Skip to main content

Prime Minister Stephen Harper answers a question during question period in the House of Commons, Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2014 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian WyldAdrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

'I can't even get my friends to like me," Stephen Harper said this year. A joke, obviously, delivered during a moving eulogy for his close friend and political ally Jim Flaherty in April. But more than a joke, too.

The Prime Minister has never been the cuddliest of humans; he was once photographed shaking his young son's hand as he dropped him off at school. That formality can be a strength in crises. After the two attacks on Canadian soldiers in October, Mr. Harper's natural gravitas was reassuring to Canadians. It even gave his party a noticeable bump in the polls in November.

But the ring of truth in Mr. Harper's quip reverberates less because of his solemn demeanour than it does because of the unyielding way he plays political hardball. The Prime Minister is not someone you want as a friend, politically-speaking, and much less someone you'd want as an enemy. He fights ruthlessly and without remorse. He dumps inconvenient allies, sows division with abandon, treats Parliament with contempt and works 24/7 to control what Canadians know and hear about him, usually through the hearty application of muzzles and misdirection.

That's not news, and nor is it all that peculiar to one politician. But, in 2014, the Prime Minister's bloody-mindedness began to feel like a liability. With him as leader, the party has consistently trailed Justin Trudeau's kinder, gentler Liberals in the polls in spite of the country's relatively stable economy. If the Conservatives under Mr. Harper lose the general election next fall, this year may be remembered as the one when Canadians, including members of the Conservative Party, decided their leader's ruthlessness was no longer worth the cost.

One of the more telling moments of 2014 came the day after an armed man had stormed Parliament and been killed within metres of a room where Mr. Harper was meeting with his caucus. The morning was marked by sadness and courage as MPs returned to the House of Commons in a display of solidarity; the Prime Minister spoke movingly about the symbolic importance of Parliament, and he even gamely walked across the floor to hug the Leader of the Opposition, Tom Mulcair, and Mr. Trudeau.

And then, several hours later, the Harper government dumped another monstrous omnibus bill onto the Commons, an act knowingly contemptuous of the Parliament the Prime Minister had just praised as the lodestar of Canadian democracy.

Omnibus bills are designed to defeat Parliament's oversight role. The thick bills allow majority governments to push through major policy changes with little debate by combining multiple unrelated issues into one over-sized turkey. They are an abuse of process; the Conservatives have tabled four since 2010, and the most recent was the second largest.

Mr. Harper was also a repeat offender in 2014 with regard to the dispatching of belligerent junior ministers and hapless parliamentary secretaries to defend problematic legislation in the House or derail Question Period. Pierre Poilievre's smarmy sales job of the flawed Fair Elections Act and his subsequent climb-down in April were the low points of the year. Or would have been, had not Paul Calandra reduced himself to tears in September after a demeaning display of question-dodging on Mr. Harper's behalf. Both incidents embarrassed some Conservatives as much as they outraged opposition MPs.

This was also the year a former Conservative MP, Dean Del Mastro, was convicted of overspending his campaign limit and trying to cover it up, and a former party staffer, Michael Sona, was convicted in the robocall scandal. Mr. Harper has distanced himself from both men and their actions, of course, as he did with his former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, who somehow believed it was appropriate to pay off the ineligible expenses of a Conservative senator in 2013. No one would dare say that the Prime Minister endorses unethical activities, but there are people in his party who think that anything goes.

And why wouldn't they? Mr. Harper showed in 2014 that he will play with his elbows out even in the most inappropriate situation. That brings us to Beverly McLachlin, the respected Chief Justice of the Supreme Court whose integrity the Prime Minister deliberately impugned in an absurd and indefensible fashion. He raised a doubt about whether Ms. McLachlin had interfered with the appointment of a new judge, and was then exposed for being completely and knowingly wrong. His grievous misjudgment demonstrated once and for all that there is no Canadian institution he considers sacred if it stands in his way.

Other consequences of Mr. Harper's antipathy to Parliament and to Canadian institutions in 2014 included but were not limited to two crime bills that were sent to the Senate containing serious errors, the use of taxpayer dollars on government advertising that happens to align with Conservative election promises, and a new prostitution law that is likely to fail a Charter challenge, and which police forces across the country have little intention of enforcing, thanks to the government's refusal to listen to contrary opinions while the bill was in that former house of debate we know as Parliament.

Ask Mr. Harper how it's going after almost nine years in office and he – along with every single member of his party – will robotically respond that his government is continuing to fight for hard-working Canadian families and lowering their taxes. It's a spiel that talks past his government's many flaws. Mr. Harper is responsible for those flaws, which are mirror images of his own, and gets the credit for his party's successes. Those include an economy that is not great but better than most, shrinking deficits, a real attempt to reform immigration and native education, tax cuts targeted at core constituencies and the effort to help defeat Islamic State in Iraq.

Not a bad record. The question in 2015 will be, Is it worth it? Or could someone else, inside or outside the party, achieve results on the same scale while respecting Parliament and setting a higher ethical standard?

Interact with The Globe