Andrew Cohen is a journalist, professor and Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. He is the author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours that Made History.
Two and a half years after losing power at home, Stephen Harper has found a new voice abroad. Freed of the shackles of government, he has become more loudly and sharply conservative than he was as prime minister.
In February, he was elected chairman of the International Democratic Union (IDU), an organization of ”centre-right” parties. In April, he saluted the re-election of Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, the most authoritarian of them. This month, he applauded U.S. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran anti-nuclear agreement, isolating the United States and alienating its allies.
There is nothing subtle here. Mr. Harper is returning to the unvarnished, hawkish conservative he was as an academic and parliamentarian, who managed to contain those instincts in his 10 years in office. Now, he no longer has to compromise as he once did to govern a moderate, centrist Canada.
This is Harper Unbound. He is free to be himself again to a constituency that likes him. He is even said to be writing a book on conservatism.
In heading the IDU, for example, Mr. Harper accepts Hungary’s Fidesz party among its members. Appallingly, Mr. Harper tweeted his “congratulations” to Mr. Orban on “winning a decisive fourth term!”
Mr. Harper does not explain his praise for Mr. Orban, a brass-knuckles strongman who has rewritten his country’s constitution, reshaped its judiciary and undermined its electoral system. Maybe it’s just that Mr. Harper is attracted to nativists, autocrats and plutocrats.
In celebrating the dismantling of the Iranian nuclear agreement, Mr. Harper returns to the opposition leader who lauded the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. When the Iranian deal was signed in 2015, then-prime minister Mr. Harper was publicly skeptical, doubting that it would moderate Iran. He didn’t condemn the deal, though.
Now, Citizen Harper celebrates the end of the “dangerous appeasement of Iran.” Three years ago, he did not talk that way. Yes, he called Iran a terrorist state. But he would not break with the United States over Iran, in the same way that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who supports the agreement, is muted today because of Canada’s delicate negotiations with the United States over NAFTA.
Why now, though? Why is Stephen Harper in full-throated support of right-wing policies on Israel, Iran and Europe?
Here’s a hunch: Mr. Harper has little to show for the past decade in power. His failure to act boldly then – to follow his instincts as a conservative – bothers him. To compensate for his incredible shrinking legacy, he embraces, with the impunity of a former politician, an uncompromising moral clarity.
As prime minister, Mr. Harper avoided the conservative social agenda on abortion, gay marriage and capital punishment. He rejected country-building – no pipelines or big projects, no abolition of the Senate, no electoral reform or strengthening of Canada’s economic union. The monarchy, which he lionized, is no more popular in Canada today than it was.
Many of his policies are gone. Balanced budgets – his Holy Grail – have been buried under deficit financing. Taxes have risen and the age of retirement lowered from 67 to 65.
The Conservatives muzzled scientists and cancelled the long-form census; the Liberals reversed both. Ministers and diplomats can talk again. Ottawa’s Memorial to the Victims of Communism, having been moved and made smaller, is less memorable.
The Court Challenges Program cancelled by Mr. Harper has been reinstated. His anti-terrorism bill will be amended. The Supreme Court has struck down his laws on minimum sentencing for drug offenders.
Mr. Harper wanted to admit 10,000 Syrian refuges; the Liberals have brought in almost 50,000. They have increased defence spending and cheered the United Nations rather than ignoring it. Canada has returned modestly to peacekeeping, the best example of the Pearsonian internationalism Mr. Harper loathed.
The Liberals signed the Paris Agreement, which the Conservatives distrusted. They’ve announced a national floor price on carbon.
In style, Mr. Trudeau’s sunniness has banished Mr. Harper’s sourness. Mr. Trudeau has many faults, but few miss Mr. Harper’s pettiness which put him in contempt of Parliament and led him to attack the then-chief justice of the Supreme Court.
When you look at it all today, just what did Mr. Harper do that endures beyond trade agreements and tax-free savings? Not much.
No wonder Mr. Harper has lost his inside voice. Now, happy in political exile, he hears the warm applause of a harsher, more sympathetic audience.