Connect to share and comment

Canada: Harper remakes country in his image

During Harper's 5 years in power, Canada has moved perceptibly to the right.

Canada Prime Minister Stephen Harper
Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives to address the Millennium Development Goals Summit at the United Nations headquarters in New York, Sept. 21, 2010. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)

TORONTO, Canada — Prime Minister Stephen Harper marked the fifth anniversary of his coming to power Sunday by describing Canada as safer and more prosperous under his government’s watch.

Harper, who first became prime minister on Jan. 23, 2006, touted his government’s law and order agenda, insisting he will continue to implement policies that “stop coddling criminals and start protecting victims.”

“Five years later, I can tell you that we have made Canada more united, stronger, more prosperous and a safer country,” he told some 600 Conservative Party supporters gathered in Ottawa.

The speech, televised on Canada’s all-news cable networks, was delivered as the possibility of another election dominates the talk of political analysts. There is much speculation that opposition parties will join forces to defeat the national budget, expected in late February or early March, thereby causing Harper’s minority government to fall.

That would give Harper another shot at the prize that eluded him in the two previous elections — the trust of Canadians to form a majority government. Right now polls show Harper’s Conservatives scoring no more than the 37 percent of the popular vote that gave them their second minority government in 2008.

Canadians, it seems, aren’t persuaded by the kinder, gentler image the prime minister has tried to exude by donning wooly pullovers, replacing contact lenses with glasses and even taking to the stage to belt out rock tunes now and then.

Still, no Canadian leader of minority governments has managed to stay in power as long as Harper — a testament to his political skills and the weakness of opposition parties. (The Liberal Party of Canada, reduced to main opposition status after dominating Canadian politics historically, flounders with a leader, Michael Ignatieff, who has failed to spark interest with voters.)

During the past five years, Canadians have seen two sides of Harper: One is the pragmatic politician willing to tone down his party’s more extreme conservative impulses in the hope of winning a majority government; the other is the hyper-partisan accused of short-circuiting democracy and degrading political discourse with nasty personal attacks.

The result is a country that has moved perceptibly to the right since Harper’s coming to power, and a political culture that is more divisive and mean-spirited.

Last week, for instance, Harper’s party released “attack ads” that once again questioned the patriotism of Ignatieff. The ads note the many years Ignatieff spent living abroad, try to portray him as more passionate about the United States than Canada, and conclude with the words: “Ignatieff: He didn’t come back for you.”

Veteran political analyst Jeffrey Simpson described the ads as “degrading and disgusting.”

“What did anyone expect? The ads reflect the Prime Minister and the party he has made in his image,” he wrote.

On the economy, Harper need only compare Canada to the United States to claim a job competently done. Canadian banks weathered the recession without a bailout, the housing market is strong and unemployment is at 7.6 percent, compared to 9.4 percent in the United States.