Significant political realignments have become increasingly rare in the developed world. Most of these countries are now mature democracies with two or more political parties that have long-established their political spaces, leaving little scope for any dramatic transformation. As the bigger questions that define the destiny of a nation have been settled, most political battles are fought over bread and butter issues of economic stewardship and competent government. Among the original group of seven advanced economies, only Japan and Canada had one party or ideology dominating the political landscape for a very long time. But both countries have recently seen political power shift to groups that have long been in the opposition. While the political environment in Japan is still very fluid, the process of change that has brought the Conservative Party to power in Canada has so far appeared more enduring. And the politician who led the transformation is Stephen Harper, the current prime minister of Canada.
The Liberal Party of Canada dominated the country’s politics for most of the 20th century, controlling the government for almost 70 years. Because of this liberal supremacy, Canada was long seen as having a ‘dominant-party political system’, rather than the more common multi-party systems in other major democracies. The Liberal dominance was interrupted for a short period between 1984 and 1993, when the Progressive Conservative Party, a predecessor of the present Conservative Party, controlled the federal government. Though the Conservatives successfully pushed for a free trade agreement with the U.S. in 1989, which later evolved into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that appreciably benefited the Canadian economy, the Liberals made a strong come back under Jean Chretien who was prime minister for three successive terms until 2003.
While the Liberals remained in power under Paul Martin for another three years, they were steadily losing the political space to the Conservatives who regrouped under Stephen Harper. By then, the Progressive Conservative Party and the Canadian Alliance party had joined forces, and Harper had emerged as the leader of the combine. In the 2004 federal election, Harper led an effective campaign and dominated the debate against Prime Minister Martin, but failed to gather enough seats in the parliament to form a government.
Undeterred by the setback, Harper started negotiations with the New Democratic Party that initially supported the Liberal government, but were discouraged by some of the government’s policies. Towards the end of 2005, the New Democratic Party joined the Conservative Party and voted down the Liberal government in parliament. In federal elections held in 2006, the Conservative Party, though short of a majority, emerged with the most parliamentary seats and Stephen Harper became the 22nd prime minister of Canada.
Over the next two years, the Conservative Party gained more political ground and Harper asked for a federal election in 2008. The party managed to increase the number of its members in parliament and Harper, his profile enhanced by the election results, remained the prime minister. The government’s handling of the economic decline that followed the global financial crisis was widely acknowledged, as Canada witnessed the strongest recovery among the major developed economies. While other countries struggled to revive the labor market, Canada recovered all the jobs lost during the recession and the country’s housing market rebounded. To achieve this, the Conservative government did not hesitate to step up public spending, though the policies led to the highest fiscal deficit in Canada’s history.
The successful management of the economic recovery won further political goodwill for the Conservatives, and they capitalized on their successes in 2011, with Harper leading the party in the federal election and winning a majority of seats in the parliament. It was the first time in the country’s history that a center-right political party controlled majority seats in parliament, and the election was described by The Economist as ‘the most transformative’ in recent times. The Liberal Party lost badly and was replaced by the New Democratic Party as the main opposition. The political movement fashioned and led by Harper had achieved its biggest victory.
We have to remember we’re in a global economy. The purpose of fiscal stimulus is not simply to sustain activity in our national economies, but to help the global economy as well, and that’s why it’s so critical that measures in those packages avoid anything that smacks of protectionism.
— Stephen Harper, prime minister, Canada
The eldest of three sons of an accountant who worked for one of Canada’s largest oil companies, Stephen dropped out of college and joined his father’s employer as an office assistant. Notwithstanding the lack of formal education or training, he eventually became a computer programmer for his employer. He later earned an undergraduate degree in economics from the University of Calgary and returned, several years later when he was a full time politician, to complete a graduate degree from the same university. His conservative beliefs were shaped and strengthened during the time spent at Calgary.
Stephen Harper was mentored into politics by Preston Manning, who founded the Reform Party, which was against the centralization of power in the federal government and stood for social conservatism. Harper became the party’s Chief Policy Officer and played a major role in formulating the strategies that made the subsequent political gains possible. He was first elected to the parliament in 1988 and was reelected in 1993. As his relationship with Manning came under strain due to differences on conservative causes, Harper declined to contest the 1997 election. He joined a think tank and co-wrote a book to promote the cause of conservatism. Meanwhile, Manning lost the leadership of the Reform Party, which was renamed as Canadian Alliance. Harper returned to active politics and became the party leader in 2002, and was reelected to the parliament and chosen as the leader of the opposition. Two years later, he became the first leader of the Conservative Party.
Now in his third term as prime minister, Harper has become less popular in opinion polls. There is growing opposition against plans to downsize the government and cut welfare spending, as well as against some of Harper’s aggressive political tactics. Adding to the government’s woes, the economy has also lost some momentum, as environmental concerns continue to delay efforts to increase the country’s oil and gas output and efforts to build new oil pipelines. At the same time, acknowledging the gains from increased trade, the government is pursuing free trade agreements with the European Union and India. Irrespective of the results from his remaining years in office, perhaps Stephen Harper has already cemented his place as the most influential Canadian politician in a generation.
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© Thomas White International, Ltd. 2019