Stephen Harper is back!
Those words will send shivers down the spines of many Canadians but not all. In fact, there are undoubtedly even old critics of the former Conservative prime minister who now miss his bland, plodding leadership style. A few years of Justin Trudeau’s travelling roadshow will do that.
Since resigning from politics in August, 2016, Mr. Harper has largely remained out of the public eye. He stayed silent throughout the Tory leadership race that crowned his successor, Andrew Scheer. He’s held his tongue, too, on many of the most contentious issues facing the country. But he’s moved out from the shadows.
It was revealed last week that he’s writing a book on populism. He added his name to a full-page ad in The New York Times congratulating U.S. President Donald Trump on pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal. He announced on Twitter this week that he was in Montreal to mark 70 years of Israeli independence. The biggest splash he’s made, however, was an on-stage appearance at Stanford University – it was held in February but video of the event just came to light recently − where he spoke about his career and the role of conservatism in today’s world.
There weren’t any earth-shattering pronouncements, but certainly some eyebrow-raising remarks. For instance, he said he thought he could still be leader of the federal Conservatives today if he’d wanted to, but he put the future of the party before his own personal political agenda. He said he was amazed at “how many people go into politics because they want to be loved.” (It was interpreted by some as a shot at Mr. Trudeau.) He talked about the word “populism” and how it had become, unfairly, a loaded term.
Mostly, his remarks served to remind us that, for better or worse, Mr. Harper is still around.
His re-emergence comes at the same time as the federal Liberals have tried to link Mr. Scheer and his party with the Harper legacy. (“It may be Andrew Scheer’s smile,” the Liberal message goes, “but it’s Stephen Harper’s party.”) For the Liberals, that Harper heritage is defined by an often nasty narrow-mindedness that sometimes embarrassed Canadians (see niqab, barbaric cultural practices debate).
The Liberals exploited the disgust many felt over those policies to win the 2015 election. They’d love to find a way to make Stephen Harper their target in the next election, too. Conservatives are likely saying: bring it on.
Say what you want about Mr. Harper, you knew where he stood on issues. He was a fundamentally serious individual who took the job seriously too. One of the knocks against his successor is that he’s an intellectual lightweight, more focused on building the Trudeau global brand one selfie at a time. It’s wholly unfair, but a perception that exists among many nonetheless.
I’m uncertain if Mr. Harper’s public return is something he plans to sustain or not. If it is, it’s not great news for Andrew Scheer, who has yet to put his stamp on his party. The fact is, the Conservative base is dying of starvation. The only red meat it’s being offered is coming from Alberta and United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney.
It is Mr. Kenney who most shares Mr. Harper’s hatred of elites, ones embodied by Justin Trudeau and those around him. In one of the most astounding critiques of a sitting Prime Minister I have ever seen, Mr. Kenney this week told Calgary columnist Rick Bell what he thought of Mr. Trudeau.
“I know Justin,” Mr. Kenney said. “He doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing. This guy is an empty trust-fund millionaire who has the political depth of a finger bowl. He can’t read a briefing note longer than a cocktail napkin.”
As the overlord of hyper-partisanship, Mr. Harper would have been smiling at those words. And that, in many ways, was the problem with the man.
While you can applaud the fiscal discipline and sound economic policy his government oversaw (especially compared to the deficit rampage the Liberals are on), his free-trade deals and reform of the country’s immigration policies, the Harper Conservatives came by their reputation for being petty and spiteful honestly. In many ways, it’s what led to their downfall.
It will be interesting to see whether Mr. Harper follows up on his first tentative steps back into spotlight with even bolder forays into the public realm. The Liberals might like it, but so would many Conservatives.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this column stated that Stephen Harper tweeted he was in Montreal to bring attention to the Brain Canada Foundation. In fact, he tweeted that he was there to mark 70 years of Israeli independence.
The Canadian Press