Time Will Be Kinder to Stephen Harper

By Levine, Allan | Winnipeg Free Press, October 26, 2015 | Go to article overview

Time Will Be Kinder to Stephen Harper


Levine, Allan, Winnipeg Free Press


It was "a victory for democracy" and "end to one-man government, mistaken policies and autocratic leadership." It was the end finally of "the superman idea."

These critical comments were not, as you might expect, about Stephen Harper following his defeat last week at the hands of Justin Trudeau and the Liberals, but remarks made by then-Liberal leader William Lyon Mackenzie King Oct. 14, 1935, after he and the party had vanquished another Conservative leader, R.B. Bennett.

In the past few days, assessments of Harper have been generally harsh; that he reaped what he sowed by his "politics of fear" and his incitement of divisiveness. Many Canadians with a visceral dislike for Harper are delighted he and the Conservatives lost the election and happier still he is resigning the leadership of the party.

"No prime minister in history and no political party have been loathed as intensely as Stephen Harper and the Conservative party," writes John Ibbitson in his new biography of Harper. That may be so, though Conservatives Arthur Meighen, Bennett and Brian Mulroney, as well as Pierre Elliott Trudeau of the Liberals, all generated a lot of negative feelings. Mulroney, in particular, won two majority governments, yet was hugely unpopular when he left office in 1993. He was seen as largely responsible for the demise of the Conservative party in the 1993 federal election, a political reality that was only reversed by Harper's wise leadership.

At this moment, when emotions are still raw, it is difficult to believe Harper will be remembered as a good or skilful prime minister. But time, historical perspective and archival research often lead to revision and reassessments, both good and bad.

Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, is consistently ranked among the top three of the country's past leaders, yet among some recent critics, his treatment of aboriginal people was regarded as devastating, and his legacy has been tarnished. Similarly, Pierre Elliott Trudeau has been remembered as a great visionary who left a lasting impact on Canada. And while there are many books that support such a view, there are others that deride his economic policies that dramatically increased the national debt and his centralization of power in the Prime Minister's Office.

The case of Bennett is another good example. In his day, Bennett was as polarizing a figure as Harper. Faced with the impossible challenge of governing during the Great Depression, Bennett was an authoritarian and a bully. …

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