Stephen Harper has gone, but Harperism has not
Stephen Harper’s brand of hard-edged Conservativism promises to have staying power
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In conceding defeat Monday, Stephen Harper boasted that he had left his Conservative party in good shape.
“When the next time comes, this party will offer Canadians a strong and clear alternative based on our Conservative values,” he told cheering supporters.
“And we will offer that alternative as a party that has a solid basis, including in Quebec.”
To some, the Conservative prime minister’s optimism in the face of a stinging electoral defeat might have sounded like braggadocio.
Yet he was right. While Harper himself was repudiated by voters, his brand of hard-edged Conservativism remains very much alive.
Certainly, Harper’s party was trounced. It won only 99 seats in the Commons compared to the Liberals’ 184.
But in terms of the popular vote, the Conservatives dropped only a few points below their majority government position in 2011 — from 39.6 to 31.9 per cent.
What this means is that in most parts of the country, the base is solid.
Not everywhere. The Conservatives were virtually wiped out in Atlantic Canada.
Yet their vote share held firm in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
The Liberals may have swept Toronto and its outer suburbs. But 35 per cent of Ontario voters still cast ballots for the Harper Conservatives.
In British Columbia that figure was 30 per cent.
In Quebec, the Conservatives won marginally more of the popular vote than they had in 2011. As well, they more than doubled their seat share — from 5 to 12.
These are not the hallmarks of a political party at death’s door.
In fact, Harper’s message of low taxes, less government, more prisons, solid support for Israel and solid opposition to Russia, does resonate with many Canadians.
The streak of nativism that runs through the modern Conservative Party, expressed in this campaign by thinly-veiled attack on Muslims, is politically dangerous.
It can and did backfire — particularly among so-called ethnic voters in the 905 region outside Toronto.
But the essential Harperist credo on the need to take an uncompromising stand against terrorism at home and abroad rings true for many voters.
When outgoing Defence Minister Jason Kenney blamed the Conservatives’ tone rather than their content for Monday’s defeat, he wasn’t entirely wrong.
“We need a conservatism that is sunnier and more optimistic,” he said.
Will the Conservatives go for this strategy of Harperism with a human face?
We shall see over the next few months as the party licks its wounds and prepares to choose a new leader.
But those who ache for the party to return to its old Red Tory roots of Progressive Conservativism may well be disappointed.
In his own terms, Harper was remarkably successful. His cuts to the GST are now accepted by all parties. His cuts to corporate taxes have won the approval of the Liberals and are only partially opposed by the New Democrats.
His strategy of embracing any and all free trade deals has been embraced enthusiastically by Liberal Prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau.
Harper has been criticized for focusing so much attention on extracting and transporting oil from Alberta’s tarsands.
But the Liberals are also in favour of new heavy-oil pipelines. They say only that they will be smarter about getting them approved.
Trudeau has vowed to undo some of Harper’s more egregious legislation, such as his act that would allow dual nationals to be stripped of their Canadian citizenship.
But the Liberals have already approved the gist of Harper’s draconian anti-terror law, promising only to amend some parts of it.
And while they mocked his “barbaric cultural practices” bill, the only substantive aspect of it that they objected to in the Commons was the name.
In short, much of Harper’s agenda seems destined to remain in place. That is a singular accomplishment for the Conservatives.
And the future? The voters may have made a moral judgment about Stephen Harper, the aloof and mean-spirited autocrat. But Harperism — the set of policies that this autocrat championed — is far from dead.
This article originally appeared in The Toronto Star.