Prime Minister Stephen Harper
The Right Honourable Stephen Harper is Canada’s 22nd Prime Minister. He is also leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, and represents the riding of Calgary—Southwest.
Harper began his second mandate as prime minister following the federal election held on October 14, 2008 — an election in which the Conservative Party of Canada won the most seats, but failed to win a majority government. The Conservative government introduced its federal budget in January 2009, which was subsequently passed. The budget contained a massive stimulus package, including funds for infrastructure, which is designed to boost the faltering Canadian economy. The nation has seen significant job losses in sectors such as auto, manufacturing and forestry, as well as a shrinking GDP. The Harper government’s priority is to bring Canada out of its recession.
The budget’s passing signals that the Conservative government is still viable after a tumultuous autumn. When Parliament resumed after the election, the governing Conservatives delivered an economic update, which the three opposition parties (the Liberals, New Democrats, and the Bloc Québécois) rejected. Subsequently, the Liberal and New Democratic parties signed a coalition agreement that, with the support of the Bloc Québécois, would enable the coalition to form a government had the ruling Conservatives succumbed to a non-confidence vote. No opportunity emerged for the coalition to form a government because Governor General Michaëlle Jean granted Prime Minister Harper’s request to prorogue (postpone) Parliament.
Harper first became Prime Minister on February 6, 2006 after his Conservative Party won a minority government in the federal election held January 23, 2006. An issue that emerged during his first mandate was Canada’s mission in Afghanistan. Other key developments in the government’s first term included: promised reductions to the Goods and Services Tax (GST) by one percent in 2007 and 2008, respectively; the introduction of a Tax-Free Spending Account, which was well received; and criticisms of the government for its stand on climate change and global warming.
Stephen Harper and the Politics of Conservatism
Harper has had a vibrant, and sometimes tumultuous, political career. In short, he served as a political operative behind the scenes, held office, retired and then returned to public life. Harper’s involvement in politics spans more than two decades. He was leader of the Official Opposition from 2004 to 2006, before leading his party to victory.
He is the first leader of the new Conservative Party of Canada, which came into being in December 2003. This new party is the apex of a significant period of transformation in federal politics on the right in Canada —a period in which Harper has been a major player . From Confederation, the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada (PC) dominated the political right; however, that political landscape began to change beginning in the mid-1980s. Harper had a short-lived dalliance with the PC Party in the 1980s under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, but severed ties because he became disillusioned. In the 1980s, a grassroots movement in Western Canada, buoyed by key themes such as Western alienation, the sitting PC government’s alleged favouritism of Quebec and lack of fiscal responsibility, leading to the creation of the Reform Party of Canada.
Then-Reform Party leader Preston Manning invited Harper to make a speech at the Party’s founding convention in 1987, and later made him his chief policy officer. Harper is credited with having a major influence on the Reform Party’s 1988 election platform. He ran as a Reform candidate in the 1988 election, but lost, only to serve as chief advisor and speechwriter for Deborah Grey, the Reform Party’s only elected Member of Parliament (MP), beginning in 1989. In 1993, he stepped into public himself by running as the candidate for the riding of Calgary West — a contest he won. Harper then went on to serve one term only. During his time as a Member of Parliament, he differed with his party on some key policy issues; in 1995, for example, he was one of only two Reform MPs to vote in favour of federal legislation requiring owners to register their firearms. In 1997, Harper stepped out of politics for a number of years, only to return to contest the leadership of the Canadian Alliance Party (formerly the Reform Party). He was successful in his 2002 leadership bid and also won the constituency of Calgary Southwest in a federal by-election.
As Canadian Alliance leader, Harper worked to heal divisions that had emerged within his party; several prominent caucus members had defected in favour of a coalition with the Progressive Conservative Party, led by former Prime Minister Joe Clark. By April 2002, all but one of the dissidents had returned to the Canadian Alliance. Harper then worked to consolidate the various conservative elements to end vote-splitting on the highly fractured right, entering into negotiations with then-PC Party leader Peter MacKay regarding a merger. Despite harsh criticism and discussions that initially failed, the new Conservative Party of Canada emerged — the product of a union between the Canadian Alliance Party and the Progressive Conservative Party.
Stephen Harper's Political Ideology
Between 1997 and 2002, when Harper was out of public life, he served as president of the National Citizens Coalition, a conservative think tank and lobby group that advocates free enterprise, free speech, and government that is accountable to its taxpayers.
Harper opposed new federal legislation that placed restrictions on political advertising of private interest groups during federal elections. Harper took the federal government to court, arguing the legislation violated constitutional rights to freedom of expression, freedom of association, and the right to vote. The case of R. v. Harper was eventually heard by the Supreme Court of Canada, which upheld the legislation, concluding it was constitutional under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Despite being out of public life, Harper also continued to comment on the general direction of Canadian politics. In 2001, along with five other right-wing politicians and academics from Alberta, Harper published “The Alberta Agenda,” an open letter to Alberta Premier Ralph Klein. The group called for building a “firewall” around Alberta to limit the extent to which an “aggressive and hostile” federal government could encroach upon areas of provincial jurisdiction. Specific recommendations included Alberta’s withdrawal from the Canada Pension Plan in favour of replacing it with a provincial plan; provincial collection of personal income taxes; the creation of a provincial police force to replace the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP); resumption of provincial responsibility over health care policy; and a push for Senate reform as a major national agenda issue.
Harper’s political ideology and views were shaped during his university days; he was exposed to several political ideologies and perspectives that have contributed to the development of modern Canadian conservatism. One was neo-liberalism, or right-wing liberalism, which favours a limited role for government in a nation’s social and economic development. Noted US economist Milton Friedman, former US President Ronald Reagan, and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher espoused this brand of liberalism. Another important influence was Western alienation, a perspective that argues the interests of Central Canada (that is, Ontario and Quebec) dominate Canadian politics, while Western Canadian interests receive second billing or are completely disregarded in national policy. In this regard, a significant ‘touch point’ occurred when the former Liberal government, helmed by Pierre Elliott Trudeau, introduced its National Energy Program, which sought to stabilize national energy supplies and prices through federal regulation of the oil and gas sector in Western Canada.
A Personal Snapshot of Stephen Harper
Stephen Harper was born in Toronto, Ontario in 1959, and grew up in the suburbs of Leaside and Etobicoke. Following graduation from high school, he moved to Alberta to work briefly in the oil industry, and then entered post-secondary studies at the University of Calgary where he graduated with a Master’s degree in economics from the University of Calgary. In 1993, Harper married Laureen Teskey. They have two children, Benjamin and Rachel.