By the time prime minister Stephen Harper left office in 2015, his tendency toward dour control freakery had generated a low hum of fatigue across the land. It could be dressed up in intellectual political garb, but the underlying sentiment was pretty much, “Dude, could you chill a bit?”
Increasingly over the last few years, however, if you’re talking to someone in the orbit of Parliament Hill and Mr. Harper’s name or the unruliness of the current Conservative Party comes up, often someone will say something broadly complimentary about how that guy really had a handle on things.
This could be the political equivalent of not speaking ill of the dead, or it might reflect how the irritating glare of people’s faults fades to a nostalgic glow with the passage of time. But it doesn’t read like either of those.
Instead, it feels like a product of two separate realizations that have dawned in the years since Mr. Harper rode off into the Calgary sunset in an ill-advised leather vest:
1. It is possible to be cheerful – sunny of ways, even, one might say – while refusing to answer a straight question about literally anything. And that turns out to be more annoying and insulting than having someone flip you the bird while doing it.
2. Hoo boy, that Conservative caucus really starts to feel their oats if there isn’t someone cracking a whip in their direction on the regular, don’t they? Maybe that dour fellow knew what he was doing when he kept tapping on the sign that said, “BEHAVE OR ELSE.”
Conservatives are gathering in Ottawa this week for the Canada Strong and Free Network Conference. It was formerly known as the Manning Conference, named for Preston Manning, founder of the Reform Party. From there, the right-leaning Book of Genesis goes like this: Reform beget the Canadian Alliance, which was betrothed to the diminished husk of the Progressive Conservative party, and that union beget the present-day Conservative Party of Canada.
Like most political conferences, CSFN is a weird amalgamation of giddy summer camp reunion and crass trade show. The rows of exhibitor booths form an airport shopping concourse of the disparate interests and leanings that must be stuffed, somehow, into one big blue tent.
There’s Campaign Life Coalition, which offers training and strategy to anti-abortion candidates, and Equal Voice, which works to bring more women into politics. A handful of conservative-leaning media outlets are represented, along with the long-suffering Quebec branch of the Conservative party and the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which supplied legal help to people charged in the convoy protests last winter. Tucked away in the last booth at the end of the hall is Vaccine Choice Canada, whose slogan is “educate before you vaccinate.”
In spite of Mr. Manning being the original namesake for this annual gathering, it was the first, and so far only, prime minister elected under the Conservative Party of Canada banner who was the big draw on the first night of the conference. The main hall at the hotel convention centre was packed to standing-room-only by the time Stephen Harper’s familiar – though markedly more silver – Lego hair bobbed into view above the podium.
Since he resigned his seat in 2016, Mr. Harper has faded himself from public view and resisted commenting much on his successor in either the Prime Minister’s Office or the merry-go-round of Conservative leaders. In 2021, he told an American interviewer that he gobbles up great quantities of American politics but “I kind of ignore the politics of my own country because I’m too emotional about it.”
It was not an emotional but an analytical, historically minded Mr. Harper who spoke to the CSFN gathering. He wove a fairly elaborate history of populism in Canada, which he positioned as a pure, grass-rooted defense of the common interests and values of the bulk of the population, which are too often ignored by the elites who control things. That noble tradition has been hijacked by “the liberal media” who label every election result they don’t like as a dark shade of what they call populism, Mr. Harper said.
The conference was in part a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the breakthrough election of a critical mass of Reform MPs to the House of Commons in 1993, Mr. Harper among them. He sought to draw a straight, bold line from those populist underpinnings to the current Conservative party and how it might meet this moment. His message on Wednesday was a simple one: Wait, our time is coming.
“Our country is badly in need of a conservative renaissance at the national level,” he said. “Indeed, the future of the country and the future of our middle- and working-class families depends on it.”
He conjured a contemporary world eerily mirroring the conditions of the 1970s: inflation rampant, the economy stalled, an ebb in both confidence in democratic institutions within the country and the wane of democracies on the world stage. By way of illustrating how badly off-track he believes Canada is, Mr. Harper trotted out a statistic he’s offered up in other interviews lately: the deficit the Trudeau government ran in 2021 was larger than the entire budget Mr. Harper authored in 2015. If he had cranked the GST and every tax bracket down to a big fat zero, he said by way of hammering home the point, he still would not have put the country into as big a hole as the current government did two years ago. The audience was appreciatively horrified.
In Mr. Harper’s telling, all of this has set a pendulum swinging like a scythe over the heads of the Trudeau government, and all the Conservative party and its current leader, Pierre Poilievre, have to do is prepare and wait.
“Democracies rarely get things exactly right at any point in time,” Mr. Harper said. “But democracies are adaptable and resilient, and over time, when it becomes obvious that countries are on the wrong path, democracies have a way of correcting error, changing course and revitalizing themselves.”
That’s a curiously sanguine strategy for a reformed control freak.