Why Harper might call it quits before 2015

  • National Newswatch

By Andrew Perez | June 04, 2013Stephen Harper is in a funk.The prime minister has been unlike himself in recent months, almost appearing to lose interest in the job he has clearly relished since assuming office in 2006. Two years after forming the first majority Conservative government since 1988, it's becoming evident Harper has squandered much of the political capital he once profited from.Let's recall, these Conservatives rode to power in 2006 under ideal political circumstances – the daily revelations of the federal sponsorship scandal and its aftermath fuelling their gains on the campaign trail, not to mention an unprecedented mid-campaign bombshell when the RCMP confirmed they were investigating a possible leak from Finance Minister Ralph Goodale's office (Goodale was later cleared of any wrongdoing).Campaigning as opposition leader in late 2005, Harper told Canadians a Conservative government would differ from the 'tired and corrupt' Liberal government in three key aspects. Conservatives, Harper reasoned:
  • were united and spoke with one voice;
  • were armed with a clear and focused policy agenda; and
  • would stake their political reputation on sweeping accountability reforms that would change the face of political Ottawa.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.Back then, the Conservatives were a blank slate – a new political party formed as an amalgam of predecessor conservative parties. There was no record in government to defend. The Tories leveraged this fact in the 2006 campaign, and a sufficient number of Canadians took them at their word to elect a Conservative minority government.But seven and a half years into Harper's rule, there is considerable evidence to counter all three of the claims he made in December 2005.On party unity – for the first time since 2006 – fault lines are beginning to emerge in the Conservative caucus – along social policy lines and over support for democratic reforms once championed by Preston Manning's Reform Party. Growing numbers of Tory MPs are now bravely 'speaking truth to power', going public with their displeasure as it relates to PMO directivesOn the policy side, Harper's government appears adrift and unfocused. Even on the government's signature policy file – the expansion of global free trade – the prime minister is all talk, but no action, placing his image as an ardent 'free trader' in jeopardy.Harper campaigned forcefully on free trade agreements with the European Union and India, and has entered into talks with Japan and the 16-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership. But in reality, the Conservative government has only executed bilateral trade deals with relatively small trading partners – mostly in South America.Finally – on the issue of government accountability and ethics – the list of ethical lapses this government has endured is breaking into unchartered waters with the rise of the Senate expenses sandal in recent weeks.As this latest scandal engulfs the Harper government, it's becoming increasingly clear this is not merely a dispute that touches on accountability and ethical standards, but one the RCMP says calls for strong grounds for criminal charges – including laying fraud or breach of trust charges under the Criminal Code.But what distinguishes this specific scandal from the exhaustive list of scandals the Conservatives have worn in recent years? Political analysts have already pronounced the Senate expenses scandal the most odious this government has confronted – overshadowing the robocalls affair, Bev Oda's alleged contempt of Parliament, the Helena Guergis scandal, and the now infamous 'in and out' scheme .For all their coverage, the aforementioned political transgressions have had virtually no long term effect on Harper's political prospects – in fact, it was after these scandals were first exposed in the press that Harper went on to reach the pinnacle of his political career, forming a majority government in 2011.Thus far, the Senate expenses 'misunderstanding of the rules' is promising to be a different animal, penetrating the collective conscience of the public. For one, this problem comes at an inconvenient time, with the Harper Tories mired in second place in the polls.But because this controversy extends into Harper's own office, and involves questions of his own knowledge and potential political direction, this controversy will be considerably more challenging for the prime minister to tightly manage.In fact, this affair is likely the most severe to rock Harper's government since 2006. Although the parliamentary coalition standoff in December 2008 nearly pushed the prime minister from office, his party's base were firmly behind him – something that cannot be said today as rank and file Tories express disgust at the daily revelations in Ottawa.With this backdrop in mind, the prime minister must seriously be contemplating what his next steps are. More importantly, he must be asking himself whether he will seek a fourth term in office.As the summer approaches, Stephen Harper would be sensible to remember two historical facts. First, no Canadian prime minister since Liberal Wilfrid Laurier has won four consecutive elections.Second, only two Conservative prime ministers have ever won two back-to-back majority governments – Sir John A. Macdonald and Brian Mulroney. Both men did so wagering their political reputations on nation-building agendas – something clearly absent from Harper's Ottawa.Looking back to more recent political history, Harper will not find much solace in the career trajectories veteran political leaders have typically encountered at the 8-10-year mark.At the federal level – although he eventually did serve four mandates – Pierre Trudeau failed to win a fourth consecutive term in 1979 against Tory leader Joe Clark, but returned in 1980 to serve a full fourth term as prime minister – a rare interlude in Canada's political history.Brian Mulroney won two impressive majority governments, but saw the writing on the wall late in his second mandate, opting to retire instead of risking electoral annihilation – a fate his young successor Kim Campbell experienced months later.Even Jean Chretien – as politically shrewd a politician as Stephen Harper – instinctively knew his third election in late 2000 would be his last – this in spite of a robust Liberal machine and fractured opposition.Casting an eye to the provincial sphere, there is ample evidence to suggest Harper would be prudent to call it quits before 2015, rather than risk his political survival at the hands of an irate electorate.Three power-house premiers recently ended their political careers at the 10-year mark – two ultimately chose to leave on their own – albeit less than ideal – terms, while the third premier was defeated in an ill-advised attempt at a fourth term.In British Columbia – after nine years and three majority mandates as premier – Liberal Gordon Campbell resigned in November 2010, fleeing an incensed electorate that had several grievances with his government. Chief among them – the Liberal government's botched implementation of the HST – a tax that has now been repealed by a province-wide referendum.Ontario's Dalton McGuinty encountered a remarkably similar – and equally dramatic –predicament to that of BC's Campbell two years later in October 2012. Nine years and three terms into the job, McGuinty's minority government faced stiff criticism over a decision made during the 2011 election campaign to scrap unpopular gas plants being constructed in Mississauga and Oakville.After his affable Energy minister, Chris Bentley, was cited in a rare contempt motion by a legislative committee, McGuinty opted to ultimately accept responsibility, and moved swiftly to prorogue the legislature and announce his resignation as premier.Finally, in Quebec, the country's political mastermind, Jean Charest, rolled the dice on a fourth consecutive election victory last summer. Running out the clock on his third mandate, Charest cynically precipitated an unusual summer campaign, hoping the violent student protests that shook Quebec in spring 2012 would be fresh in voters' minds, while betting the corruption cloud hanging over his government would not erupt into a storm amid a sleepy August campaign.But it was not meant to be – Charest lost the election – including his own Sherbrooke seat, paving the way for the first Parti Quebecois government in a decade, led by Pauline Marois.On both fronts, Charest's gambits proved incorrect. First, the debate over the tuition increase and the implications of the protests were strangely absent from the campaign trail –depriving Charest of one of his strongest cards.Second, Charest's hopes of sidestepping corruption allegations backfired when Jacques Duchesneau – the former head of a provincial anti-collusion task force – announced in the campaign's first week that he would run for the Coalition Avenir Québec – a new up-start Quebec party. From this point onward, it was clear the corruption issue would not be swept under the rug.These precedents are instructive insofar as they illustrate no political leader is immune to a 'best before date' as it were. To be sure – if Harper does plan to seek a fourth mandate – he will have the next two and a half years to go about preparing the groundwork for his re-election bid.The task is a daunting one with several moving parts – reverse potentially permanent damage to the Tory brand, and unify the caucus, all while effectively tackling trade deals and pipelines that are not being approved, thus stalling the government's legislative agenda. An extensive cabinet shake-up will likely figure into the equation as well. And while this much anticipated shuffle may help to recalibrate Tory strategy over the dogged days of summer, it will not serve as a panacea to some of the more permanent issues the party faces in the lead up to 2015.Until very recently, the conventional wisdom was that Harper would seek a fourth consecutive term – and win – cementing his reputation as the 21st century political equivalent to former Prime Minister Mackenzie King. But as columnist Lawrence Martin recently opined in the Globe and Mail, if Justin Trudeau's numbers hold, Harper won't stay.As Martin writes, the coming months will likely determine whether Harper stays or goes. If he is able to reverse the remarkable rise of Justin Trudeau, watch for him to dig in his heels and contest another election. However, if Trudeau's momentum is sustained well into 2014, Harper will move to navigate his exit.Nobody can be certain what Stephen Harper will do over the coming year, but evidence suggests he is a student of political history, all too aware of the fate that awaits leaders who refuse to accept the tide has turned against them. A political strategist at his core, Harper will want to leave on his own terms, and pave the way for his successor to at least attempt to rejuvenate the party as it approaches 2015. More than anything, Harper is as impatient as he is a man of pride. Even the prospect of returning to power in 2015 with a fragile minority government is a scenario that would be of little appeal – and defeat at the hands of the sprightly Justin Trudeau would be unbearable for the PM. If Stephen Harper is unable to stem the tide by the end of next summer – i.e., within the next 15 months - watch for him to announce his resignation.(The“in and out”scheme involved alleged improper election spending on the part of Conservatives during the closely fought 2006 campaign.)Andrew Perez, BJ, MPP, is a Toronto-based writer and political activist. Andrew has considerable experience working in public policy and politics, having worked as a Parliamentary Intern in Ottawa where he worked for both a government and an opposition Member of Parliament. He has also worked for the Liberal Party of Canada, and completed internships at Queen's Park and on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. Most recently, he worked as an advisor on the Sandra Pupatello leadership campaign in Ontario, briefing the candidate and senior campaign team on issues management. Andrew holds a Bachelor of Journalism from Carleton University, and a Master of Public Policy from the University of Toronto.