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Harper the Energizer Tory Needs a Term Limit

08/22/2013 12:08 EDT | Updated 10/22/2013 05:12 EDT

In the United States, it's long been taken for granted that two four-year terms in office should be enough to satisfy any reasonably ambitious president.

Term one is the introduction, the preview. Time for testing the waters and laying the foundation. Then voters get their say, and if they like what they're seeing, the prez is awarded term two, and a fresh mandate to complete what he started. Until Franklin Roosevelt this was custom; after Roosevelt, it became law.

In Canada, of course, we have no such law -- or even custom -- which is why Prime Minister Harper's announcement this week that he plans to seek a fourth term was such a comparative non-event.

Canadian prime ministers can be re-elected indefinitely and often are. But our justification for allowing this has never been particularly well thought-out, and the country's leadership suffers from the indifference.

In fairness to Harper, mind you, talking about his "fourth term" may be a bit of a misnomer. His first two terms (2006 to 2008, and then 2008 to 2011) were brief and shaky, occurring as they did in the context of minority parliaments where longevity was all but impossible. By American standards, they amount to a single. Yet assuming Harper does indeed secure a fourth mandate in 2015, by early 2016 he'll still have eclipsed the reign of every American president since FDR while likely having accomplished far less than many one-termers.

There's no real excuse for this beyond the laziness provoked by the promise of endless tenure. Even at the man's "hidden agenda" worst, it's hard to believe Harper's vision for this country is so ambitious and complex it requires more time to implement than, say, Lyndon Johnson's Great Society -- a sweeping retooling of American welfare, immigration, healthcare, and civil rights laws that were completed in a mere term-and-a-half. The likeliest explanation is that Harper simply has no incentive to hurry up.

That unto itself is one reason why Canada would be wise to consider imposing a term limit on our prime ministers -- the alternative tends to breed bosses who lack decisiveness. In contrast to the American system of "first term begin, second term end," every Canadian PM's term is a protracted tease for a big finish that may never arrive. Since there's always another election to win, and with it, a bigger, grander majority of seats in the House, "incrementalism" -- the philosophy of governing in a way that's barely noticeable to maximize the chances of reelection-by-default -- becomes the favored approach. The technique is a hallmark of Harperism: ignoring the country's long-term problems in favor of short-term vote-getters. He'll trim the GST or hike jail times, but healthcare? The deficit? Well, there's always next term.

Indefinite re-election may be theoretically democratic, but in practice it tends to be deeply apathetic. Leaders collect terms as ends unto themselves, and political power starts to be seen as something the incumbent party owns (rather than borrows) and is therefore entitled to distribute in small pieces to pals. Should Harper complete a full, fourth term, he'll have ruled for 13 years, nearly as long as Pierre Elliot Trudeau. And it's worth remembering how bitter and cynical that guy got in his fourth.

Rather than address the monstrous financial toll his own policies had wrought, PET spent much of his final years spacing out on economic matters entirely in favor of a vain and pointless "global peace tour," while granting patronage sinecures by the barrelful to any Liberal hack who felt entitled after 15 years of waiting.

The trappings and perks of power had become far more compelling to Trudeau than the responsible use of it, and it's not a stretch to believe Mr. Harper, who's already shown his own flair for patronage, and the manipulation of parliament for purely partisan ends, could wind up much the same.

Canada's absence of term limits is also at root of what might be called "Kim Campbell syndrome," or the practice of incumbent parties installing generally terrible, short-serving PMs after the elected one wanders off. No term limits mean there's no dignified way for a prime minister to leave office beyond abandoning it once he gets bored, which in turn grants his political party the monstrously undemocratic right to entrust control of the national government to someone the electorate never authorized.

Such backdoor incumbents are routinely turfed at the ballot box, and the office they held for those few scant months is cheapened in the process. It's hard to tour the halls of Parliament in Ottawa without feeling a little twinge of national embarrassment upon seeing the six-foot oil painting of Prime Minister John Turner (June-September, 1984) hanging alongside Macdonald and Laurier, but in our system, such underwhelming understudies remain the unavoidable residue of electorally successful leaders. A fourth term for Prime Minister Harper also guarantees a first term for Prime Minister Kenney, Mackay, or some other cabinet flunky. It's a two-for-one bonus without an opt-out.

Stephen Harper has always gotten something of a bad rap, in the sense that much of the criticism leveled against him -- be it the left's outrage over his kingly style or the right's frustration with his caution and slowness -- are really more gripes about the poorly-designed office he's grown to inhabit than the leadership of the man himself.

Harper's not the first PM whose ability to govern well has been compromised by dreams of governing forever, but Canadian politics would improve tremendously if he was the last.

Memorable Stephen Harper Pictures