by Reg Whitaker
De mortuis nil nisi bonum is a Latin proverb admonishing us to speak only good of the dead. To follow this rule in the political death of Stephen Harper would consign us to silence. The saving grace is that the Harperites’ final self-destruction has cleared the ground for a fresh start, and renewed hope.
Nothing in Harper’s political life became him less than the leaving of it. I refer not just to his concession declaration that he had “no regrets whatsoever.” Even Frank Sinatra had a few regrets (albeit “too few to mention”), but like Sinatra, Harper could take solace in the undeniable truth, for better or for worse, that he had done it all his way. But his way was a disaster: for himself, for his party and for the country.
Worse, the Conservative election campaign, Harper’s last hurrah, was an utter disgrace – morally as well as politically. After a decade in office, he had nothing positive on offer to voters in exchange for another term: no vision, no hope, only fear and hatred.
Consider that he began with two cards to play: the economy and security. In 2011 the economy had been a winner, garnering him his only majority. Harper successfully played the role of “good economic manager.” After all, Canada had weathered the Great Recession better than most.
But that record was mainly due to his Liberal predecessors, who had balanced the books in the late 1990s by carrying out austerity when austerity should be carried out – in a period of prosperity and relatively full employment. This laid the ground for sustainable countercyclical deficits, which the Tories grudgingly embraced and then turned into megapatronage bonanzas for local Tory MPs. The Liberals had also bequeathed their successors a well-regulated banking sector and a constrained real estate market, both of which the Tories had threatened to deregulate just before the storm of 2008 hit. Of course, the “Harper government,” as they liked to style themselves, took full credit – as any party in power would – and reaped the benefits in 2011.
Behind this Potemkin façade of sound economic management there was an economic theory, Harper’s very own Big Idea. This was a national economic development plan that premised everything on one roll of the dice: a strategy driven above all by the export of raw bitumen from the Alberta oil sands to Asian markets, and via the Keystone pipeline to the United States for reexport. There was no equivalent plan for promoting the productivity and competitiveness of the manufacturing and high tech sectors that other countries were working on, other than throwing open Canada to freer trade through new multinational agreements.
The oil sands dice were rolled. They came up snake eyes. Keystone is dead. Pipelines to the Pacific have become objects of ferocious opposition. The global collapse of crude oil prices, engineered in part by a Saudi Arabia determined to kill future high-priced competition like the oil sands, has put paid to the resource export–driven development model that Harper had so recklessly promoted. All that was left in the Tory bag was indifference to climate change and a pigheaded determination to oppose any globally negotiated emission-reduction targets that would in any way impinge on the rapidly shrinking oil sands profits. This left Canada as a widely shunned pariah outlier among nations confronting the global crisis of the environment.
In 2015 Harper’s economy card had gone from Ace to Joker. The objective now was merely to balance the books after years of recession-driven deficits – at the very moment that the numbers were all going in the opposite direction and Canada had slipped once more into recession, and deficit elimination had become a problem rather than a solution.
The fallback was to go negative. The Tory shit-slinging ad machine relentlessly ridiculed the alleged claim by Justin Trudeau that “budgets will balance themselves.” What he had actually said was simple Keynesian common sense: successful deficit stimulus will raise revenues and restore balance. The Harper message – things may be bad, but they’ll be worse under the other guys – was not exactly a ringing self-endorsement.
As the economy card failed, Harper doubled down on the security card – with an ugly twist. Initially, the plan had been to use the Anti-Terrorism Act, Bill C-51, to bring frightened Canadians fleeing the “the great evil descending over our world,” Islamist terrorism, flocking to the protective arms of Father Harper. But if C-51 reassured the core base, for more people it was a wildly disproportionate police-state bill.
The Islamic State, operating in far-off Syria and Iraq, was too abstract and remote an enemy for electoral purposes. Why not hit on a more visceral nerve, an image of the threatening Other guaranteed to frighten ordinary people? Conjure the Islamic Witch, clad in the blackness of the dreaded niqab, sinister eyes peering out from narrow slits, harbouring who knows what under cunning concealment.
Thus the wholly manufactured “issue” of one solitary Muslim woman who, after meeting all requirements including identifying herself fully (in a situation in which she felt comfortable) for citizenship, wished to take the formal oath wearing the niqab, which to her was the appropriate expression of her faith. Manufactured because it was done in a way guaranteed to fail in court, so that Harper could have yet another live “issue” with which to beat both Liberals and NDPers, as well as judges. As it turned out, the niqab did have some negative consequences in Quebec for the NDP, as the Tories and Bloc Québécois picked off NDP MPs haplessly forced to protect liberal democracy from a backlash against the symbols of Islam.
Outside Quebec, and to a degree within Quebec, the niqab “issue” failed to take off, especially when Tories started musing about establishing a tip line for people to inform the state about the “barbaric cultural practices” of their minority neighbours. Witch-hunting has always been the lowest form of democratic demagoguery because it buys votes by victimizing vulnerable minorities. But Harper’s dog-whistle Islamophobia was too much for most decent Canadians, of whom there are far more than Harper ever feared. There were few votes to be bought in this way, while revulsion against the perpetrators of this squalid xenophobia rose.
In the last desperate days, hysterical warnings were issued that Trudeau would bring brothels into your neighbourhood and push marijuana onto your kids. Then Harper appeared at a rally featuring – crack-smoking Rob Ford! Never in Canadian history had a campaign sunk so low.
A Liberal majority government under another Trudeau might be seen as nothing more than “Back to the Future.” I rather think it signals a rejection of the form as well as the substance of the Conservative project. Trudeau won the campaign, not only against Harper but also against Tom Mulcair and the NDP. He did this as the only leader clearly promising hope and positive change. As Harper shrank and Mulcair stagnated over the course of the campaign, Trudeau grew, not only in the polls but in personal stature as well. Above all, he showed a capacity to learn from his mistakes.
At the outset, the NDP had seized the advantage. Daring to ignore the polls and standing on principle, the NDP opposed C-51 and was surprisingly rewarded with a hefty boost in popularity. Trudeau made the safe but wrong decision to support it, and was seen as gutless and unprincipled. But Trudeau drew the right conclusion from the wrong decision. He realized that Canadians wanted a different kind of politics, more daring, ready to break with the Harper orthodoxy. On the economy, Trudeau seized the initiative with the Liberal promise to run deficits and raise taxes on the superrich 1 per cent. Mulcair, playing it safe, portraying his party as no threat to the existing order, pledged no new income taxes and no deficits under any circumstances. Trudeau had adroitly outflanked the NDP on its left, while a grey, boring NDP lost all the advantage that C-51 had conferred on the party as the best representative of the progressive opposition.
There is yet more to Trudeau’s victory, glimpsed in his election night appeal to the “better angels of our nature.” Harper conservatism was not just an ideological project but a permanent campaign which saw politics as war without quarter and anyone who disagreed as an enemy to be crushed. The key weapon: the “wedge,” any issue that divides and turns people against one another. This is the narrative of all right-wing populist politics in North America. It has been all about mobilizing support from some by stirring resentment and anger against others. Take Toronto’s ex-mayor Rob Ford vs. Calgary’s Mayor Naheed Nenshi: everything Ford did was to exclude; everything Nenshi does is to include. Harper the divider has been replaced by Trudeau channelling Nenshi the successful inclusive leader. That’s why, on election night, Trudeau cautioned his supporters that those who had voted for Harper are not the enemy, “they are our neighbours.”
After a decade of darkness, the promise of “sunny ways” was the winning appeal. Policy aside, perhaps this is the best Canadian answer to the Harper aberration.
Reg Whitaker is a political columnist for Inroads and a member of its editorial board. He lives in Victoria, B.C.