Canada’s unsung Conservative prime minister is shaking up his country’s flabby political culture and standing up for freedom abroad
The first time I met Stephen Harper was when I interviewed him on television. As we left the studio, he asked me how old I was. I told him. “Oh,” he said, “we’re the same age. Odd, you look much older.” In other words, personal charm is not always the strong point of the Conservative Canadian prime minister and arguably the sole Western leader with a sensible, intelligent and consistent foreign policy. Harper is a relatively anonymous man from a relatively anonymous country — everybody knows Canada is there, but most people outside the second largest country in the world know very little about it.
That includes those just over the border in the United States. Then again, why would or should they? America is a superpower, Canada is a gentle parliamentary democracy with 35 million people, two official languages, a British political system and an obsession with ice hockey. The most famous politician it produced was also the one who did it the most damage. Pierre Trudeau was the Liberal prime minister who played social experiments with the country, turning Canada into an achingly liberal and socialised state, with ties to Cuba and the Soviet Union.
Unlike Harper, the arch snob Trudeau had charisma in buckets, and his legacy was a succession of governments, whether Liberal or Tory, that were soft in foreign policy, socially permissive, and addicted to nationalisation and state intervention. Then came Stephen Harper. He was one of the young men who managed to amalgamate the old Progressive Conservative Party with the new, populist and western prairie-based Reform Party. The Conservatives, pure and simple, emerged, formed a minority government and, earlier this year, swept to a comfortable majority, obliterating the Liberal Party — the natural party of government — and its leader, British television’s Michael Ignatieff.
Domestically, Harper has yet to, and probably won’t, touch issues such as gay marriage and publicly-funded abortion, but he is an advocate of the free market, has transformed the entitlement culture of Ottawa, the capital, and the civil service, and even dares to say “God bless Canada” on national television. This may seem trivial, but in a nation that defines itself by not being American, repeating anything that US leaders tend to say can be dangerous. Also, one of the ironies of Canada is that while it does not have a constitutional separation of church and state, its establishment despises religion, while in the US with its official church/state divide, politicians are effectively obliged to declare their faith — even if, as in the case of President Obama, they are probably lying.
But it’s in the area of foreign policy that Harper is most remarkable. In September he told Canadians on the country’s biggest television news show that “Islamism” was the greatest threat to their security. That’s incredibly rare and bold these days, anywhere in the world. His government boycotted the Hamas government in Gaza before any other, thus enabling Canada to punch well above its weight while the genuine big boys in the ring were still dancing around the ropes. Canada used to be almost unaligned on the Middle East, but is now considered one of Israel’s firmest allies. While Obama’s Washington often treats Binyamin Netanyahu like an irritant, Harper’s Ottawa treats him like a brother.
There’s an anecdote that when Harper was a boy his father told him: “If ever you are in a position to help the Jewish people, make sure you do.” It’s touching and poignant, but also difficult to explain. The Harpers are not, as some suggest, Christian Zionists, they did not live in a particularly Jewish area, and Harper himself was not influenced by a Jewish mentor. As his immigration minister Jason Kenney, a serious Roman Catholic and an ardent supporter of Israel, told me, “We are on the side of democracy and freedom, and against terrorism and oppression. It’s pretty straightforward really.” Straightforward perhaps, but breathtakingly refreshing.
Harper has also built a far better relationship with the United States, his ministers have openly criticised China’s treatment of political dissidents, and he is making sure that the new India knows that Canada is a particularly close friend. The Iraq War started before Harper was in power, but it’s likely that if he had been prime minister at the time the Canadians would have been part of the alliance. Canadian forces are certainly in Afghanistan and have suffered heavy casualties. Harper has also invested deeply in the military, and just this past summer restored the word “Royal” to the armed forces, after it was expunged a generation ago.
Most important of all, he has made the Conservatives the party to beat, changed the political narrative, and allowed genuinely and ideologically conservative young people to enter politics and care about change. He is certainly not perfect, and many of his supporters would prefer more rapid and radical change. But Canada is a far greater political entity than it was before the realist Stephen Harper. He’s only 52; odd, with what he’s achieved you’d think he was much older.