OPINION
09/06/2019 09:56 EDT | Updated 09/09/2019 09:26 EDT

Stephen Harper Should Stay Silent If He Wants Andrew Scheer To Win

Doug Ford, Jason Kenney, and now Harper are making it difficult for Scheer to define himself as his own man.

Stephen Harper is back.

Canada’s 22nd prime minister re-entered the political arena last week after appearing in a fundraising video on behalf of the Conservative Party.

In the video, Harper declared that “Andrew Scheer stands for a better way forward. He and I both know that it’s time for you to get ahead. This is only possible with a government that lives within its means, with a government that protects the services Canadians rely on every step of the way. We don’t have that government in Canada right now.”

Later in his spiel, Harper solicits viewers to donate to Conservative coffers, all to ensure that his young protégé becomes the “next prime minister of Canada.”

The decision to cast Harper as part of the Conservative Party’s re-election efforts is a risky one.

After all, Harper’s return to the federal political sphere has been utilized to spur on campaign donations not just by the Conservatives, but by the fundraisers within the Liberal Party. The Grits seem to take any chance they can to fear monger the evils of the Harper era to increase their financial contributions.

Not enough time has passed to allow for a nostalgic view of Harper’s tenure in government.

As such, Liberal strategists are practically salivating at the mouth, what with these added resources to link Andrew Scheer with his controversial predecessor. Prepare to hear a lot more of those ads declaring that Scheer is nothing more than “Stephen Harper with a smile.”

As if Scheer hasn’t had a challenging enough time defining himself in the minds of voters — especially when matched up against the outsized personalities of Doug Ford and Jason Kenney. The unpopularity of the Ford government in particular has forced Scheer to disassociate himself from his provincial counterpart in voter-rich Ontario. Now, with Stephen Harper’s return into the political fray after consulting behind the scenes, Scheer will face a further round of negative comparisons with yet another of his conservative peers. 

This leaves him at a serious disadvantage.

Particularly as his chief rival, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has grown up before the very eyes of the Canadian public. Trudeau, for all his faults, is by and large a known quantity, and his four years as prime minister provide him a level of familiarity and visibility that Scheer can only dream of.

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Harper’s endorsement for Scheer as Canada’s next prime minister. Back in 2015, former Liberal Prime Ministers Jean Chretien and Paul Martin both stumped for Justin Trudeau on the campaign trail. But, strategically, Harper’s appearance will do little to draw non-partisan voters back to the Conservative fold. He remains far too polarizing of a figure.

Chris Wattie / Reuters
Andrew Scheer and Stephen Harper link arms in Ottawa on June 2, 2011, when Harper was still prime minister.

Unlike the two former Liberal Prime Ministers, not enough time has passed to allow for a nostalgic view of Harper’s tenure in government. Perhaps it never really will.

Harper’s government, like all governments, had its achievements. Politically, the Conservative Party under his leadership prospered, securing victory in three consecutive elections. And in regards to policy, Harper can take comfort in the Liberal’s embrace of his free-trade legacy, what with the Trudeau government’s defence of the free-trade agreements his own government began negotiations over.

Yet in spite of these accomplishments, Harper’s tenure in government is one tainted by cynicism and negativity.

One need only recall the Harper government’s racist dog-whistling over the proposed barbaric cultural practices hotline. Or its intensely secretive nature, as witnessed through its muzzling of government scientists. Or its corrosive and hyper-partisan tone when attacking any and every opponent, real or imagined.

After all, the dark shadow of Harper’s legacy stubbornly persists within the mindset of voters.

So, why has Harper returned?

Perhaps it’s because he’s never gotten over his electoral defeat at the hands of Justin Trudeau. A man whose progressive policies, and family name, instills loathing within Harper. Harper made that much clear after he penned his scathing critique of Pierre Trudeau, just days after the former prime minister’s death back in 2000. 

As columnist and pundit Gerry Nicholls has written, “To lose to Justin Trudeau would be devastating to Stephen Harper on a real personal level.” With this in mind, it’s really not difficult to imagine Harper spending the past four years plotting his revenge against the Liberal dauphin, all while listening to Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” on repeat.

Unfortunately for Harper, he is no longer in a position to exact his vengeance from among the leadership of the Conservative Party, despite his musings to the contrary. So, instead, he is seeking to defeat Justin Trudeau from the sidelines, through the Tory fundraising machine.

It’s just as well.

Few Canadian leaders have been successful enough to regain the prime ministership after an electoral defeat.

In 1878, John A. Macdonald returned from the political wilderness to reclaim his government from the Liberal clutches of Alexander Mackenzie. And in 1935, the government of R.B. Bennett was similarly defeated by a resurgent William Lyon Mackenzie King, who himself was bested five years prior. Finally, Pierre Trudeau swept aside Joe Clark’s minority government in 1980, after only the briefest stint in political retirement. 

Stephen Harper simply does not have the stature of these men to conduct a similar political revival.

It’s ironic that even Harper’s criticism of the Trudeau government seems only likely to aid Liberal re-election efforts. After all, the dark shadow of Harper’s legacy stubbornly persists within the mindset of voters and only serves to taint Andrew Scheer’s rather benign image. 

If Stephen Harper was really interested in ensuring Liberal defeat, he’d be better off staying silent.

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