“I think Harper… can be vindictive, certainly not always grateful for what people have done for him in the past… So you can say he’s ruthless, which is probably true… Maybe that’s a personal failing.”
– Tom Flanagan, former Harper adviser, campaign manager and University of Calgary political scientist
Five weeks after Stephen Harper won his majority government in 2011, Maclean’s magazine ran a story asking experts to name Canada’s best prime ministers. Harper ranked 11th on the list.
Stephen Azzi, a Carleton University historian who co-authored the Maclean’s piece, says he doubts very much Harper would have budged on the list if their survey were conducted today. “All of the prime ministers we consider successful have some major accomplishment they can point to – Harper doesn’t have that,” he explains. “His accomplishment first of all is winning power and staying in power and then there are a series of minor things that his supporters like. But it will be hard for future generations to remember him for these things.”
On the Maclean’s list, the prime ministers below Harper were either in power very briefly – such as Kim Campbell, John Turner and Joe Clark – or were otherwise forgettable, such as R.B. Bennett and Arthur Meighen. For historians, to be considered an important prime minister, you must leave behind a significant government program or legislative milestone – such as Lester B. Pearson when he created Medicare and the Canada Pension Plan, or Brian Mulroney with free trade and the acid rain treaty.
“When I think of the Harper government, what would be a lasting implication?” asks Dimitry Anastakis, a historian at Trent University. “There are a lot of takeaways the government has done in terms of diminishing the capacity of government. I suppose that is the legacy. I don’t think it’s a positive legacy — I think it is a very negative legacy.”
Even conservatives can’t point to major achievements. Tom Flanagan says with the exception of some criminal justice reforms, Harper has not delivered on social conservative issues, such as abortion or gay marriage, and didn’t end things like corporate subsidies. Flanagan does point to lowering the tax burden on Canadians as Harper’s biggest accomplishment – in particular the childcare benefit and tax cuts to parents with children. “I felt [the previous tax system] was unfair to parents raising a family,” he says.
On the childcare front, Harper scrapped plans for a national daycare program that Paul Martin had promised. And the childcare benefit and tax cuts don’t come close to covering the cost of daycare for an average parent.
But is Harper the worst prime minister in Canadian history?
Investigative journalist Michael Harris, author of Party of One, the bestseller about Harper’s tenure, believes so. “There is something very Stalinesque about Harper,” remarks Harris. “My bottom line on this guy is, he hates democracy. He doesn’t care about truth and cares only about the perception of what benefits him. In that way he’s way worse [than his predecessors].”
Naturally, assessing Harper’s legacy depends on your own politics: conservatives will view him more kindly than liberals and leftists. Moreover, Harper does not rule in the same environment as prime ministers of the past. “I say to people who say this is the worst ever – really? Ask any visible minority, aboriginal or woman how the government treated them before 1975,” says Duff Conacher, founder of Democracy Watch, an Ottawa-based civil liberties organization.
Still, given his longevity in power, and in regards to the fundamental things people grade a government on – such as the economy, democratic practices, the environment, corruption, foreign policy, culture, civil liberties – Harper’s record might very well place him as the worst prime minister in Canadian history.
His democratic recordWhen Canadian Press reporter Dene Moore asked to interview Fisheries and Oceans Canada scientist Max Bothwell last year about a particular type of algae he studies, her request was denied. Out of curiosity, CP made an access to information request to find out why – and discovered that Moore’s simple request had generated 110 pages of emails between 16 different government communications staffers.
Why such agitation? The Environmental Law Association at the University of Victoria speculates that certain subjects are red-flagged within the government because they might be to issues important to the oil industry. And algae growth is linked to climate change.
If there is one area in which Harper is particularly vulnerable, it’s the charge that he runs one of the most undemocratic regimes in Canadian history – and has undermined and abused democratic institutions and procedures at every turn. In fact, he is the only Canadian prime minister to be found in contempt of Parliament, which occurred in 2011 after his government refused to release costs on certain programs to opposition MPs.
A more recent example is Bill C-51, the government’s anti-terrorism legislation, which critics say will criminalize free speech and allow government agencies to widely share personal information without any regard to privacy, while giving CSIS, RCMP and CSEC freer range to spy on whomever they choose. The law also allows these agencies to hold people up to a week in “preventative detention."
Last year, Democracy Watch released its annual report card on the government’s performance, giving it an “F” on accountability and democratic reform. “The secret unethical lobbying, excessive secrecy, conflict of interest, and donations scandals in 2013, and the broken promises… make it clear that another Accountability Act is needed to close dozens of loopholes and clean up the federal government,” Conacher said at the time.
After Harper became prime minister, he introduced the Federal Accountability Act (FAA). But Conacher says that only 29 of the act’s 60 promised reforms were put in place (seven were then rolled back). “The biggest thing they did, which was really bad, was to break 31 other promises,” he says.
Conacher notes that Harper did make some positive changes, such as creating the parliamentary budget office, improving oversight of lobbyists, lowering the amount that corporations can contribute to federal parties, extending the Access to Information Act to more government agencies, and making it harder for parliamentary staff to get public service jobs.
Yet these have been offset by a laundry list of undemocratic actions, which include:
- Proroguing Parliament four times, shutting it down for a total of 181 days.
In 2008, Harper prorogued Parliament after opposition parties
threatened to bring down his minority government. He did it twice more
in 2009 when Harper claimed he wanted to keep Parliament in recess
during the Winter Olympics (while opposition members felt it was to
avoid investigations into the Afghan detainee affair)— and the fourth
time was in 2013 after the opposition said he was avoiding questions
over the Senate spending scandal.
- Omnibus bills. Starting in 2010, Harper tabled a
bill with 883 pages that included changes to Canada Post and
environmental assessments. Since then, Harper has passed 10 more omnibus
bills to circumvent debate in parliament, often making sweeping changes
to laws and regulations. “All have been an abuse of process and shown
contempt for Parliament by subverting its role,” editorialized The Globe and Mail
last fall. “Major changes to policy and law that should have been
examined by MPs have been pushed through with almost no debate,
sometimes with disastrous results.”
One bill attempted to appoint Justice Marc Nadon to the Supreme Court, although he was not eligible. In 2012, one of the omnibus bills, C-38, completely gutted Canada’s environmental laws, cut $36-billion from health care funding, weakened Canada’s food inspectors through job cuts, and made it harder to qualify for EI benefits.
- Robocalling during the 2011 election. Michael Harris, in his book Party of One,
calls it “Canada’s worst election scandal.” Just prior to election day,
some voters across Canada received recorded calls that either told them
to go to the wrong polling station, or were of a harassing nature,
purportedly made by opposition parties. The targeted voters didn't
support the Conservatives. Investigations revealed the involvement of
RackNine Inc., a political consulting firm the Conservatives hired, and
Michael Sona, a low-level Conservative party staffer who was sentenced
last year to nine months in prison for his role. Two judges found that
it was likely other senior Tories were involved.
- Fair Elections Act. Last year the Harper government
overhauled Canada’s election laws to deal with electoral fraud. But its
critics soon labeled it the “Unfair Elections Act” because it weakened
the power of Elections Canada, effectively muzzling the chief electoral
officer from communicating with the public and MPs about investigations,
and cut off the agency’s investigations arm, while polling supervisors
were now to be appointed by the incumbent party’s candidate or party.
(Elections Canada used to appoint them.)
- Gagging scientists from speaking freely about their research.
Numerous scientists have been prevented from speaking to the media,
especially those researching the environment. The government has also
been accused of sending “minders” when some scientists have attended
international conferences, along with speaking points, to ensure they
stay on message.
In 2013, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada
(PIPSC), which represents 20,000 federal scientists, found that hundreds
of their members said they had been asked to exclude or alter technical
information in government documents for non-scientific reasons, and
thousands said they had been prevented from responding to the media or
- Spying on environmental and aboriginal activists.
Jeffrey Monaghan, a criminologist at Carleton University, has obtained
documents from CSIS and RCMP through access to information laws that
reveal how these agencies are spying on the environmental movement,
especially those opposed to pipelines or who participate in National
Energy Board (NEB) hearings.
These groups include Idle No More, Leadnow, ForestEthics Advocacy, the Council of Canadians, the Dogwood Initiative, EcoSociety, and the Sierra Club of British Columbia. The documents show how information on various groups is shared among the intelligence agencies and the NEB. They also revealed that twice a year, at the CSIS headquarters in Ottawa, top-ranking members of the RCMP, CSIS and the CSEC meet with oil industry representatives to brief them on the “threat” from environmental and aboriginal groups.
- Auditing environmental and civil society groups.
In the 2012 budget, the government announced it was going to earmark
$8-million so that the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) could begin auditing
selected charities. Seven environmental groups were soon targeted.
This sum has since been increased to $13-million a year and expanded
to anti-poverty, foreign aid and human rights groups, such as Amnesty
International, as well as the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
and United Church of Canada. Last fall, the Broadbent Institute issued a
report that said these audits were politically motivated – because no
conservative think tanks or groups had been targeted.
- Taxpayer-funded political ads. This spring, Finance Canada is planning to spend $13.5-million on ads to boast about the government’s budget. The Toronto Star estimates that $500-million has been spent by the Harper government since 2009 promoting its programs – $75-million in 2014 alone. Finance spent $7.5-million on Economic Action Plan ads, Employment and Social Development spent $7-million on a skills initiative campaign, and the CRA spent $6-million on ads about new tax measures. Queen’s University political science professor Jonathan Rose told The Globe and Mail recently: “What’s so egregious is the blatant way that they’re priming the electorate before an election.”
For many political observers, one of the most alarming changes Harper has ushered in is not even legislative: it’s the way in which political discourse is conducted. “They have a clear policy of dishonest spin on almost everything,” says Conacher. “They’ve done that far more than any other government in the last 25 years, which is to lie and stick to the lie.”
A recent example happened last week when the Prime Minister’s Office posted two videos online of Harper visiting special forces soldiers in Iraq, in violation of security protocols. When this was raised, the PMO first claimed the protocols had not been breached, and then claimed defence officials had vetted them, before they issued an evasive apology.
Michael Harris agrees with Conacher, saying “(Harper) is a person who does not believe in the truth… For the prime minister of a country where he’s setting the entire agenda and putting the signature across a whole government and where words don’t mean much, we are in a lot of trouble… He is the first prime minister who is a marketer, an aluminum siding salesman. He is not a truth teller.”
His economic recordThis past March, in an article headlined “Why Canada’s economy is headed off the cliff,” Yale University economics lecturer Vikram Mansharamani argued that Canada is among the most vulnerable large economies in the world. With a high level of consumer debt ($1.82-trillion) that now exceeds GDP ($1.6-trillion), combined with rising housing prices and dropping oil prices, he concluded: “It seems our Crazy Canadian Coyote has run off the cliff.”
Stephen Harper has based much of his credibility on being a capable steward of the economy – supposedly the strongest in the G7 – and will likely be using this as a plank in his re-election campaign.
But what’s the real story?
“Five years of recovery and this economy is the weakest we’ve ever seen,” says Armine Yalnizyan, senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. “I think the majority of Canadians are worse off than they were in 2006 – they have not seen wage gains keep up with cost increases.
And I think most people who have children are worried about their kids’ future.”
Tonya Richardson, 45, would agree. A vivacious single mother of a 10-year-old boy who lives in Toronto, Richardson lost her job as a job recruitment consultant this past February. Richardson says until 2008 she was earning up to $60,000 a year, but then lost about $15,000 of her income after the economy tanked and commissions declined. Now she’s receiving a total of $2,000 a month on EI. “It’s a tough (job) market out there,” she says. “It’s a really frustrating time – no one is getting call backs. Not having child support, and it’s getting to month three [without work], the stress levels are high.”
When he was elected in 2006, Harper inherited a booming economy. With commodity prices surging, the economy was growing at three per cent per year, with an unemployment rate of 6.6 per cent. The government was running a surplus of more than $13-billion, and net debt was $492-billion (and falling).
Fast forward to now and the unemployment rate is 6.8 per cent and climbing, with job growth anemic: only 121,000 jobs were created last year (three-quarters of which were temporary), which did not keep pace with population growth of 308,000. The commodities boom has cooled, in particular with oil prices plunging.
Harper has run deficits since 2008, and the federal debt is now $615-billion and rising.
But that’s not the alarming thing. In the five years prior to 2006, Canada’s manufacturing industries lost 200,000 jobs. After Harper was elected, another 400,000 manufacturing jobs vanished, with manufacturing as a share of the economy dropping from 16 per cent in 2004 down to 12 per cent last year. The high-tech manufacturing sector is in terrible shape, having shrunk to 1.3 per cent of GDP, making it one of the smallest in the developed world.
The loss of manufacturing is germane to how Canada’s economy is changing – and not for the better. In 2000, Canada had a well-rounded economy, with value-added products accounting for over 60 per cent of exports. But according to Jim Stanford, chief economist of the Unifor trade union, free trade and a strong dollar decimated Canada’s manufacturing base. Thus, notes Stanford, by 2010 value-added products had fallen by one-third, and “unprocessed or barely-processed resource products once again accounted for the lion’s share of total exports.” In other words, Canada was returning to becoming a country of “hewers of wood and drawers of water” – digging up oil and minerals for other countries to turn into products.
Harper, as it turns out, was the worst person to become prime minister given these circumstances. As a follower of the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, Harper’s approach is not to interfere in the economy, except for cutting taxes. Thus, he deducted two points from the GST, and slashed corporate taxes from 22 per cent down to 15 per cent, and cut personal taxes.
But this made the government ill-equipped for the 2008-’09 recession: one estimate says tax cuts cost the treasury roughly $34-billion per year. Surpluses quickly vanished just when he needed to prime the economic pump. And as the recession deepened, he was forced to borrow money – thereby generating greater debt – to prevent a more severe downturn.
As manufacturing declined, Harper did not step in to rescue this sector. Instead, he placed his bets on the growing resource extraction industries, in particular oil.
Did this make the Canadian economy stronger or weaker?
By focusing on commodities, Canada was susceptible to a bust in commodity prices – in particular when oil prices tumbled last year. So, as the American economy is now taking off, the Canadian economy is sinking. “We entered the [2008-09 economic] crisis with the eighth-largest economy in the world,” says Yalnizyan. “We are now ranking 11th and sliding down that greasy pole as other countries move it up as they capture production – because they have lower costs and equally high investment in skills.”
“We have slipped towards the status we held in the global economy about 100 years ago,” she continues, “but that is not actually enough to stay in the top tier of nations.”
Moreover, Yalnizyan says Harper has not developed an alternative renewable energy sector, the way China is doing. “We are not investing in that – instead we are subsidizing extraction and fighting over pipelines… We should be at front end of that [renewables] parade and we are not doing it.”
How has the average Canadian household fared under Harper? People like Tonya Richardson are falling out of the middle class: she pays almost $1,300 a month in rent, leaving her only $700 to cover food for her and her boy and other living expenses. “I have been living hand to mouth to raise my son,” she says.
In fact, under Harper, median income (after taxes) rose for the first two years after he was elected, and then plateaued (2011 is the last year statistics are available). EKOS Research surveys show that since the start of the 2000s, Canadians identifying themselves as middle class have declined from 70 per cent to about 60 per cent of adults. In a 2014 survey by Yconic, a Canadian company that conducts research panels with millennials, 43 per cent of those between 30 and 33 said they were still relying on financial help from family.
Meanwhile, the level of consumer debt has shot up from just under $1-trillion in 2006 to $1.82-trillion today, which means that for every $100 in disposable income, Canadian households owe $163 in debt (some economists say this is offset by the growth in Canadians’ net value in savings and assets and is not overly alarming).
While the middle class struggles, the rich have grown richer. According to figures derived from Canadian Business magazine, by 2012 the 86 wealthiest Canadian-resident individuals (and families) held the same amount of wealth as the poorest 11.4 million Canadians combined — or almost one-third of the population. The average wage in Canada increased by six per cent between 1998 and 2012 while the average compensation of Canada’s highest paid 100 CEOs increased by 73 per cent during that same period.
Moreover, Harper’s corporate tax cuts did nothing to strengthen private sector investment, which has been falling since 2010, while corporate cash or “dead money” has been climbing.
Stanford sums up Harper’s legacy this way: “Our R&D performance is among the worst of any industrialized country. So is our productivity growth. This is where the Harper vision is really vulnerable. They talk about free markets and business efficiency but the average productivity growth since Harper has come on is 0.5 per cent per year, and that would be the weakest productivity growth in postwar history… I would conclude quite strongly that Canada’s economic performance on a range of measures – job creation, income productivity, business investment, trade performance and even fiscal affairs – has been the worst of any government [since the Second World War].”
His environmental recordBack in 2002, when Harper was leader of the Canadian Alliance, he sent a letter to supporters saying “We’re gearing up for the biggest struggle our party has faced since you entrusted me with the leadership. I’m talking about the ‘Battle of Kyoto’ — our campaign to block the job-killing, economy-destroying Kyoto Accord.” Soon after he won his majority in 2011, Harper pulled Canada out of Kyoto, the first signatory to do so.
Despite that 13 of the hottest years on record have occurred since 2000 (and 2014 was the very hottest) Harper has fought every effort to impose climate change measures.
Thus, Germanwatch and Climate Action Network Europe — which produce an annual report card on climate change performance — put Canada 58th out of 61 countries in regards to its efforts to combat global warming, above only Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan and Australia. In 2013, these organizations said Canada “shows no intention of moving forward with climate policy and therefore remains the worst performer of all industrialized countries.” Last fall, the liberal American magazine The New Republic called Harper and his Australian counterpart Tony Abbot “earth’s worst climate villains.”
During Harper’s tenure, emissions of greenhouse gases peaked in 2007 at 761 megatonnes, then fell during the recession, but has been steadily rising again, although still below 2007 levels. According to Environment Canada, while Canada accounted for 2.1 per cent of global CO2 emissions in 2005, it fell to 1.8 per cent in 2010 and is expected to fall to 1.6 per cent by 2020.
So why is Canada being cast as an environmental villain?
It’s largely because Harper refuses to sign any binding agreement that would force Canada to meet climate change targets and significantly cut greenhouse emissions. Last December, Environment Canada said that by 2020, Canada would be producing 727 megatonnes of CO2, which is far higher than the 611 megatonnes Harper targeted at the Copenhagen climate change summit in 2009. The report said that emissions from the oil and gas sector would grow by 45 megatonnes between 2005 and 2020, nearly offsetting the 50 megatonne reduction expected in the electricity sector.
The reasons for Harper’s inaction are no surprise. For one, it’s long been suspected he doesn’t believe climate change poses a threat. But then there’s a purely political calculation: his party enjoys broad support in Alberta, and his economic agenda has been focused on developing the oil sands. “If you look at Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, Alberta emits more gas than Ontario and Quebec combined [although] 60 per cent of Canadians live in Ontario and Quebec,” says Erin Flanagan, an oil sands analyst with the Pembina Institute, an energy think tank.
The Harper government has also fought to get Keystone XL built, along with other pipelines accessing the tar sands. Because pipelines reduce the cost of transporting bitumen, they make the tar sands more viable for the oil industry, but also make it more likely that up to 240 billion metric tons of carbon could be released into the atmosphere.
In 2012, the government launched an unprecedented assault on Canada’s environmental laws when it introduced Bill C-38, mentioned above – an omnibus bill that put a halt to automatic environmental assessments of projects under the federal government’s purview.
All told, the Fisheries Act, Navigable Waters Protection Act and Canadian Environmental Assessment Act were either repealed or simply gutted, while the NEB was neutered.
“So you can go through all the legislation that was changed… there’s a direct link to the long-standing requests of the oil industry to remove these environmental barriers to rapid resource development,” says Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence, a Toronto-based environmental group.
Indeed, the consequences were summed up by Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, who noted: “In Bill C-38, Stephen Harper canceled and gutted environmental laws brought in by Brian Mulroney. He’s now moved on to destroy environmental laws brought in by Sir John A. MacDonald.”
Overall, Harper’s environmental record has isolated Canada on the world stage. Last September, he refused to fly to a UN-sponsored climate change summit in New York attended by 120 world leaders, sending his environment minister instead.
Thus, it’s not surprising some observers see Harper hastening the demise of Canada as an admired nation state. When Christian Nadeau, a political philosopher at the Université de Montréal, is asked how Canada has fared under Harper, he replies:
“Overall, it’s worse off. Definitely worse off. We have a weaker democracy. We have a weaker social justice system. We have compromised the environment for many decades to come. So, Harper's is one of the worst governments we've ever had.”