Having had the pleasure (if that’s what it is) of watching the estimable Count Doctor Professor Michael Ignatieff assume the throne of the Liberal Party of Canada this week, it’s time for Conservatives to turn their heads, while the prorogued Parliament remains quiescent, to a far more important question: who should lead the Conservative Party of Canada going forward?
Let me give you a hint: someone’s who been a former broadcaster, a full professor at Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard, and a respected figure in intellectual circles in the United Kingdom and the United States isn’t going to as easy to pin down and label as a sociologist trained in France. In other words, back alley bullying isn’t the tactic required now.
Stephen Harper Should Stand Down
When it is time to write the history of this first decade of the twenty-first century, Stephen Harper will be remembered for accomplishing something which appeared to be impossible as the 2000s dawned. He restructured and disciplined the former Reform movement by becoming leader of the Canadian Alliance, then reached out and swallowed hard to accept Progressive Conservative requirements for a merger of the two parties. He then defined the new Conservative Party of Canada and, unlike all the years since Sir John A. Macdonald, taught it the virtue of party discipline. He defeated the imperial ambitions of a self-centred, entitlement-theory Paul Martin, first whittling him down to a minority, then booting him out of Government altogether. Most recently, he built on this, and although a majority eluded him, he gained popular vote and seats for the Conservatives, with an absolute majority of 60% across all provinces not named Québec (and including Newfoundland & Labrador, the only province not returning Conservative MPs).
In other words, he’s built a legacy, and one that can continue. Infighting in public is a thing of the past, as are eruptions that are off-message or detrimental to the party’s success.
The very skills that brought him here, however, are the ones that will sink him in the future. As we saw in late November and early December, self-inflicted wounds are now the result. Although he has taken the steps needed to lower the combative temperatures, some of the prices we as a nation will now pay for his misjudgement as to whether he has a majority or a minority (the per-vote funding cut) will lead to billions misallocated, deficits we will have grave difficulty paying back in an economy which at best is neutral for years to come, and an emboldening of the Opposition to demand more, more, more: a high national price to pay to save Harper’s skin.
Good policy, therefore, requires that Stephen Harper follow Stéphane Dion into history’s books, albeit with a much better write-up.
Why a New Leader is Needed
No man — and no leader — is more important than their party and its chances to govern. (This, incidentally, is something Ignatieff, with his waffling around the coalition, seems to understand somewhat, although if he really “got it” he would not have put signature to paper.) This is as true of those who succeed in leading their party to the west side benches of the Commons as those who fail to do so.
Opinions about leaders decline over time. The person who once was new, exciting, different and dynamic later is seen to be covered in warts. We forget that Harper’s journey to where he is today has kept him in the centre of the national stage now for nearly eight full years. Those who like him may stand by him, or may erode away with one incident after another. But few will be persuaded to set aside negative views, now. Those are cast in concrete.
As with Trudeau — happily booted out in 1979 (and unfortunately inflicted on the nation to do far more damage in 1980 thanks to Joe Clark’s inability to even place a phone call to get the votes he needed), and as with Mulroney, despised long before resigning in 1993 — Harper’s day has now passed. He can step down on the top (more or less) of his game, or he can wait to be booted out by the Canadian people. Perhaps not at the next election — right now it is his to lose — but certainly at the one after that.
But what a surprise if his Christmas message to the nation this year was “My friends, it is time that I went. I call upon my party to schedule a leadership campaign, with a vote in early July 2009, at which point I shall step down in favour of my successor.”
Consider this: an Opposition who topples Harper at this point gets him for one more campaign, and one likely to return a Conservative majority if only because such a move would gain him votes. It would be Trudeau 1980 all over again — and they could be sure that the first bill after the Throne Speech following that election would strip away their funding.
Yet, with Harper going, he is no longer the demon. His face can no longer go up during the Two Minutes’ Hate on a daily basis to rally the troops and prepare for Question Period.
Not only that, but, by resigning, Harper need not give away the store for enough abstentions or votes for the Government’s program so that he survives. That would be good for Canada.
Who Are The Conservatives?
Having just completed a policy convention, a leadership race would allow candidates to finish the job of defining Canada’s Conservatives to Canadians. There will be different views put forward: this is a good thing in the context of a leadership race. (Meanwhile, although it is [at this juncture] to be a thinly-attended coronation, let’s not forget that the Liberals do not have a permanent leader officially until the beginning of May.)
Demonstrating the openness of the Conservative Party to different views — a healthy debate — in the absence of one in the Liberal Party (already damaged by the coalition manoeuvre) — is a good thing. It opens the door for former PCs that went Liberal to consider returning, and Blue Liberals to take another look at themselves and their opponents. This single set of months would do more to complete the task of institutionalising the Conservatives as a broad-spectrum governing party — one that must earn government and not default into it, but that appeals to a majority of Canadian voters — than anything else I can think of.
All it requires is for the Prime Minister to put strategy above tactics, and the good of the nation and the party ahead of himself.
With two new leaders facing each other in the fall session of Parliament — whether there is an intervening election or not — old battle lines would finally fall away. The next decade in Canada will be tough: let’s prepare for it properly.