How do populists govern? Lessons from Canada

by Connor Macdonald

Stephen harper
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Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, 2008. Number 10 via Flickr.

Stephen Harper occupies a unique place among the recent crop of senior international politicians. In terms of public image, they generally fall into one of two camps: either the grey, accountant (Angela Merkel, Mariano Rajoy) that is virtually inoffensive to everyone, or the charismatic yet divisive Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau. Curiously, Harper managed both. To many of his detractors, Harper embodied a populist conservative threat from the Canadian badlands. To his supporters, however, he always seemed coldly calculating, with next to no partisan flair and milquetoast centre-right policy offerings at best.

This is particularly striking considering the Conservative Party’s roots. Stephen Harper emerged as a young MP from the Reform Party, originally a western protest party with populist and right-leaning roots. The Reform Party occupied the right with the once dominant Progressive Conservatives. Both parties routinely split the vote in the 1990s, leading to three consecutive Liberal majority governments and the reformation of the Reform Party as the Canadian Alliance. By 2003, the right had had enough. Harper united the two sides under one banner, once again creating a broad centre-right coalition. His rise was neither rapid nor remotely controversial – it was certainly not technicolour. Yet his critics have long seen him as the purveyor of dark, subversive forces.

Faced with this dilemma, most Canadian commentators have chosen to emphasise one aspect of Harper’s persona or the other. Many of his most ardent critics, within and outside the academy, tend to emphasise the populist tenor of his prime ministership, and of the populist lineages of the Conservative Party more generally. Harper’s time in office is deliberately framed as a period where scientists and civil servants were ‘muzzled’, parliament was subordinated to the executive in an unprecedented manner, and ‘common-sense’ rhetoric was really a screen for ideological attacks on rational policy making.

A more fruitful approach is to see the tension between populism and a moderate policy record as a central feature of the Conservative government between 2006–2015.

Conversely, Harper’s defenders, and it should be said a significant number in the journalistic community, emphasise the exceedingly moderate policy record of the Harper government in response to those who claim he is a populist. They usually cite the expansive fiscal policy adopted after the 2008 recession, the slow pace of Senate reform (long a sacred cow of Conservative politics), and the sheer absence of any attempt to push socially conservative reform – which also happens to be an important desire of the Conservative base. In this telling, any centralisation or distrust of the civil service comes from the mundane realities of two hung parliaments and the fact that the Conservative Party had hitherto been out of office for 13 years. Any ‘populism’ is epiphenomenal to the realities of twenty-first century Canadian politics. This argument is advanced most lucidly in Ibbitson’s magisterial Stephen Harper, as well as in Tom Flanagan’s Harper’s Team.

However, rather than resolving the ambiguity at the centre of Harper’s time in office, I think a more fruitful approach is to see the tension between populism and a moderate policy record as a central feature of the Conservative government between 2006–2015. That is, a feature worthy of inquiry in itself. Not only does this lead to a richer view of the Harper government, it also offers a particularly illuminating reading of populism and how it may be put to constructive use.

On the first point, what is most notable about both common understandings of the Conservative Party’s time in office is that a similar definition of ‘populism’ is used. Both emphasise the ‘ideological’ nature of populism, thereby tacitly accepting Cas Mudde’s thesis. Both posit that at some level populist rhetoric emerges from an ideological commitment to the political being a contest between a ‘pure’ people and a ‘corrupt elite’. James Kelly and Kate Puddister make this case with reference to criminal justice reform, and Dave Snow and Benjamin Moffitt, as well as David Laycock, make a broader point about a populism closely aligned with neoliberalism.

This understanding, though, weakens on closer inspection. The Harper government’s ‘common-sense’ criminal justice reform imposed mandatory minimum sentences, enlarged the prison population and was often introduced through private members bills (a means to bypass the civil-service drafting apparatus). Populist criticism of the welfare state is designated as such because of the claim Conservatives make that the welfare state is created by ‘elite special interests’; the forces that are ‘responsible for big government at the expense of taxpayers’. However, in citing these arguments, those who point out the ‘populism’ never really get around the fact that these policies were pursued first by Thatcher, Reagan and Howard, none of whom led ‘populist’ governments as we would understand them. Similarly, they never note that Harper simply did not embrace a broad populist reform agenda about democratic institutions, as his party coalition often wanted (indeed MP recall was dropped from the party platform at the 2008 election).

But to focus solely on the policy record is to miss the fact that the Conservative Party did attempt to position itself squarely as the party of the ‘taxpayer’ with ‘common-sense’ reforms; to its supporters, it was the party standing up for the common man against Liberal arrogance.

It may make more sense, then, to think of populism differently – which I think the Conservative’s experience calls us to do. In Paul Wells’ insightful book about the Conservative Party’s time in office, The Longer I’m Prime Minister, one of the major themes is Harper’s desire to replace the Liberal Party as the ‘natural party of government’. The key here is that Harper wanted to form a durable coalition that governed most of the time, while also recognising that the Conservative Party was not that force when he was first elected.

If there is a political party in the world that tried to create a policy programme from populism, it is the Reform Party.

In this sense, then, we should not look to populism as an ideological impulse per se, but rather, in Paris Aslanidis’ more helpful formulation, as a rhetorical frame by which specific policies are pursued. Its aim is to establish a new frame of reference, or in this case supplant a once dominant political party. To become the new establishment, one must rhetorically tear the house down.

Of course, Mudde could retort that populism is a ‘thin-centred’ ideology, and that it can (and does) accommodate any number of policy propositions. A supporter of the ‘ideology’ thesis might claim that Harper having a ‘moderate’ record has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not he is a populist. However, to make this claim, one ends up being committed to the proposition that it was not populism that led to the adoption of criminal justice and welfare reform per se. In other words, populism did not provide the policy impetus, rather a specific way to view the policy. If that is the case, though, it is difficult to see how the ‘ideological’ dichotomy between the ‘people’ and the ‘elite’ is anything more than a rhetorical perspective on a priori policy questions. Which brings us back to Aslanidis.

In an even stronger sense, though, I would argue that the Conservative Party’s history disproves the ideological thesis. If there is a political party in the world that tried to create a policy programme from populism, it is the Reform Party. Throughout the 1990s, it proposed instant referendums in constituencies, implemented the at-the-time revolutionary one-member-one-vote leadership election, proposed an elected Senate and MP recall provisions. Yet, as Faron Ellis illustrates in The Limits of Participation – the seminal history of the Reform Party – these populist provisions were not a significant organising principle in the party. Indeed, in the newly formed Conservative Party, all of these provisions except Senate reform were dropped. Upon its taking power in 2006 amidst a Liberal corruption scandal, it is striking that none were implemented. If populism really did have content that was more than rhetorical, it follows that it would provide a significant organising principle – it categorically did not.

Instead, Aslanidis’ argument explains why the Conservative Party might frame its moderate programme in a populist way and connects it to other forms of workable populism in Europe. It is easy to see phenomena across the pond – Fianna Fail in Ireland under Eamon de Valera, Tony Blair’s populism of ‘what works’ and, more recently, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz. What unites these forms of populism is that they are all attempts to install a new governing order, one that emerges in specific opposition to an ideologically opposed establishment.

This is another helpful outcome of Aslanidis’ postulation – it can suppose that there are indeed constructive forms of populism that are attempting to build a new order as much as they are attempting to break an old one down. In this case, the Harper Conservatives took an incomplete Reform Party populist playbook, merged it with the Progressive Conservatives and, really for the first time in Canadian history, built a conservative movement that has survived intact after a major election defeat.

Indeed, it was in fact the success of the populist appeal that ultimately proved Harper’s downfall – after a party has been in power for nine years, claims to be standing up against the elite ring rather hollow. If populism is an ideology, it seems a pretty poor one if it cannot sustain itself in government. On the other hand, if it is just a strategic appeal, it is easy to see how it might lose its shine the longer one’s hands are on the tiller. Either way, Stephen Harper’s time in government offers a provocative example of how populism can indeed be a path to meaningful and constructive politics, and not just its antithesis.

About the author

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Connor MacDonald is a recent graduate of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, now undertaking an MPhil in International Relations and Politics. He is an avid follower of North American and European politics, and has worked on campaigns in both Canada and the United Kingdom.

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