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Prime Minister Stephen Harper, seen in this Reuters photo. (Chris Wattie/Reuters/Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, seen in this Reuters photo. (Chris Wattie/Reuters/Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Globe Focus

Harper unbound: An analysis of his first year as majority PM Add to ...

This brand is anathema to the downtowns of Ontario's big cities, as well as Montreal and Vancouver. But neither of their national representatives – the NDP and the Liberals – appears ready to mount a serious challenge.

Without a permanent leader until next spring, the Liberals now seem so enfeebled that some wonder whether the party can survive. The NDP under new leader Thomas Mulcair, a Quebecker, is making tentative gains in public support, but it is too soon to judge whether that support will hold.

That said, when majority governments dominate in Ottawa, the most powerful resistance has traditionally come from the provinces. There may soon be a fresh and powerful new centre of resistance in Mr. Harper's western back yard.

By next spring, the NDP's Adrian Dix could be premier of British Columbia – he is consistently ahead of Liberal Premier Christy Clark in the polls (although Monday's surprise result in Alberta serves as a reminder of how unreliable polls can be).

Mr. Dix stresses that, should he become premier, he hopes to work with the federal government on improving the quality of life for aboriginal Canadians in British Columbia and in promoting Canada overseas. But he quickly rhymes off four areas where he seriously disagrees with Conservative policy: the law-and-order agenda, which could crowd provincial courtrooms and prisons and drain provincial budgets; the proposed Northern Gateway oil pipeline between Alberta and the Pacific Coast; the reduced increases in federal health transfers; the Canada-EU trade agreement, which could increase drug prices as a result of tougher patent protections.

“These are issues that are unavoidable,” he maintains, “because the consequences for provincial jurisdictions are so severe.”

Ultimately, opposition to a Harper dynasty will coalesce around someone with a set of opposing values voters come to prefer. Ironically, that may be this Prime Minister's greatest achievement.

Visible changes are few

While many Canadians, including many who watch him very closely, puzzle over the man behind the mask, there may be no mask. “He is exactly what he is,” John Reynolds contends. “What you see is what you get.”

He is greyer – Mr. Harper turns 53 on Monday – but also more relaxed, especially over the past year, with his political future more secure thanks to majority government. Friends describe a more confident leader, but one fundamentally unchanged from the Stephen Harper they first met, whenever it was they first met him.

He is passionate about hockey and loves to play the piano. He is also a man with few close friends. His political ruthlessness is legendary and he so distrusts the media that he tries to control their access to government.

He gives considerable latitude to the few who earn his trust – within the cabinet that includes Mr. Flaherty, Mr. Baird and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney – and very little to those who don't. His confidence in his own ability to solve problems and to lead is self-evident, as is his discomfort with large crowds and small talk.

And he is an evangelical conservative, so dedicated to converting others to his world view that he has transformed – polarized, really – the political life of the country.

For most of Canada's history the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives did not differ fundamentally in political philosophy. Each attempted to broker competing regional, linguistic and class interests. A third, values-based party, the NDP, camped out on the left.

But Stephen Harper's Conservative Party is infused with his own dedication to economic and social conservatism. Rather than being a brokerage party, it is values-based. Eventually, a progressive coalition will rise to challenge it, making national politics a two-party, values-based contest. That progressive coalition could form around the NDP or the Liberals – or it could emerge from a merger of the two.

If so, Canada will finally mirror other English-speaking countries: Republicans versus Democrats in the United States; Conservatives versus Labour in Britain; Liberal versus Labour in Australia. Other parties, either regionally based or values-based, may exist, but only on the fringe.

“Clear choices in elections are good for democracy,” Patrick Muttart argues. “It gets people involved. It gets people talking.”

It can also lead to polarization and gridlock. But nothing appears likely to stop the Canadian drift toward politics defined by ideological divides that Stephen Harper himself defined.

For better or worse, that could be his most lasting legacy.

John Ibbitson is The Globe and Mail's parliamentary bureau chief.

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