Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party has now been in office for more than four years. This is the normal lifespan for a majority government, but Harper’s government has been a minority throughout this period.

There is a previous model for such a record: Lester Pearson led the Liberals into office with a minority in 1963, followed, like Harper, by a second minority in an election he called two years later. The analogy, however, ends with the superficial resemblance. Both Harper and Pearson had to manage rancorous minority parliaments, but they did so in very different styles.

Pearson employed his skills as a diplomat and conciliator to achieve major policy innovations out of parliamentary chaos: Medicare, the Canada Pension Plan and the Canadian flag are among his accomplishments. Harper will be remembered not for diplomacy but for his belligerent insistence on acting as if he wields an unchallenged majority. Twice he has simply shut down Parliament, first to avoid facing a vote of confidence he was certain to lose, and again to put off a censure of his government by a parliamentary majority. Yet apart from damaging the fabric of parliamentary democracy, the Prime Minister has precious little to point to in the way of legislative accomplishments.

His government passed an Accountability Act that is a joke set against the government’s own record of obfuscation and opacity. He bowed to his populist Reform wing by passing a fixed-date election law, and then immediately broke it by forcing an election in 2008. His government has – just as violent crime rates are falling steadily – loudly proclaimed a set of tough-on-crime initiatives. But it has systematically undermined its own agenda by constantly dissolving or proroguing Parliament and setting the legislative clock back to zero, and then encouraged the scrapping of a long-gun registry that is strongly supported by the RCMP and big-city police chiefs.

To make matters downright odd, the achievement the Harper government has claimed most frequently to its credit is a straight steal from its centre-left opponents: a Keynesian-inspired, government-led, debt-financed economic stimulus plan to combat the Great Recession. So leftish has “Canada’s Economic Action Plan” seemed to right-thinking supporters that the Fraser Institute has denounced it as undermining private-sector recovery. Harper, for his part, has had to attack this virtual Conservative Party think tank (starring luminaries such as Preston Manning and Mike Harris) as “completely wrong.”

The ironies run deeper yet. Officials from other countries and the world financial media have rightly heaped encomiums on Canada since the onset of the Great Recession: Canada alone got it right; Canada’s is the economy that works. Harper and his Finance Minister have understandably basked in this praise and tried to turn it into domestic political gold. But there is a problem. All the things that Canada got right (budget surpluses and debt retirement; putting the Canada Pension Plan on a sustainable basis into the mid-21st century; more exacting financial regulation and restraint on bank mergers; responsible mortgage and housing policies that prevented a housing bubble) can be traced to the Liberal governments of the 1990s.

So what do we make of a Prime Minister who comes in as the most hard-nosed ideological conservative ever to hold the office, and after four years emerges as a born-again Keynesian whose proudest policy accomplishment is to have stolen the clothes of the despised Liberals? Playing the political transvestite has cost Harper surprisingly little in the alienation of his own base. But there are other, less savoury, dimensions to his conduct of office that the big policy picture obscures. There is a pattern in this government of advancing conservatism by stealth, rather than by open policy confrontation.

The stealth strategy involves working away in the shadows, in all those areas that tend to lie out of camera range. Thus, the government appoints conservatives to replace liberals and progressives on boards, commissions, advisory panels and the like. Conservative views and values are spread where more moderate and liberal views previously prevailed – especially where social conservatives, shut out of open policy influence by nervous Tory eyes on the polls, can instead work at changing the terms of debate, for example on reproductive technologies while Harper has shut the door on reopening the abortion law debate.

At the same time, progressive voices within and on the margins of government are silenced. This is done by imposing gag orders on public servants (especially on climate change), closing down programs that fund progressive causes and mobilizing “Tim Horton’s” public opinion to attack those progressive voices that do assert themselves. The strategy is a kind of right-wing Gramscianism: aim for ideological hegemony, and the rest will fall into place.

When the strategy hits resistance, it is not a pretty picture. We can start with public servants who offend. Linda Keen was sacked from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, and publicly smeared, simply for doing her job. The Chief Electoral Officer has clashed with the Tories and been publicly maligned. The activist Chair of the RCMP Complaints Commission was not renewed. The Chair of the Military Police Complaints Commission who had initiated investigation of the Afghan detainee torture issue was neither extended nor replaced. Highly respected senior public servants have been forced out: the Clerk of the Privy Council and the deputy ministers of Foreign Affairs, Justice and Transport have all retired unexpectedly, without explanation. It is widely believed that they all made the mistake of crossing the Tories, and had to fall on their swords.

Nowhere has a harsher light been cast on stealth machinations than in the sordid story of Rights and Democracy, the supposedly independent human rights advocacy group set up by the Mulroney government and initially headed by Ed Broadbent. Carefully selected Harper appointees set out on a witch hunt against funding any groups even mildly critical of Israel, and succeeded in bitterly dividing the institute. Early in 2010, its President died suddenly of a heart attack at age 66 after vicious internal strife had boiled over at a meeting. His widow points an angry finger at the Harper appointees. Staff have been fired, and the offices burgled and files stolen. The Tories have responded by appointing as new President a Quebec Tory who has warned about the threat posed by Muslim immigrants to Quebec culture.

This thuggish behaviour is in keeping with the Harperites’ self-image as outsiders defending an embattled beachhead in a hostile Liberal Ottawa. The Prime Minister’s Office is the control centre of the most hierarchically disciplined administration ever. Harper is a notorious control freak, but the extraordinary degree of centralization reflects a Tory need to fight a military-tyle campaign around every issue. It is reminiscent of the presidency of that other pathological outsider, Richard Nixon, whose no-holds-barred war on opponents ended, we might remember, rather badly.

The merger of the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties has been a limited but significant electoral success, securing successive Tory minorities. The dominant Reform/Alliance wing out of which Harper emerged has all but submerged the old PC wing, but not in the way that many anticipated. Radical economic and social conservatism has not, for the most part, made its way into law. Nor has populist reform of the political process. The Alberta-based Harperites have instead revivified another, less admirable, prairie populist tradition: “plebiscitary democracy.” In Alberta, the old Social Credit regime, followed after 1971 by the PCs, established a direct link between leader and voters, cutting out or marginalizing mediating institutions and processes. Unchallenged majorities in the legislature were matched by party control over all aspects of governance. Elections became simply “yes/no” plebiscites on continuing one-party rule.

In their contempt for Parliament as an institution, and in their systematic attacks on independence from politics in the public service, the Harperites are striving to achieve this kind of direct control over all aspects of government. It is exactly what one would expect from a party that sees enemies everywhere, in the legislative and judicial branches of government, in the bureaucracy, in the media. Steal your enemy’s policies, if it serves your electoral advantage, but cut them off at the knees so they can’t pursue you.

The phony crime agenda provides a model of this style of governance. The puny legislative output is the Tories’ own fault, but Harper blames the Senate (which is simply doing its job by looking over the government’s legislation before passing it) for holding it back – and then throws in the Reform-style promise of an elected Senate as the antidote to “Liberal” obstruction in the upper house. In reality, he has used his years in office to pack the Senate with a majority of Tory appointees, all the while denouncing patronage appointments as a discredited antidemocratic Liberal practice.

He knows full well that he can never reform the Senate without the constitutional agreement of the provinces, which will be difficult to achieve. But it is highly doubtful that he even wants to fulfill this promise. Elected senators with a popular mandate of their own, whatever their party stripe, would not be beholden to the Prime Minister. Making patronage appointments in the name of democracy, he has achieved exactly what he wants: an upper chamber at his command, even without a majority in the Commons. It’s a good bet that it will stay that way as long as Harper remains in office.

The good news for Canadians is that authoritarian tendencies in the plebiscitary democratic model come most readily to the fore when the leader commands an unchallenged majority in the elected chamber, and Harper has yet to achieve this. That is why the constitutional confrontation between Parliament and Prime Minister over the release of documents in the Afghan detainee torture issue is of crucial importance. If Parliament wins this test of wills, parliamentary democracy can survive. If Harper wins, parliamentary democracy will be on life-support, at best. The stakes are high indeed.