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The right stuff? After five years in office, Harper's legacy a mixed bag

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper shows off his form with blue boxing gloves during a visit to the Cabbage Town Youth centre while campaigning in Toronto Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2005. Politics, not policy, has been the biggest change in five years of Harper government.

Tom Hanson/Canadian Press file photo

Ottawa - He won office the first time under the banner of "standing up for Canada."

Now he travels the country promising to be "here for Canada."

But after five years in charge, what has Prime Minister Stephen Harper meant for Canada?

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On a policy level, the consensus seems to be - not much.

"When they came to power, they probably thought they would change it more than they've been able to," said Tom Flanagan, who played an integral role in getting the Conservative government elected in 2006, and who is Harper's former chief of staff.

The realities of minority governments, the dual prorogations of Parliament that killed scores of government bills and the need to put economic management above all else saw little national change over the last five years.

What debate has existed has been over Canada's role in the world, not at home, suggested Antonia Maioni, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, at McGill University in Montreal.

Canada's environmental record, the war in Afghanistan and even the fight for a seat on the United Nations Security Council have marked the last five years, she said.

"What we've not had is a real conversation on the future of Canada as a federation and the future of Canada in terms of a more long-term strategy."

The political landscape of the country has shifted as Harper led the Tories out of rural ridings, into medium-sized cities and, in the 2008 election, into the suburbs of major ones.

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"There has been over the course of his political leadership, no question, a slow and steady march of Conservative gains incrementally in those different constituencies," said Allan Gregg, chairman of the polling firm Harris Decima.

But that's not to say Canadians have become more "conservative."

A poll taken at the end of 2009, in which respondents were asked to self-identify their position on the ideological spectrum, suggested that 59 per cent of Canadians felt they were left of centre or "perfectly in the centre."

And a Canadian Press-Harris Decima survey between Jan. 13 and 16 this year found that 56 per cent of respondents said their opinion of the Conservative party has remained the same over the last five years.

The poll surveyed 1,000 people and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times in 20.

A drive to remain in power has seen Mr. Harper's political views drift left, Mr. Flanagan said, creating a government that is far more centre than the party's political history would suggest.

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Much of Mr. Harper's record consists of things that can't even be considered conservative, suggested Rod Love, a longtime Conservative strategist in Alberta.

"Some things are beyond their control but if you said when Harper came in that five years later we would be running deficits, piling up debt, stacking the Senate with our friends, and on and on and on, that's probably not Harper," he said.

"But here we are."

A poll asking Canadians whether, over the last five years, they felt Mr. Harper had been an excellent, good, fair or poor prime minister found 75 per cent believe he's been fair or better.

The survey of 1,005 Canadians was conducted between Jan. 6 and 9 this year, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times in 20.

His numbers are lowest in Quebec, where only 67 per cent said he's been fair or better and 23 per cent said he's done a poor job.

They are highest in Alberta, with 86 per cent who said he's been fair or better and nine per cent who say he's been a poor prime minister.

Having a prime minister from Alberta, and a cabinet full of Western MPs, has given that region a greater sense of belonging in the federation, said Robert Roach, senior researcher with the Canada West Foundation.

But even that is not something that Mr. Harper can entirely take credit for.

"There is that sense that something has shifted in the country economically while at the same time you had the first Conservative prime minister in a while and from Alberta," said Roach.

"With Alberta in particular doing quite well and then Saskatchewan doing really, really well, it all adds to that sense that the country is tipping west."

At the same time, some of the values arising from the party's right-wing roots in the West have been tempered.

Mr. Harper has successfully corralled the social-conservative demands of his supporters to ban abortions, or repeal same-sex marriage legislation, argued Brian Lee Crowley, managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a non-partisan think-tank.

"If you consider where the party was when they came to power, and how well he has managed what I think of as the social-policy instincts of the people behind him, he's achieved quite a lot," he said.

Mr. Harper has also been proactive on the justice system and on immigration - two areas he sees as key federal responsibilities, as well as key vote-winners.

But the prime minister has also begun to dismantle some of the social-policy institutions set up under previous Liberal governments that intruded - wrongly, Conservatives say - on provincial jurisdiction.

Plans for a national daycare program were replaced with a monthly cheque to individual families. Employment-insurance benefits were expanded during the recession, but only temporarily. Similarly, affordable housing received indirect funding through the stimulus package, but that is coming to an end.

Still, the pillars of Canadian society remain mostly the same, Mr. Flanagan noted - and it is possible they will stay that way even if the Tories catapult to a majority.

"Just being there running all this enormous machinery is a challenge in itself," said Mr. Flanagan.

"As a conservative, it seems to me that change ought to be something that emerges spontaneously from civil society rather than imposed by government."

But in the great game of politics, it's still unclear what Mr. Harper would like the chessboard to look like in five years.

"Is the end game getting a majority? I don't know because he is doing pretty well with a minority. Is the end game transforming Canada on some level? Some of the things Harper has done and is doing point to that in incremental fashion," said Ms. Maioni.

"He's playing his cards very close to his chest about what his vision is in this."

With reporting from Heather Scoffield

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