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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during a campaign event at Novo Plastics Inc., in Markham Ont., on Wednesday, April 6, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during a campaign event at Novo Plastics Inc., in Markham Ont., on Wednesday, April 6, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Neil Reynolds

Canada's conservatives should ease up on Harper Add to ...

Throughout his two minority governments, Prime Minister Stephen Harper endured incessant carping from the right: especially from conservatives who wanted more ideological purity. Mr. Harper wisely ignored them. The purer the ideology, the more problematic the politics. Mr. Harper diligently pursued the political centre (with right-ward forays: for example, unequivocal support for Israel). It all worked out fine. The Conservatives took the centre, held it and won a transformative majority in Election 2011. But conservatives now need, once again, to relax a bit. Nothing extraordinary is about to happen.

Mr. Harper made this clear in his election-night comments. He would govern, he said, for the whole country - not (he implied) for hard-core conservatives or soft-core libertarians. These people have their own work to do, in moving the political centre, but this philosophical task is fundamentally different than governing. In Canada's democracy, social and economic change will inevitably be incremental and erratic. After all, if the more than 14 million Canadians who voted wanted more radical change, they could have voted Libertarian - as 6,017 of them did.

This isn't to say that Mr. Harper won't make fundamental reforms: especially toward freer trade with Europe (and other countries) and closer economic integration with the U.S. It is merely to observe that Canadians themselves - and not the federal government - will determine how far and how fast the political centre pivots.

The political centre in Canada has been drifting to the right for almost 30 years - since the last Liberal government (1984) of prime minister Pierre Trudeau, whose excesses pushed the country toward conservatism. Every federal government since has governed to the right - with the single, ironic exception of Paul Martin (who had done so much for the country as finance minister). Progressive Conservative Brian Mulroney (free trade with the U.S.), Liberal Jean Chrétien (fiscal restraint) and Conservative Stephen Harper (tax cuts): all remained firmly centred even as the country itself rotated, slowly, to the right.

Mr. Harper is the most impressive politician among all these small-c conservative prime ministers. None other had to do more to gain power. None other had to survive so long in minority parliaments. None other had had to defeat so many rivals (sequentially, Paul Martin, Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff). First in survival, subsequently in triumph, Mr. Harper learned that political success tracks trust. It was a slog. In 2004, he got 99 seats; in 2006, 124; in 2008, 143; in 2011, 167. In 2004, Mr. Harper got four million votes; in 2011, 5.8 million votes.

Much has been made of Mr. Harper's attack ads. In fact, he learned elbows-up politics from Mr. Martin, who famously used hysterical attack ads against Mr. Harper in 2004 and 2006 - quite successfully in 2004, less successfully in the 2006 election. The ads were explicitly anti-American, and loaded with innuendo. One example: "Who paid for Stephen Harper's rise to the head of the party? We don't know. … We do know he's very popular with right-wingers in the U.S. They have money. Maybe they helped him. We just don't know."

(Internet bloggers and commentators had great fun with these ads. One spoof ad said: "Stephen Harper has a dog. You know who else had a dog? Hitler. Adolf Hitler. Did Stephen Harper train his dog to attack racial minorities? We don't know." Another parody said: "In 1963, Democratic president John F. Kennedy was shot and killed. Where was four-year-old Stephen Harper? We don't know.")

In his post-election comments last week, Mr. Ignatieff accused Mr. Harper of an "unscrupulous campaign of personal attacks" - presumably, and most specifically, for the Conservative attack ad that noted Mr. Ignatieff's absence from Canada for more than 30 years. Yet these ads were mild compared with Progressive Conservative prime minister Kim Campbell's infamous attack ad in the 1993 election that appeared to ridicule Jean Chrétien's facial deformity. Canadians were aghast and Mr. Chrétien ran with it: "I'm not a Tory. I don't speak on both sides of my mouth."

Two weeks later, Mr. Chrétien annihilated the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. That election ensured that the Liberal Party would win elections for a long time. That election also enabled Mr. Harper (and many others) to build an authentic conservative party in a country that hadn't had one for decades. The country's conservatives, all 5.8 million of them, should be deeply grateful.

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