Thirty years after he was first elected and nearly a decade since he left office, former prime minister Stephen Harper says it's time for a Conservative renaissance.
“Our country is badly in need of a Conservative renaissance at the national level. Indeed, I think the future of the country, and the future of our middle- and working-class families, depends on it,” he said during a keynote speech Wednesday evening, at a conservative conference organized by the Canada Strong and Free Network (formerly the Manning Centre for Building Democracy).
“But such a renaissance cannot occur, it cannot be accomplished, achieved or maintained by a political party working alone,” he said. “It needs organized support in the broader society, and that's what this organization — the Canada Strong and Free Network — can help do.”
Harper is widely seen as the architect of modern Canadian conservatism, and served as Canada’s 22nd prime minister before his defeat by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in 2015. During his speech, Harper offered a history lesson in conservatism, populism and the Reform Party of Canada that birthed his political life.
As his fellow conservatives contemplate how to breathe new life into their political movement, he said, it’s worth remembering this year is the 30th anniversary of the Reform Party of Canada’s breakthrough election.
In 1993, the country experienced a massive political realignment as Jean Chrétien’s Liberals swept to power with a dominant majority, obliterating the incumbent Progressive Conservatives led by Kim Campbell. But in Harper’s telling of the election, it was “a critical milestone” for conservatives because the Reform Party, led by Preston Manning with Harper as one of its candidates, won 52 seats, catapulting it to a position of influence.
Harper also noted the Reform Party would go on to become a “critical element in the eventual formation of the modern Conservative Party of Canada.” In his view, the modern Conservative Party was not just a merger of two legacy parties (the Canadian Alliance, itself a rebrand for the Reform Party, and the Progressive Conservatives), he said, but rather “a synthesis of three distinct conservative traditions” across the country: eastern Canada toryism, western Canada populism and the “autonomisme tradition” in Quebec.
The Reform Party’s success in the early 1990s Harper linked to the rise of influential conservative politicians in the previous decade, like U.S. President Ronald Regan and U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He called the Reform Party a “product of that era” that advocated for “very orthodox economic policy” but was nonetheless “portrayed as radical by the media and rejected by the elites,” which he compared to how Conservative Leader Pierre Polievre is seen today.
Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper takes aim at 'liberal elites' in a speech promoting populist conservatism. #populism #LiberalElites #cdnpoli
In his telling of the history of conservatism, Harper described economic crises of the 1970s being addressed by conservative politicians in the 1980s, and said today’s inflation problems are similarly caused by elites who have strayed from conservative economic beliefs. His own record as prime minister, he said, could be summarized by income growth for Canadians, investments in infrastructure and the lowest federal taxes in over half a century. In contrast, he described “the policy war being waged the past few years against working Canadians and their families,” which he characterized as monetary policy causing inflation, an “elite-driven climate change agenda” and “tax hikes” for middle-class consumers “while at the same time sparing the big corporate sector from any increase to the corporate tax rate.”
“That is what elite liberalism looks like,” he said. “And of course, it runs counter in every way to the populist conservatism that previously governed the country.”
Harper’s speech to conservatives comes as Polivere looks to assert himself as leader by shoring up his bases of support and political capital necessary to defeat Trudeau in a future election.
University of Victoria associate professor James Rowe told Canada’s National Observer a puzzle for conservative movements is that achieving wide popularity is tough when a key part of the platform has been “the gutting of social programs,” which is “just a non-starter politically.”
Rowe says Harper is “an ideological warrior” who built a political party, with fundraising infrastructure, that simply has a more “libertarian outlook.” He pointed to a speech Harper gave to U.S. conservatives before he became prime minister where he candidly described his political outlook.
“Canada is a northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term, and very proud of it,” Harper told a crowd in Montreal in 1997.
Rowe said the Conservative Party under Harper embraced attacking social programs, and the party’s fundraising vehicles supported it.
“His mission during his tenure of nine years of rule was to chip away in a strategic way –– death by a thousand cuts –– to try to reverse Canada's place as a seemingly relatively progressive country in terms of our investments in public health care and other social programming,” Rowe said. “That's sort of the pickle I think they find themselves in is that so much of the funding infrastructure for the Conservative movement comes from people with a libertarian bent and yet that's just not popular politically.”
The Harper years were also a lost decade for climate action, Rowe said. Harper turned the oilsands into an economic growth engine for the country that led to skyrocketing greenhouse gas pollution and he pulled the country out of the Kyoto Protocol, Rowe noted.
“Obviously we've lost all kinds of progress we could've been making then, which is why this week with the IPCC report that came out we were told we have to be sprinting to be able to avoid 1.5 degrees,” he explained.
That brings Rowe back to the prospect of a Conservative Renaissance. Polievere has built political support for himself by attacking Trudeau policies like the carbon tax. But unlike Harper who spun a narrative about Canada becoming an energy superpower through its oil and gas industry, we’re simply in a different moment today, Rowe says.
The messaging Polievere uses hinges on resentment against Trudeau and “liberal elites.”
“It definitely animates the base, there's no doubt about it, they're not dummies, they wouldn't be doing it if it didn't fire those folks up. But in terms of the general population I just don't think that sticks,” he said.
Rowe added if Conservatives find a way to move beyond reactive resentment driven politics and toward a positive nation building message, they could find a formula to topple Trudeau, but “I don’t see that in the works.”