Ken Boessenkool and Sean Speer are authors of 'Ordered Liberty: How Harper's Philosophy Transformed Canada for the Better', an essay published by IRPP; They were senior advisors to former prime minister Stephen Harper
The dust has finally settled following the 2015 federal election. A new government has been sworn in. Outgoing parliamentarians have departed. A leadership race to select the permanent Official Opposition Leader will soon commence. Ottawa is gradually returning to post-election normalcy.
Yet, after nearly 10 years as prime minister and more than 25 as a parliamentarian and conservative thought leader, while Stephen Harper's presence is missing, his ideas and influence endure: He left a durable mark on the Canadian conservative movement and federal public policy. In short, he changed Canada. And he did so, in our view, for the better.
Mr. Harper was elected prime minister after decades of serious intellectual inquiry and political calculation. He became prime minister in 2006 with the most developed and clear views about the role of government vis-à-vis the individual, family, and civil society of any prime minister since Pierre Trudeau. Indeed, one can argue that Mr. Harper was a conservative intellectual first and a politician second.
Of course, his prime ministership involved the common trade-offs that any successful politician must make to grow and retain democratic support. We would never argue that everything Mr. Harper did was directed in the first place by his intellectual view of the role of government with respect to civil society. He was, after all, a politician who needed to win, and frequently did what was necessary to win. Yet it is also true that understanding Mr. Harper's well-developed view of government is critical to understanding his approach to federal politics and policy – and ultimately his legacy.
Mr. Harper did not seek power for power's sake. He had a vision for Canada, a vision steeped in Canadian conservative history going back to Sir John A. Macdonald, a vision that deeply informed his politics and his actions as prime minister.
At the core of this vision was a fusionist conception of ordered liberty, bringing together the best traditions of traditional or Burkean conservatism and classical liberalism. Today, many loosely refer to these two traditions as social conservatism and economic conservatism. Their intellectual fusion became the basis for Mr. Harper's governing philosophy and much of what he accomplished as prime minister.
Mr. Harper's traditional conservatism was evident in his predisposition to incrementalism (a Burkean poise reflecting an epistemological modesty) and a policy agenda that saw a role for government to support key civil society institutions (such as marriage and the family) and socially beneficial behaviours (such as educational attainment and personal savings), and he did it by promoting choice and flexibility rather than central planning and inflexible bureaucratic programs.
His classical liberalism came through in his relentless, though incremental, reduction in the overall tax burden, his focus on controlling discretionary federal spending, a fondness for free trade, a preference for incentivizing individual rather than collective action and his bias for decentralization that manifested itself in staying out of provincial hair.
Mr. Harper's amalgam of traditional conservatism and classical liberalism was not just a coherent intellectual framework but also as a basis for building a robust political coalition. His invocation of social conservatism, in particular, was part of a deliberate effort to build and root the movement's political appeal and expand its network of supporters, activists, and ultimately voters. He saw in his vision of ordered liberty an opportunity to bring together voters across the conservative spectrum and to speak to non-ideologues, including new Canadians, in terms that spoke to their interests and concerns. It attracted and retained disaffected social conservatives as well as providing an entree to speak to many new Canadians, providing him with his majority in 2011.
Mr. Harper's electoral defeat brings questions about what comes next for conservatism in Canada. The impending leadership campaign is bound to generate a serious debate about whether conservatism, or Conservatism, requires a fundamental rethink from Mr. Harper's ordered liberty.
We think that would be an error. A departure would be a major step backward for the conservative movement and the Conservative Party and a repudiation of the nearly one-third of Canadians who lent us their vote in the last campaign. What is needed is a renewal focused on the application of fusionist thinking to today's issues rather than a full-scale overhaul.
Therein lies the potential for a renewed conservative agenda that takes its bearings from the same intellectual impulses that underpinned Harper's political career – marrying the best of traditional or Burkean conservatism with classical liberalism.
Fortunately, as we embark on this process of renewal, we have Mr. Harper's example to follow. In both his philosophy and in the ways he changed Canada for the better, conservatives have a powerful basis on which to build. Conservatives (and Canadians) should be grateful.