Harper in limbo?

Where do de­feated Cana­dian prime min­is­ters go af­ter elec­tion?

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Peter McKenna is pro­fes­sor and chair of political sci­ence at the Univer­sity of Prince Ed­ward Is­land in Char­lot­te­town.

Ac­cord­ing to a De­cem­ber ar­ti­cle in the Na­tional Post, de­feated prime min­is­ter Stephen Harper is earn­ing some ad­di­tional praise from the Con­ser­va­tive Party cau­cus for tak­ing his seat in the Of­fi­cial Op­po­si­tion benches of Par­lia­ment and ex­er­cis­ing his vot­ing priv­i­leges. Re­port­edly, he in­tends to stay on as MP for Cal­gary Her­itage for some time.

But should a van­quished Cana­dian prime min­is­ter re­turn to the cut–and-thrust of the House of Com­mons? Why would Harper want to do that? And, at closer in­spec­tion, is it re­ally a good idea?

One also won­ders whether he’ll be do­ing the grunt-like work of meet­ing with or­di­nary con­stituents down at the lo­cal coffee shop or mall. I highly doubt it. It’s just not his style or dis­po­si­tion.

How­ever, he could bring his valu­able ex­pe­ri­ences as prime min­is­ter for al­most 10 years to the party’s in­terim lead­er­ship. No one in the Loyal Op­po­si­tion right now knows the pol­icy files bet­ter than he does.

As as­pir­ing party lead­er­ship can­di­date, Mil­ton MP Lisa Raitt, ob­served re­cently: “I know that he has told our leader, Rona Am­brose, that he is open to hav­ing con­ver­sa­tions with any­body and I am look­ing for­ward to hav­ing my chat about what he thinks we should do in on the fi­nance file … I think he’s a great re­source.”

In re­cent mem­ory, it is not cus­tom­ary for for­mer prime min­is­ters, who are not ex­actly used to be­ing just pow­er­less, reg­u­lar MPs, to sit in the House for an ex­tended pe­riod of time. Lester Pear­son, Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mul­roney, Jean Chre­tien and Paul Martin all quickly and qui­etly de­parted the political scene.

It is true that John Diefen­baker did at­tend House sit­tings as a valu­able con­trib­u­tor to de­bates and dis­cus­sions right up un­til his death in 1979. And Joe Clark, of course, stayed around long enough to not only end up in Mul­roney’s cab­i­net, but also to re­sume lead­er­ship of the Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive party again in 1998.

But the gen­eral rule of thumb is for ex-prime min­is­ters to re­spect­fully exit the political stage right. And Stephen Harper, af­ter some ini­tial soul-search­ing, would be wise to do so him­self.

In­deed, Harper’s pres­ence in the House would cer­tainly make things awk­ward — to say the least — for in­terim party leader Am­brose. That would be es­pe­cially so if the gov­ern­ing Lib­er­als sought to ex­ploit any day­light be­tween what Am­brose is say­ing to­day (par­tic­u­larly if it’s dur­ing Ques­tion Pe­riod) and what Harper said when he was head­ing the Prime Min­is­ter’s Of­fice (PMO).

It would also be trou­bling if Harper in­sisted on still play­ing a key role in in­flu­enc­ing the party’s ide­o­log­i­cal lean­ings, its mes­sag­ing or its in­sti­tu­tional ma­chin­ery. Can you imag­ine the mood in the Con­ser­va­tive cau­cus room if Harper chose to cor­rect the record or push back against his de­trac­tors, to raise se­ri­ous doubts about any pro­posed change in the party’s pol­icy di­rec­tion, or to lash out at those who deign to chal­lenge his political legacy and per­sonal in­tegrity?

Need­less to say, the Con­ser­va­tive Party does not need an in­ter­nal power strug­gle be­tween the still loyal Harperites and those who wish to turn the page on the Harper era. The party re­ally does need to make a clean break with its past if it hopes to have any chance of re­turn­ing to govern­ment in four or five years. But Harper’s pres­ence could make that task far more dif­fi­cult.

With Harper hang­ing around and pos­si­bly gar­ner­ing me­dia at­ten­tion, it does make it in­cred­i­bly chal­leng­ing for the Con­ser­va­tives to change their im­age, tenor and brand­ing. Let’s be re­al­is­tic here: the fed­eral party des­per­ately needs to put some dis­tance be­tween an emerg­ing new style and the Harper record (which vot­ers soundly re­jected on Oc­to­ber 19).

Clearly, it needs to go in a di­rec­tion that is starkly dif­fer­ent than the pre­vi­ous Harper pe­riod; one with a softer face and tone, greater open­ness, less se­crecy and de­void of top-down con­trol, more wel­com­ing to oth­ers and one that is less ide­o­log­i­cally rigid.

Sim­ply put, the party brain trust needs to get Stephen Harper as far away from them as hu­manly pos­si­ble.

With the House of Com­mons set to re­sume sit­ting to­day, the last thing that the Con­ser­va­tive Party needs is for an un­pop­u­lar for­mer prime min­is­ter to be sit­ting on the op­po­si­tion front benches. It would be much bet­ter for ev­ery­one con­cerned if Stephen Harper would qui­etly fade into the back­ground and to re­ject any urge to make his pres­ence felt in Par­lia­ment or the party’s cau­cus.

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