Political legacies, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder.
With Stephen Harper’s long-expected resignation from Parliament last week his supporters and foes alike spent a news cycle jostling to determine how history will remember Canada’s 22nd Prime Minister.
His fawning legions want us to remember a great prime minister who created jobs, kept taxes low, maintained fiscal discipline, took a hard stance on crime after years of liberal weakness, and reasserted Canada’s position in the world.
His critics on the other hand argue that his is a legacy of economic mediocrity (or worse), tightly scripted communications and centralized decision making, a blindly ideological approach to crime, paternalism towards First Nations, and shocking indifference for the Earth’s rapidly degrading biosphere.
But unlike the past, when one side gets to write the history books, today’s more open-sourced media means that Stephen Harper will not have one legacy but multiple ones.
It is true of other polarizing political figures — the father of our current prime minister, the late Pierre Elliot Trudeau being an example that comes to mind.
To liberals, Pierre Trudeau is a revered figure who did more for the cause of social liberalism than anyone else in our history — first through substantial amendments to the criminal code and later through his Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He was a man who did what he could in globally troubled economic times with the information and economic theories he had available to him at the time.
To conservatives his legacy is of unmitigated economic disaster which nearly bankrupted our country. He sowed regional divisions in this country that are still with us today with his centralist approach to the Canadian federation — a view of the elder Trudeau shared by Quebec nationalists.
Ideally, hindsight and the passage of time would let us take a more nuanced approach to evaluating the legacy of politicians after they leave office. I don’t think we’re there yet with Harper.
Derangement syndromes plague most politicians and Stephen Harper was no exception. I was no fan of many of his policies or his hard-nosed approach to politics but I had to roll my eyes at some of the hyperbole and distortion that was levelled at him during and after his rule.
Michael Harris’ suggestion in a piece last week that “Stephen Harper was Donald Trump, before Trump was Trump” is an example of the dizzying hyperbole that derangement syndromes tend to promote. Yes, Stephen Harper, like Trump, promoted some policies — particularly towards the end of his tenure — that sought to capitalize on bigotry and fear towards certain minorities. He also had a tendency to resort to bullying to get his way.
But the comparisons end there.
Agree with him or not, Stephen Harper at least had a coherent worldview, a tolerable temperament, a calculated approach to governance, and a grip on the issues and world events. Donald Trump does not. We survived Stephen Harper. Whether the world will survive a Trump presidency is a very open and frightening question.
On the other side of the legacy equation, I think that the current economic challenges facing Canada will linger in both immediate future and the long term. They cast a long shadow on Stephen Harper’s economic legacy.
Many people seem to see the economy as something that a new leader jumps in the driver seat of on day one and can easily control like a piece of heavy machinery.
But an economy is fluid abstraction that is driven largely by inertia and only nudged in various directions by a number of actors of which government is but one.
To the extent that the federal government “steers” the economy, our current economic situation is more a reflection of the decisions made in the last decade (or decades) than the last 10 months. Too many people, angry at how events have transpired, and blinded by ideology, want to lay the blame at the feet of political figures who assumed power after our fate was sealed, while turning a blind eye to those who set the course to begin with.
We can debate whether there were alternatives to putting all of our economic eggs in the oil and gas basket, but it is hard to argue that creating an economy that is intimately linked to the price of a volatile commodity was great when world prices were high but looks much less wise now that prices are low.
Of course none of this is likely to persuade those loyal legions, whose analysis of Harper’s economic legacy is “things were fine when he left office,” or conversely those who see a comparison between Stephen Harper and Donald Trump.
Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.