Whatever disdain Stephen Harper had for liberals as Canadian prime minister shows no signs of abating now that he’s out of office.
In an interview Thursday in Toronto, where Harper was promoting his new book “Right Here, Right Now: Politics and Leadership in the Age of Disruption,” he explained his thoughts on populism, economics, recent political developments in Canada and why the “pragmatic center left” approach won’t work.
His thesis boils down to a few core ideas. One, the world is in a period of dramatic economic and cultural change that has dislocated large swathes of people in advanced countries. Second, mainstream politicians need to adapt by abandoning ideological rigidity and “elite” thinking to address real problems faced by working families, or risk losing them to fringe parties.
Third, and here’s Harper’s kicker, the moderate left and liberals actually can’t adapt, because they have become so extreme on social issues they will be rejected by the electorate. The risk is voters — feeling voiceless — increasingly seek populist solutions. For Harper, it’s moderate conservatism or bust for the Western world.
“The problem is that the way they have differentiated themselves is through radical social agendas,” Harper said. “Those radical social agendas themselves actually aggravate the populist upheaval that we are having.”
It’s a contentious assertion, of course, given Harper lost power in 2015 to a modern liberal — Justin Trudeau — who promised to do exactly what Harper recommends: find pragmatic solutions for the real world problems of families and the middle class. Trudeau also has implemented a relatively progressive social agenda, and remains popular.
Harper is quick to note the economic disruptions fueling populism elsewhere haven’t happened in Canada, where the economy has done relatively well and the financial system held up during the crisis a decade ago.
“Our center-left coalition hasn’t had to respond to the problems that other center-left parties are responding so unsuccessfully to,” said Harper, taking credit for some of that economic success.
But the second-longest-serving conservative leader in Canadian history also doesn’t believe that the current prime minister’s narrative is being reflected in his actions. “The language is similar, policies don’t match the language at all,” Harper said.
In particular, he cites environmental policies he sees as having a deleterious effect on the resource sector. And that industry’s success is crucial if the country wants to continue offering up “really good opportunities for blue-collar people.”
Energy, particularly how to reconcile development of Canada’s oil sector with opposition from environmentalists and indigenous groups, is where the biggest differences have emerged between Harper’s government and that of his successor. Trudeau believes the country needs to be pro-environment and supportive of indigenous concerns in order to win a “social license” to build pipelines. Harper believes carbon pricing and over-accommodating environmental concerns will only undermine the industry.
“You know, I generally don’t talk about the current government, but I don’t need to say very much to highlight that that’s a pretty big difference and one that I think is very, very contrary to the interests of working people. ”
At Home and Abroad
He also dismisses suggestions that recent provincial elections in Ontario and Quebec — both conservative wins — reflect a growing preference for anti-establishment politicians. Doug Ford, Ontario’s new premier, is a “traditional conservative” albeit with a “populist style.” And Francois Legault’s nationalist-leaning Coalition Avenir Quebec, which ended 15 years of almost uninterrupted Liberal rule this month, is actually a stabilizing force in that province’s politics given it doesn’t support separatism.
“The Quebec spectrum is actually becoming, ironically, less nationalist and less populist than it’s been for a long time,” Harper said of the CAQ.
But in other countries where deeper problems have emerged, Harper claims the left has struggled, citing major electoral defeats for left-leaning parties in Europe.
“Conservatives have a better understanding of the importance that healthy nationalism, faith, family and community have in people’s lives,” said Harper, who is now chairman of the International Democratic Union, the main global alliance of center-right parties. “And that’s why I think we are so much better positioned to respond to people’s angst about change and about the future.”
Unions and Deficits
In his view, the way to help working families is to ensure the economy is strong and high-paying jobs exist, as opposed to the redistributive policies favored by the left. Good governance means resisting pressure from the “corporatist” lobby for sources of cheap labor, such as unskilled immigration. Harper is also wary of uncritical approaches to open borders and globalization — i.e. blind faith in free trade — that will hurt workers.
One explanation for the worsening economic outcomes of the working families could be due to weakening labor movements. Harper is, however, skeptical unions are an answer.
“There is no doubt that unionized labor in many cases has been successful at creating, I’m talking over a long period of history, better wages, better working conditions for people,” Harper said. But unfortunately unions today “have become advocates of essentially anti-market policies” that “I think ultimately can undermine everybody’s interests.”
Harper also hasn’t really budged on fiscal policy, even after Trudeau defeated him on a platform of deficit spending. “I don’t think deficit spending as an end in itself is necessarily the solution to those problems,” he said.
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