Stephen Harper's Long Game

March 1st, 2019 | R. Rados

When he gave his concession speech after losing to Justin Trudeau in 2015, Stephen Harper seemed relaxed and unfazed. At the time, I assumed he was relieved to be done with politics, but as Justin Trudeau proves to be the worst prime minister in our history, I'm seeing Harper's long term vision materialize. Stephen Harper knew Trudeau would fail so badly that Canadians would naturally gravitate back to the Conservative Party. With a fresh new leader and a reputation for being a safe and balanced alternative, the Conservative Party could supplant the Liberal Party as Canada's “natural governing party”. That was always Harper's long term goal.

Despite his own personal beliefs, Stephen Harper ran a safe, moderate and managerial Conservative government. It was imperfect, but it was effective in showing Canadians that the new party wasn't the radical, far right nightmare Liberals wanted them to think it was. Harper weathered the storm and steered Canada safely out of the 2008/2009 recession. He safely cut spending in some places and failed to live up to the Liberal Party's far right, neo-con label. After Harper, Canadians still had public healthcare, human rights, legal abortions, powerful unions and good international relations. Stephen Harper's Conservative government had proven itself as a permanent force in Canadian politics. It was here to stay, long after Harper.

Despite running a safe and moderate government, the media whipped portions of Canada's electorate into a deranged frenzy. Canadians had had enough of Stephen Harper and he knew it. Had he stuck around any longer, it could have damaged the Conservative brand. It was time for him to go, but it needed to happen naturally.

Rewind to the Conservative campaign of 2015. It was disastrously inept and weak—almost purposely so. I wasn't alone in thinking that some party strategists were going to get fired. Harper was passive when confronted with inaccurate and deceptive Liberal and NDP attacks, campaign rallies consisted of cheap game show antics and sound effects, and CPC HQ seemed reluctant to pull back on its failed campaign slogans. In terms of promises and policies, the Conservative Party had none. There were no appetizing tax cuts, no large scale reforms and no new ideas. The entire CPC campaign was about how terrible Justin Trudeau would be.

Fast forward to today and it looks like the 2015 Conservative campaign was meant to be a set-up for the party's future, not an effort to get Stephen Harper re-elected. Harper was supposed to lose so Canadians could get a taste of Justin Trudeau and come crawling back to the Conservative Party, begging for mercy. It sounds crazy to regard Stephen Harper with such a high level of prophetic genius, but not everyone could have predicted how bad a government led by Justin Trudeau would be. It looks a lot worse than most of us had expected.

Now think of how relaxed and unfazed Harper was during his concession speech. It was strangely reminiscent of his 2011 majority win. He wore the same subtle smirk and spoke confidently about the party's future and about Canada's future. In his mind, the Conservative Party was about to refresh itself with a new leader and re-emerge after a disastrous Liberal government. Harper was confident in Justin Trudeau's utter ineptitude. Trudeau's failure and the Liberal Party's return to corruption was all a part of Harper's strategy.

Even so, Stephen Harper had the cards stacked against him in 2015 and losing the election started looking inevitable by August. He might have saw it coming and knew exactly how it would look.

Harper was eerily right about everything. He predicted that Trudeau's deficits would be bigger and that the party would go back to its old roots of cronyism and corruption. He was right about higher taxes, embarrassments on the world stage and a steady decline in overall prosperity. If you look back at Stephen Harper's rallies and campaign speeches, you'll see all of his predictions and his character assessments of Justin Trudeau. None of them were good, but all of them were freakishly accurate. The Trudeau government was exactly the disaster Stephen Harper needed it to be.

Four years later, Liberals are heading into an election with disastrous poll numbers and a Conservative Party creeping into a statistical tie—or a lead in some polls. Unlike Trudeau, Harper slowly gained the confidence of Canadians after winning his first minority in 2006. Unlike Harper, Trudeau is hemorrhaging public confidence like the Hindenburg. The prospects of another Liberal majority are slipping through Trudeau's fingers like melted butter, while Andrew Scheer takes effective body shots and Canadians pine for the days when they didn't have to hang their heads in shame. Things are looking unusually bad for this young, incumbent government. More usually than not, first-term incumbent governments are well positioned for re-election—but not these guys. This government, like the Alberta NDP, looks more like a short-lived mistake, or a tiny blip on the timeline of history.  

With that said, it's a slow process. Canadians are traditionally liberal by nature. Getting them to convert won't happen overnight and Harper knew that better than anyone else. Andrew Scheer faces a lot of attacks from conservatives for being too weak or too liberal, but he's just following Harper's protocol. A leader like Maxime Bernier would have set the clock back on Harper's agenda, with his calls to abolish the CRTC, reform the CBC and various other things Liberals would call "far right". Canadians aren't ready for drastic, right-wing reforms. Taking on most of Maxime Bernier's policy positions would have put the Conservative Party on the very fringes that Harper tried to avoid. 

Andrew Scheer is a true conservative by nature, just like Harper, but he knows conservative ideas can't win in Canada. Not yet, anyway. The Conservative Party's long term strategy is about taking baby-steps and encouraging small C conservatives to be patient. This isn't about winning the now, it's about winning the future. This is a transformation, not a revolution. Canadians don't do revolutions, which is why we never joined the American colonists when they decided to stick it to the British Empire. 

Be patient conservatives. We'll get there if we stick together. In the meantime, pick up a pen, grab a camera or use a paint brush to tell your conservative stories. Take the monopoly on art away from the liberals and socialists. 

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