Why Stephen Harper Will, and Should, Fail

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Stephen Harper will fail as the leader of the Canadian Alliance. And given his fundamentalist, neo-liberal ideology and past record in the Reform party, he deserves to.

While Harper shares many characteristics with Preston Manning — Reform’s founder — Manning succeeded because he knew something Harper seems unable or unwilling to accept: You can’t sell ideology straight up in Canada. It has to be a mixed drink, and that was what Manning was so good at. He knew the only way he could sell his free-market agenda was to dress it up in Western populist garb.

Harper’s undoing will come from an intellectual arrogance that has led him to show contempt for populism in the past. And if he has tempered his ideological politics since resigning as leader of the National Citizens Coalition (NCC) last August to run for the Alliance leadership, he has given few signs of it. The new Opposition Leader has a lot to prove to Canadians, who have every reason to be uneasy and suspicious of his political history.

In the early stages of Reform, Harper and Manning played the key roles in purging populist sentiment from the party’s key economic and social policies. This is where Harper was most impressed with his boss, remarking: “It’s amazing what you can persuade them (party members) to do once you convince them it’s the leader who is telling them.”

Despite the myth that party policy came from the grassroots, Manning and Harper — as policy chief — wrote literally every Reform plank in the crucial early years. And to accomplish this task they had to bend, break or trash virtually every initiative that came from the grassroots.

Leading up to the 1991 Reform convention, the most important policy session in the party’s history, Manning appointed and chaired a special committee called the Party Policy Committee (PPC).

Harper was a key member. It had no constitutional authority and was responsible exclusively to Manning. Its task was to sanitize initiatives coming from the members (through three policy “screenings”) to ensure an ideologically consistent policy package for the next election and for Reform’s expansion into Ontario.

It wasn’t easy. Most people joined Reform because it was populist. That meant that a majority of Reform members — though very conservative — supported universal medicare, subsidies to struggling farmers and repeal of the hated GST.

The 1991 policy convention was preceded by what Harper called a “two channel” policy process - one was from the grassroots; the other was from Manning’s policy committee.

The two channels of policy ended up in what was called the “Exposure Draft,” an amalgam of eighty-eight riding association resolutions — seventy-one from the PPC were returned to the ridings for discussion. Where the PPC resolutions competed fundamentally with riding association sentiment, the PPC made “recommendations.”

Only two of the eight-eight grassroots resolutions were recommended. Not surprisingly, the policy committee recommended sixty-seven of its own seventy-one resolutions — virtually all personally written by Manning with help from Harper. Of the sixty resolutions that did reach the convention floor, just seven came from the grassroots.

Harper described policies coming from the “bottom-up” as “simple and low quality” but also said “if people feel you’re listening... they’ll be very open to what you are trying to sell them.”

Manning and Harper — through repeated interventions — managed to persuade delegates that universal medicare was a bad idea, that any support for farmers was “socialistic” and resolutions enhancing democracy in Reform’s constitution (whose “extreme democratic nature” Harper had already complained about) should be defeated.

Their only setback was failing to convince delegates that getting rid of the GST was fiscally irresponsible.

Harper left the Reform party in January 1997 because he didn’t like Manning’s calculated ambiguity toward neo-liberal policies, which he believed the party should be upfront about.

But he had no hesitation in boasting about the party’s successes. In a speech to the (NCC) in 1994, while still Member of Parliament for Calgary West, Harper assessed Reform’s influence:

“(T)he Liberal government in Ottawa has announced... no new major social spending programs. Universality has been severely reduced: It is virtually dead as a concept in most areas of public policy. The family allowance program has been eliminated and unemployment insurance has been seriously cut back.”

It is instructive that Harper headed up the NCC while waiting to run for the Alliance leadership. The NCC had been Reform’s soul mate since the founding of the party. Harper praised the organization in 1994 because it “criticizes, attacks and gives alternatives to such things as official multiculturalism, enforced national bilingualism, a pro-criminal justice system, anti-family social policies, open door immigration...”

In the four years Harper ran it, the NCC had a relatively low profile and stayed away from some of its former hot-button issues like immigration. But his truly bizarre National Post article a few days after the 2000 election revealed a disturbing paranoia about Canadian politics that raises questions about his fitness to hold national political office.

Responding to some bland post-election statement by Canadian Prime Minister, Jean Chretien that Albertans actually benefited from being part of Canada, Harper implied Ottawa might rob Albertans of their wealth. “This is just one more reason why Westerners, but Albertans in particular, need to think hard about their future in this country,” he wrote. “After sober reflection, Albertans should decide that it is time to seek a new relationship with Canada.

“It is time to look at Quebec and to learn. What Albertans should take from this example is to become ’maitres chez nous.’”

Harper was upset because the Alliance had done so poorly in the election. And why? Not because the Alliance ran an (he acknowledged) lousy campaign, but because it “was devastated by a shrewd and sinister Liberal attack plan.”

The sinister plan? Peddling evil “myths” about Alberta. Really?

I paid reasonably close attention to that election, and I saw the Liberals attempts to alarm people about the Alliance's (scary) plans to destroy every social program they could find. Why Harper would be upset by this — having bragged to the 1994 NCC gathering about facilitating the end of universality, and the family allowance and the slashing of Unemployment Insurance — is a mystery.

In his Post essay, Harper revealed his admiration for Alberta and his contempt for the rest of Canada: “Canada appears content to become a second-tier socialistic country, boasting ever more loudly about its economy and social services to mask its second-rate status.” This reality puts Alberta and the rest of Canada “on divergent and potentially hostile paths to defining their country.”

So why is Harper even interested in leading a country he obviously can’t stomach? Why doesn’t he stay in Alberta, wait for Ralph Klein to step down, and lead Alberta to even greater glory through his beloved “American enterprise and individualism?”

Simple. Because Harper is furious that most Canadians reject free-market fundamentalism. He wants to teach us a lesson. He has chosen as his key adviser another free-market evangelist, Tom Flanagan, and rejects any accommodation with the Progressive Conservative party. (He once maintained “there are only two kinds of Tories — red Tories and yellow Tories.”)

If Harper’s past departures from mainstream Canadian values persist unabated during his tenure as Alliance leader, he will deserve his fate: the man who will oversee the withering of the Reform experiment and its retreat to the confines of Alberta.

Which is probably as it should be.

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