National column: Harper’s votes did the talking in final days

by Chantal Hébert

By all indications, Stephen Harper has slipped away from the House of Commons without leaving a trace in the official record of parliamentary debates of the departure of one of Canada’s longest serving prime ministers.

The House adjourned for the summer on Friday. Harper is expected to resign from his Calgary seat over the summer and move on to a career in the private sector before it reopens in mid-September. Between now and then MPs will gather just once, on June 29, to hear U.S. President Barack Obama address Parliament.

If all goes according to that tentative plan Harper will leave the Hill without having dignified the place with a final farewell. Political friends and foes in the House will not have had an opportunity to mark the occasion of his retirement.

The last time the former Conservative leader spoke in the Commons was in his capacity as prime minister a year ago to the day last Friday. As was their practice, he and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair sparred at length, giving Canadians a preview of what the two of them believed would be the central duel of the upcoming election campaign.

It is possible, with the benefit of hindsight, to give Harper credit for prescience for having predicted on that occasion that Canadians were “not looking for the high-tax, protectionist, anti-prosperity agenda of the NDP,” except that he probably did not mean that voters would select Justin Trudeau and a deficit-financed spending plan instead.

From his more recent seat on the opposition side, Harper did not rise a single time to speak but he did vote assiduously. In total, the former prime minister participated in 99 votes since the new Parliament
opened. For the sake of comparison, he attended as many votes as his party’s interim leader, Rona Ambrose and showed up for 10 more than Mulcair did.

Most notably, Harper voted against the medically assisted death-bill at third and final reading. If he had been re-elected that is the one piece of legislation he, too, would have had to craft. Pigs would have flown before a Conservative government brought in a more permissive legislation to respond to the Supreme Court’s Carter ruling than Trudeau did. It would have been interesting to watch the many Conservative senators who found Bill C-14 overly restrictive struggle with one drafted on Harper’s instructions.

Two votes the former prime minister did miss dealt with ailing Liberal MP Mauril BÈlanger’s bill to make the English-language lyrics of the national anthem gender neutral. Harper’s government had once proposed such a change only to back off in the face of a grassroots backlash.

For all the talk of the first full sitting of a Trudeau-run Parliament being devoted to undoing Harper’s legacy, his final months in the House were probably not very painful, or at least not as painful as the months Paul Martin spent in the Commons after he lost the 2006 election to the Conservatives.

Within his first year in office, and despite not having the command of a majority in the House, his successor had taken his distance from the Kelowna Accord and Martin’s master plan for a different relationship with Canada’s indigenous people. He had initiated Canada’s retreat from the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and put the Liberal national child-care program in the dustbin.

By comparison, Trudeau has so far merely been scribbling in the margins of his predecessor’s testament.

From Harper’s perspective, the bittersweet moments of the past eight months – if any – would have involved his fellow Conservatives.

He spent a decade in power trying in vain to build a Quebec team worthy of the name only to watch one belatedly bloom on the opposition benches. Harper could have used more ready-for-prime-time recruits such as former Action DÈmocratique leader GÈrard Deltell when he was in power.

And then there is the remarkable speed at which the Conservative caucus has bounced back from the election defeat. That swift recovery has been one of the more remarkable features of the new House of Commons.

In the same predicament a decade ago the Liberals went through all five stages of grief over the three successive Parliaments. The Conservatives, on the other hand, look like they are having more fun than in their glory days in government. They did not wait for Harper to leave the House to move on.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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