Stephen Harper in limbo?

Where do defeated Canadian prime ministers go after election?

Letters to the Editor (The Guardian)
Published on January 25, 2016

 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.


By Peter McKenna (guest opinion)

Peter McKenna is professor and chair of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown.