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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 ...

Mr. Muttart says that Mr. Harper's ability to appeal “to their aspirational sensibilities with the focus on jobs and growth and balanced budgets” produced the Conservative victory last May.

That victory marked a sea-change in Canadian politics. The political, cultural, business and media elites who live principally in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal have long dominated the national agenda.

But for the first time in this country's history, they are not part of the governing coalition, as suburban Ontario voters in the millions have joined Westerners in a new coalition, leaving the old guard hunkered down in their urban enclaves, enfeebled and impotent.

“It's been in the making for a long time, but Harper accelerated it,” says Rainer Knopff, a member of the Calgary School – academics whose conservative world view influenced Mr. Harper profoundly when he was a student at the University of Calgary.

With that new conservative coalition at his back, Mr. Harper is finally able to implement at least part of an agenda that he laid out nine years ago, an agenda that has also fundamentally altered Canada's place in the world.

A man of the world

Nowhere has Mr. Harper's conservative vision been more fully realized in the past year than in his foreign policy. In the Civitas speech, he proclaimed that “the emerging debates on foreign affairs should be fought on moral grounds.” In defending “democracy, free enterprise and individual freedom” Canada has “the duty ... and the responsibility to put ‘hard power' behind our international commitments.”

In the past year, the Conservatives have implemented that manifesto with a vengeance. In John Baird, the Prime Minister appears finally to have found a foreign minister who fully reflects his own priorities and passions. Mr. Baird has been even more vocal than Mr. Harper in his support for Israel and in Canada's criticism of its enemies, including Syria and Iran. And Canada played a leading role in NATO's overthrow of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi. A Canadian general led the mission, and Mr. Baird was the first allied foreign minister to tour the former dictator's compound after Tripoli was liberated.

Mr. Harper's strongly pro-U.S. stance led his government to embrace a continental security perimeter with the United States, along with a pledge to harmonize standards and regulations in automobiles and other products between to two countries, along with an agreement to remove obstructions at the border.

In his early days, his agenda also meant embracing human rights over commerce, confering honourary citizenship on the Dalai Lama, even at the cost of angering China. But Mr. Harper eventually came to realize that his principled stand was freezing Canadian businesses out of the burgeoning Chinese market, and that the United States and European economies – Canada hopes to sign a free-trade agreement with the European Union this year – may never recover fully from the recession.

And so he pivoted, swallowing a public humiliation during his first Chinese trip – Premier Wen Jiabao chided him for taking so long to visit – to demonstrate to his hosts that he was serious about making a new start. Now, if Mr. Harper meets with the Dalai Lama at all, it is in private – as he did this week.

He also learned that the United States is a neighbour and ally and customer, but not always a friend. Relations with the Obama administration have been strained in the wake of the President's decision not to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline, at least for now, and by the Americans' apparent unwillingness to sponsor Canada's entry into the Trans Pacific Partnership trade negotiations unless this country agrees to scrap protections for the dairy and poultry industry.

And so the government has launched a flurry of two-way trade talks with Pacific nations, including Japan and Thailand as well as China. A free-trade agreement with India is expected next year.

These initiatives underscore Mr. Harper's appreciation that Canada is increasingly a Pacific nation, that the 250,000 immigrants arriving here each year – many of whom now vote Conservative once they become citizens – are affecting economic as well as cultural and political change, that with 46 per cent of Toronto's current population born overseas, mostly in Asian or Pacific nations, Ontario is becoming a Pacific province, too.

Derek Burney was Brian Mulroney's chief of staff during the Canada-U.S. free-trade negotiations in the 1980s, and later served as ambassador to the United States. He applauds the increased focus on trade, but there may be too many lines in the water.

“These are all encouraging moves,” he says. “But what the government needs now is a sense of priorities. Mr. Harper needs to take charge and give negotiators the authority to get results. They haven't put anything in the window yet.”

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