The Curious Schizophrenia of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives

“Friends, remember we are not here to do politics,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper told a packed and cheering crowd at last week’s Conservative convention. “Sure, we do politics. But that’s the instrument; it’s not the music.”

“Our party is called to a great purpose,” he declared.

From some politicians, that would be sugary rhetoric. From Stephen Harper, it’s much more interesting.

Harper’s notorious loathing for the Liberal party flows at least in part from a sense that the Liberals aren’t merely wrong. They’re unprincipled. They don’t believe in anything.

“The Liberal party should be understood not as a centre-left party, like the American Democrats or British Labour,” Harper wrote in 1996. It is instead “a true centre party … standing for nothing very definite, but prevailing against a splintered opposition. It avoids definite ideological commitments and brings together people simply interested in exercising power and dispensing patronage.”

Stephen Harper has never been accused of not believing anything. As a young aide to a Progressive Conservative MP, as a Reform MP, as leader of the National Citizen’s Coalition, Harper had clear views on everything from the loftiest political philosophy right down to policy minutiae. Some described him as principled and idealistic. Less generous observers called him a rigid ideologue. Either way, he was the antithesis of the Liberal whose sole concern is politics and power.

For Stephen Harper, politics was the instrument, not the music. This was his fundamental self-conception. Apparently, it still is.

But is it the reality of his government?

Stephen Harper has held power for more than five years, most of that time with far more control of Parliament and the machinery of government than is normal for a prime minister with a minority. Today, he has his majority, and he has delivered a Throne Speech and a budget.

And the record of Stephen Harper’s government doesn’t look much like the beliefs of Stephen Harper.

Record spending increases. Surpluses turned into structural deficits. Bureaucratic bloat. Vote-buying tax policies that make economists pull their hair out. Hyper-centralization of power. Slush funds. Pork-barrel politics. Cronyism and patronage that would make a Liberal blush. A plan to fix the budget as credible as Greek bonds.

On and on the list goes. In the 1990s, to elaborate on one of countless examples, Stephen Harper called supply management a “government-sponsored price-fixing cartel.” Today, he praises it. In the Throne Speech, Harper went so far as to promise to protect supply management in any future free trade talks, even, presumably, if it kills the negotiations.

The government’s record was beautifully illustrated in the controversial bid by the Anglo-Australian company BHP Billiton to buy Potash Corp. The bid was simply the free market doing what it does, and we can be sure the old Stephen Harper would have insisted the government had no business interfering with foreign investment. But the bid was also deeply unpopular.

So, almost inevitably, the Conservatives put politics before policy and quashed it. “Mr. Speaker, this government will continue to do the right thing,” John Baird righteously thundered in the House of Commons. “During the 13 long years the Liberals were in power, they never once, not once ever, refused a foreign takeover.” It was classic Trudeau Liberalism, in both content and rhetoric. The surrealism peaked when NDP leader Jack Layton rose to praise the Conservatives for bringing the free market to heel.

Of course, in politics, what a politician believes to be good for the country is often not what is good for the politician, and the politician who doesn’t occasionally put politics before principle is one who will never take and hold power. But Stephen Harper has done much more than occasionally bend to political reality. He has done so with such remarkable consistency that his description of the Liberals – “a true centre party … standing for nothing very definite” – nicely sums up his Conservative government.

That said, there is one part of Harper’s description of the Liberals that does not fit: The people attracted to the Conservative party are clearly interested in more than “exercising power and dispensing patronage.”

Listening to the speeches and questions from the floor at the Conservative convention last week, there is little sign of the old populism that so annoyed Stephen Harper when he was a Reform MP. Nor was there much Red Tory squishiness. Instead, the air was thick with phrases like “personal freedom” and “small government” and the dominant ethos was unmistakable: The Conservative Party believes in individual liberty, free markets, and less government.

Which is to say, it is Stephen Harper’s party. Or rather, it is the party of the man Stephen Harper was and evidently still believes himself to be.

The fact that Conservative beliefs and Conservative policies are scarcely correlated does not bother most Conservatives because they do not see it. For this, they can thank what psychologists call “compartmentalization.” It’s awfully handy in politics.

As a result, Stephen Harper and the party he created in his image exhibit a strange sort of schizophrenia.

In action, they can be as unprincipled as the most ruthless Liberal. In word, they are often as self-righteous as the most idealistic New Democrat.

Or, to put it in the prime minister’s terms, they may spend all their time breaking instruments over their opponent’s heads, but they really do believe they’re making beautiful music.