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Lawrence Martin

Stephen Harper has reached the pinnacle – now what? Add to ...

“Conservative values are Canadian values.”

Thus spoke Stephen Harper in front of 900 hootin’ and hollerin’ supporters at the Calgary Stampede. The Liberal era was basically over, he claimed, gone like “disco balls and bell bottoms.” The citizens of this great land have moved into the Tory temple and “Canada is more united than ever.”

The Prime Minister was feeling his pancakes, you might say. His declarations got a lot of earthlings from the other side of the spectrum worked up. Safe to say that the 60 per cent of Canadians who didn’t vote Conservative didn’t like their values being described as such. Liberal interim leader Bob Rae was quick to pounce, trashing the Harper effusions as being divisive and reeking of triumphalist arrogance.

The aging Grit had a point of sorts. Wouldn’t Mr. Harper be better advised at this point in time to reach out to all camps rather than display his relentlessly partisan side? It’s that side that prevents him from ever being considered a statesman.

But given the scale of his victory, how could anyone not expect the boasts and bombast? As for the country moving in a conservative direction, who can doubt it? There’s the new lock-’em-up law-and-order mentality, there’s the glorification of the military. On foreign policy, the country has sped from the image of peacemaker to one of the hawks of the Western world. One of our major roles now, the PM said recently, will be that of warrior – “courageous warrior.”

But the people seem to be feeling fine under the Conservative banner. On Canada Day, the crowds were unprecedented in size, honouring our monarchic tradition, cheering on the newlywed Royals, showing hero worship for non-heroes.

In the case of the Prime Minister, it’s hard to avoid arrogance when you have just had your lifelong ambition realized. Mr. Harper’s ambition was to see the Liberals replaced by the Conservatives as Canada’s national party. This superseded any policy objective. In the election, with the brutal Liberal collapse, it happened.

That creates what might be called a nice problem for the Prime Minister. Having already achieved his principal political mission in life, what does he do now? The vanquishing of the Grits was supposed to take much longer. The Harper strategy, we recall, was one of incrementalism.

The Conservative leader’s foremost talent lies in political engineering. It’s the political fight that consumes his every waking hour. In that sense, a minority government was suitable for him because staying afloat required his foremost skill. It was all politics all the time. An election was always possible. Now he has four years to wait until the next one.

For a political engineering specialist, where’s the challenge? He still faces a problem in Quebec, where he has only a handful of seats (although the province is not necessary for him to win a majority). On the policy front, many of his priorities have been or are being addressed. Being a conservative, running an oversized government is a shortcoming he must address. But with the cuts demanded by the budget deficit and with built-in limits on revenue-gathering, a shrinkage will inevitably take place.

At the dawn of the long-sought Harper majority, the question is, can he move the yardsticks as much as he moved them in a minority? And can providence continue to work wonders for him? A phenomenal amount of fortune has come his way. Many things, such as the NDP’s drubbing of the Liberals in the campaign, simply fell into his lap. And for all his government’s ethical abuse and dirty tricks, he has never – at least not yet – had to pay a price.

All things considered, Mr. Harper must feel he has the golden touch. He must feel that he can get away with anything. But when you’re the man on the mountaintop, as he is right now, that sense of invincibility can be destructive. Hubris takes over when what is most necessary – given that from the pinnacle, the only remaining route is down – is humility.

 

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