The surprising Stephen Harper
TORONTO — Tuesday marks one year since Stephen Harper led Conservatives to power, becoming Canada's first right-of-center prime minister in 12 years. In late 2005, Mr. Harper was possibly the only Canadian who believed he would win.
A wonk extraordinaire, known for his love of policy debates and classic "Star Trek" – rumor has it that as a youth he attended Trek conventions and competed in costume contests – Harper didn't seem the type to set voters' hearts afire. And with his blunt approach, robotic exterior, and awkward smile, he didn't. But thanks to his ability to learn from past mistakes, and to a reigning Liberal Party mired in scandal, he surprised nearly everyone with a triumph.
Even Harper's foes bow to his political savvy, focus, and intelligence. He has navigated the past year with only a minority government, meaning he needs opposition support to pass legislation. As a result, he has done little domestically that could reasonably be called radical. He has replaced left-leaning spending and social engineering with centrist spending and social engineering. For example, a national day-care plan proposed by his liberal predecessors was scrapped in favor of issuing monthly $100 checks to parents of children under the age of six. He has cut Canada's goods and services tax by 1 percent. And while he has made cuts to social programs, he has steered clear of touching the "third rails" of Canadian politics – socialized healthcare and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Time magazine named him Canada's top newsmaker of 2006, noting his emergence as a "warrior in power." The terminology is telling, since the area where Canadians have seen the most change has been in their country's foreign policy. Notably, Canada's new prime minister has not engaged in any gratuitous anti-Americanism. That's a standard Canadian political tactic, guaranteed to please the "blue-state" denizens of Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto.
Where the war on terror is concerned, he has been, by Canadian standards, revolutionary. For decades, Canadians have loved the image of themselves as "neutral," peacekeeping do-gooders who don't actually fight. This is an image difficult to reconcile with past reality, and with the present reality in Afghanistan, where approximately 2,300 Canadian soldiers currently serve. While it was a Liberal prime minister, Jean Chrétien, who committed Canada to the war in Afghanistan, neither he nor his successor, Paul Martin, were as vocal and steadfast in their support for the mission as has been Harper.
Harper has shown similar strength in his support for Israel. After the Palestinian elections last January, Canada cut off relations to the Hamas-led government. When Hizbullah rockets began pummeling Israel last summer, Harper affirmed that Canada stood with Israel. Gone were the usual mealy-mouthed statements coming out of Ottawa, the vestiges of the Trudeau-era romanticizing and courting of terrorists and dictators.
This kind of principled stance and impressive leadership has earned him some respect, and cost him some support. It has also earned him the nickname, "Bush Lite." Many who know Harper call this unfair, saying these have always been his ideals, not something newly acquired to please Washington.
Which is not to say Harper is above political pandering. He threw red meat to his socially conservative base by revisiting the same-sex marriage issue. The law stayed in place, but this was widely believed to be Harper's attempt to say to supporters, "Hey, I tried. Now let me get on with governing." He is also not above breaking promises – such as his campaign pledge to leave income trusts alone. A tax was slapped on trusts in an autumn decision dubbed the "Halloween massacre."
In December, the Liberal Party elected a new leader, Stéphane Dion of Quebec. He trails Harper in polls, but not by much. Dion is a supporter of the Kyoto Protocol (which Canada has ratified) and seems to mention global warming with each breath. He even has a dog named Kyoto. This puts Harper, a cat lover and not a Kyoto supporter, in a bind. His power base is in oil-rich Alberta, where Kyoto is unpopular.
That won't be Harper's only challenge. Canada is a country without significant conservative infrastructure, or conservative media. The result is a peddling of hysteria about Harper's alleged "hidden agenda" – a conviction that, with a majority government, he would destroy Canada's social safety net, sell our mothers to oil companies, and sign us up as the 51st US state.
Those fears, however unfounded, are what stopped Canadians just short of giving Harper and his Conservatives a majority last time, and are what he needs to allay. If anyone can do it, it's Stephen Harper. He's certainly surprised us before.
• Rondi Adamson is a Canadian writer.