Stephen Harper comes in from the cold

News of his re­turn will send shiv­ers down the spines of many. But af­ter years of Trudeau’s road show, some will be glad for the Con­ser­va­tive resur­gence

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - NEWS | OPINION - GARY MA­SON OPIN­ION

Stephen Harper is back! Those words will send shiv­ers down the spines of many Cana­di­ans, but not all. In fact, there are un­doubt­edly even old crit­ics of the for­mer Con­ser­va­tive prime min­is­ter who now miss his bland, plod­ding lead­er­ship style. A few years of Justin Trudeau’s trav­el­ling road show will do that.

Since re­sign­ing from pol­i­tics in Au­gust, 2016, Mr. Harper has largely re­mained out of the pub­lic eye. He stayed silent through­out the Tory lead­er­ship race that crowned his suc­ces­sor, Andrew Scheer. He’s held his tongue, too, on many of the most con­tentious issues fac­ing the coun­try. But he’s moved out from the shad­ows.

It was re­vealed last week that he’s writ­ing a book on pop­ulism. He added his name to a full-page ad in The New York Times con­grat­u­lat­ing U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump on pulling out of the Iran nu­clear deal. He an­nounced on Twit­ter ear­lier this month that he was in Mon­treal to bring at­ten­tion to the work be­ing done by the Brain Canada Foun­da­tion. The big­gest splash he’s made, how­ever, was an on-stage ap­pear­ance at Stan­ford Univer­sity – it was held in Feb­ru­ary but video of the event just came to light re­cently − where he spoke about his ca­reer and the role of con­ser­vatism in to­day’s world.

There weren’t any earth-shat­ter­ing pro­nounce­ments, but cer­tainly some eye­brow-rais­ing re­marks. For in­stance, he said he thought he could still be leader of the fed­eral Con­ser­va­tives to­day if he’d wanted to, but he put the fu­ture of the party be­fore his own per­sonal po­lit­i­cal agenda. He said he was amazed at “how many peo­ple go into pol­i­tics be­cause they want to be loved.” (It was in­ter­preted by some as a shot at Mr. Trudeau.) He talked about the word “pop­ulism” and how it had be­come, un­fairly, a loaded term.

Mostly, his re­marks served to re­mind us that, for bet­ter or worse, Mr. Harper is still around.

His re-emer­gence comes at the same time as the fed­eral Lib­er­als have tried to link Mr. Scheer and his party with the Harper legacy. (“It may be Andrew Scheer’s smile,” the Lib­eral mes­sage goes, “but it’s Stephen Harper’s party.”) For the Lib­er­als, that Harper her­itage is de­fined by an of­ten nasty nar­row-mind­ed­ness that some­times em­bar­rassed Cana­di­ans (see niqab, bar­baric cul­tural prac­tices de­bate).

The Lib­er­als ex­ploited the dis­gust many felt over those poli­cies to win the 2015 elec­tion. They’d love to find a way to make Mr. Harper their tar­get in the next elec­tion, too. Con­ser­va­tives are likely say­ing: Bring it on.

Say what you want about Mr. Harper, you knew where he stood on issues. He was a fun­da­men­tally se­ri­ous in­di­vid­ual who took the job se­ri­ously too. One of the knocks against his suc­ces­sor is that he’s an in­tel­lec­tual light­weight, more fo­cused on build­ing the Trudeau global brand one selfie at a time. It’s wholly un­fair, but a per­cep­tion that ex­ists among many none­the­less.

I’m un­cer­tain if Mr. Harper’s pub­lic re­turn is some­thing he plans to sus­tain or not. If it is, it’s not great news for Mr. Scheer, who has yet to put his stamp on his party.

The fact is, the Con­ser­va­tive base is dy­ing of star­va­tion. The only red meat it’s be­ing of­fered is com­ing from Al­berta and United Con­ser­va­tive Party Leader Ja­son Ken­ney.

It is Mr. Ken­ney who most shares Mr. Harper’s ha­tred of elites, ones em­bod­ied by Justin Trudeau and those around him. In one of the most as­tound­ing cri­tiques of a sit­ting Prime Min­is­ter I have ever seen, Mr. Ken­ney this week told Cal­gary colum­nist Rick Bell what he thought of Mr. Trudeau.

“I know Justin,” Mr. Ken­ney said. “He doesn’t have a clue what he’s do­ing. This guy is an empty trust-fund mil­lion­aire who has the po­lit­i­cal depth of a fin­ger bowl. He can’t read a brief­ing note longer than a cock­tail nap­kin.”

As the over­lord of hy­per-par­ti­san­ship, Mr. Harper would have been smil­ing at those words. And that, in many ways, was the prob­lem with the man.

While you can ap­plaud the fis­cal dis­ci­pline and sound eco­nomic pol­icy his gov­ern­ment over­saw (es­pe­cially com­pared with the deficit ram­page the Lib­er­als are on), his free-trade deals and re­form of the coun­try’s im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies, the Harper Con­ser­va­tives came by their rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing petty and spite­ful hon­estly. In many ways, it’s what led to their down­fall.

It will be in­ter­est­ing to see whether Mr. Harper fol­lows up on his first ten­ta­tive steps back into the spot­light with even bolder for­ays into the pub­lic realm. The Lib­er­als might like it, but so would many Con­ser­va­tives.

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