your platform?” To which I replied, “What’s yours?”

He said: “What do you mean?”

“Well” I said, “My party and I have a platform which I can show you. But what about your platform? What is it that you want to achieve over the next four years – for yourself, for your family, for your community, for your employer or business, for your country? Write that down, and judge me as your MP and my party, if we were to form a government, by the extent to which our policies and actions facilitate and enable you to implement your platform and achieve your goals.”

This is a conservative vision of government – government as a facilitator and enabler of others. And likewise the Conservative Movement is a facilitator and enabler – a facilitator and enabler of conservative thinkers and political activists to better serve their parties, their constituents, and their country.

Had I been the nameless voter in the story above, I would certainly have replied to his question with a platform neither Manning nor his party would have wanted to facilitate (“Well Mister Manning, sir, I’d like to raise taxes on corporations and high earners in order to better redistribute wealth, and I’d like to constrain the environmental and social damage wrought by our economy through the institution of new state regulations…etc.”). You take my point.

Conservatism by other means

I believe Preston Manning to be perfectly sincere in his professed ontology of politics. But it is manifestly wrong to depict conservatism as an axiologically neutral facilitator of popular ideas or, by extension, to think democratic openness is in any way a natural or organic outgrowth of it. (And note the final sentence in the quotation above in which Manning attaches, almost as an afterthought, the word “conservative” to the idea of “facilitating and enabling”.)

Political ideas are not autonomous from their social origins, but rather intimately connected to them. American conservatives do not champion the chimera of “states’ rights” because they have some principled attachment to localism over centralization, however much they may articulate this cause as being a democratic one. Rather, the modern project of expanding state-level jurisdiction over social policy emerged in the South primarily in opposition to the Civil Rights movement and, eventually, as a means of undermining other federally-directed initiatives like equal marriage.

Similarly, the project pursued by Canadian conservatives to dismantle [some parts of] the federal government and promote provincial “freedom” in areas like healthcare has always had more to do with opposition to the kinds of things the federal government has typically pursued rather than a particular commitment to decentralized power. A more recent example is the government’s militant opposition to the NDP’s proposed national daycare scheme. In interview after interview, Conservative MPs have framed the issue as being about choice versus centralization and pluralism versus bureaucracy. But, as I’ve written elsewhere, such opposition has far more to do with a conservative conception of the “traditional family” than it does with any abstract concern about the size or scope of the state.

Ultimately, the purpose of Canada’s conservative movement is to advance the cause of conservatism. Democratic populism can be either a facilitator or an obstacle to that cause, depending on the political context. Harper My sense is that Stephen Harper understands this fact far better than the ever-earnest Preston Manning. His style of government, with its tendency towards unprecedented centralization and control of information, seems premised on an acute awareness that the vast majority of Canadians are not conservatives and, as such, need to have conservatism imposed on them in piecemeal, concealed behind a technocratic smokescreen and with as little visible ideological colouring as possible: Fabian neoconservativism.

It is this understanding, more than anything else, which motivates the almost martial discipline Stephen Harper and his apparatchiks enforce on the Conservative caucus and their ruthless obsession with bureaucratic centralization and control; their repeated steamrolling of parliamentary rules and conventions; their willingness to use public resources for the purposes of self-promotion; their very deliberate transgressions against election law; their use of selectively bellicose rhetoric on the world stage to court particular constituencies at home; and their ruthless, mean-spirited debasing of political opponents. Harper has not, by my estimation, become any less conservative than he was in his Reform Party days. Rather, time and experience have taught him that conservative objectives will be better advanced by way of a coldly Machiavellian approach that subordinates overt ideological fervor to a more utilitarian ideological calculus.

To be committed to an ideology is ultimately to believe in a particular conception of how society and politics ought to be and to pursue it as an ideological partisan; to be an ideologue is to be more committed to its realization than to the procedural and ethical constraints of existing institutions. While Preston Manning may not have fully understood or accepted this, Stephen Harper does. Far from having strayed from the conservative objectives of the Reform Party, he has merely taken them closer to actualization. As populism becomes authoritarianism the means may have changed, but the ends remain exactly the same. In this sense at least, Stephen Harper has made Canada more conservative.


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