How do we document the Harper Conservative legacy?

As the summer of 2013 glues itself into the cottage guest books and family photo albums, the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper

Mike Robinson

As the summer of 2013 glues itself into the cottage guest books and family photo albums, the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper prepares itself for yet another prorogation of Parliament so it can work on a new throne speech. We are told that extra time is needed to assess what components of the mandate have been accomplished, and what has yet to be done by mid-2015, when we citizens shall be summoned to judge the Conservatives in a national election.

This time prorogation is all about discovering and documenting the Harper Conservative legacy.

In the spirit of citizenship, and wishing to be helpful, I offer the PMO “legacy scribes” the following thoughts on the legacies of the prime ministers and governments who have gone before in the post-Second World War era, as baby boomers grew up and came of voting age.

First up, and now a dimming memory, was John Diefenbaker and the great Progressive Conservative sweep of 1957. He is the first PM I can remember. I associate his legacy with being a crusading western prairie lawyer who cared about the North, gave Status Indians the vote in federal elections, and all of us the first Canadian Bill of Rights.

Next up came Lester Pearson, a distinguished Oxford-trained historian, who gave up thoughts of practicing law for a career in the Canadian Foreign Service. After winning a Nobel Prize for conceptualizing UN peacekeeping missions, he entered politics and never achieved a majority. His government’s key legislative legacies drew on the pioneering efforts of Tommy Douglas’ Saskatchewan CCF, and included the Canada Pension Plan, Canada Student Loans, and medicare. Pearson also prepared for his departure from public life by encouraging Pierre Trudeau to run for the Liberal leadership.

Trudeau was a lawyer but he was more of an academic and public intellectual by temperament. His legacy really is dominated by repatriating the Canadian Constitution, appending the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the Official Languages Act. It also includes maintaining the national dream by continuously arguing with considerable finesse the role of Quebec within a united Canada. His invoking of the War Measures Act during the October Crisis, and tough response when asked by a CBC reporter just how far he was prepared to go (“Just watch me,”) showed all of Canada the temper of the man.

The Joe Clark legacy hardly had time to form in his short government but his continued devotion to national service is noteworthy. Canada as “a community of communities” perhaps best defines his prairie view of national life.

Few would argue that Brian Mulroney’s key legislative legacies are the Canada/U.S. Free Trade Agreement and NAFTA. While the constitutional wrangles of the sought-after Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords have dulled our public enthusiasm for more of the same, our desire to trade freely with our southern neighbours grows yearly. Mulroney also contributed the Environmental Protection Act and the GST to our national memory bank.

John Turner (1984) and Kim Campbell’s (1993) legacies are shorter than Joe Clark’s, and neither is associated with a defining moment or phrase.

The Chretien and Martin years, because fundamentally they worked as lawyer/managers in a governance/finance team, are associated with federal government debt reduction, deficit controls for government departments, and astute leadership in matters international. PM Chretien’s refusal to send Canadian Forces to participate in Operation Desert Storm is a national grace point in our history. Both Chretien and Martin had progressive, community-based attitudes to First Nations, Metis and Inuit issues. Chretien enabled Nunavut’s creation, and had it had a chance for implementation, Martin’s Kelowna Accord might have served the country well.

And so we hit the present moment, so often portrayed in the media as a time to “press the reset button,” as if the country was a giant game console or video recorder. Resetting doesn’t create a legacy. Proroguing doesn’t either. Frankly, more time to write about little, doesn’t make it big. Legacy in Canadian political terms since the 1950s most often has had to do with lawyers leaving private practice or business careers to accomplish pre-set goals in the public interest that require legislation to implement. It is rarely about dismantling long-gun registries, dumbing down census forms, or celebrating wars fought in the 1800s.

Constantly saying the economy is your priority, and erecting Economic Action Plan signs is not a legacy moment either. Indeed we could argue the Harper government’s primary legacy so far is its total legislative absence.

Troy Media syndicated columnist Mike Robinson has lived half of his life in Alberta and half in B.C. In Calgary he worked for eight years in the oil patch, 14 in academia, and eight years as a cultural CEO.

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