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Harper exiting as PM with long political legacy

Calgary Herald logo Calgary Herald 2015-10-20 James Wood, Calgary Herald
101915-FedElxn_Conservative_20151019-Harper-W.jpg © DARRYL DYCK 101915-FedElxn_Conservative_20151019-Harper-W.jpg

The man who defied the odds time and again even as he defined Canadian politics over the past decade finally saw his time run out Monday night.

A decade ago, Stephen Harper stood on stage in his adopted hometown of Calgary basking in triumph as he led the Conservatives to the first of what would be three successive election wins.

On Monday, just before Harper took the same stage, an email went out from Conservative party president John Walsh announcing that Harper was stepping down.

Harper, the email said, had asked for an interim Tory leader to be appointed by the caucus and for the party to begin the process of selecting a new leader. While Harper was re-elected Monday in Calgary Heritage, the message did not address his status as an MP.

Harper made no mention of resigning in his speech to party members, but struck an upbeat tone in his remarks.

“It has been an unbelievable honour to serve as your prime minister,” he told the cheering crowd.

“We put it all on the line, we gave it everything we have to give and we have no regrets whatsoever. Friends, how could we? We remain citizens of the best country in the world.”

Tom Flanagan, the University of Calgary professor who served as Harper’s chief of staff when he was Opposition leader, said before the election that if Harper resigned he would leave a stable Conservative party that retained its base and fundraising prowess.

But he said being out of office would be a significant adjustment for the former prime minister.

“He has no hobbies that I know of besides that he like to jam with his friends,” said Flanagan, referring to Harper’s penchant for playing the piano.

“He enjoys playing music, he likes watching hockey on TV . . . other than that, it’s all politics and work.”

Harper leaves office as a divisive figure and his path to power was unlikely in the first place.

Frank Atkins, the University of Calgary economist who supervised Harper’s Master’s thesis, remembers the future prime minister as incredibly intelligent — but skeptical of elected politics.

Years later, Harper inscribed a book for Atkins with the comment, “Frank, who would’ve guessed?”

Atkins said before election day that he could envision Harper bringing his intellect to serve as a fellow or scholar-in-residence at a university.

“I’d love to see him in a position like that but I don’t know whether anyone would offer that,” said Atkins, who added that he doesn’t expect Harper to head to the boardroom.

“Stephen doesn’t strike me as a corporate board kind of guy.”

Harper, who grew up in Toronto a teenaged fan of Pierre Trudeau, was drawn into politics in Calgary, first as an aide to Progressive Conservative MP Jim Hawkes, then as the policy chief for the fledgling Reform party and then as one of the first wave of Reform MPs elected in 1993.

Never a glad-handing politician or warm personality, Harper was cerebral, cool and, at times, ruthless in his public demeanour.

But those same qualities helped him reach the pinnacle of Canadian politics.

While he broke with Reform founder Preston Manning and chose not to run again in 1997, Harper came back to win the leadership of the Canadian Alliance — Reform’s successor party — five years later.

As leader, he helped drive the merger of the Alliance and the PCs to once again unite Canada’s right, which Flanagan describes as Harper’s greatest accomplishment.

In the 2004 election, the Conservatives narrowly missed toppling the Liberal government but did reduce the Grits to a minority.

Two years later, Harper knocked off the scandal-weakened Liberals and formed his own minority government that moved immediately to keep the Tory promise to cut the GST.

Returned with another minority in 2008, Harper fought off the attempt of an opposition coalition to unseat him, and oversaw Canada’s response to the worldwide economic crisis.

Finally winning his coveted “strong, stable, national Conservative majority” in 2011, Harper moved on long-desired policy changes that included the abolition of the long gun registry and the end of the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly.

Jay Hill, who was first elected as a Reform MP in the same election as Harper and later served as the Conservative whip, said Harper’s legacy will be his efforts to keep taxes low and reduce the size of government.

Hill said before election day that Harper would be well suited to an international position, such as at the World Bank, and that he wouldn’t expect him to serve as Opposition leader if the Tories lost.

“He’s served a long time under a high-pressure situation . . . I would have to say his inclination would be to turn it over to a generational change to someone newer, younger,” he said, noting that the Conservatives will carry on.

“Some people say it’s going to fracture without him to hold it together. Well, anything’s possible, but I just don’t see that because I think it’s weathered some very serious storms.”

jwood@calgaryherald.com

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