US & Canada

Canada election: Five things Stephen Harper got wrong

Stephen Harper says farewell Image copyright Reuters

After nearly 10 years as Canada's leader, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is packing his bags. Where did it go wrong?

The natural political cycle meant the Conservatives' hold on power was sure to come to an end at some point.

But after such a decisive win for the Liberals, even Mr Harper's supporters would admit there were certain moments and policies that backfired.


Misreading austerity mood

Mr Harper's central economic message was low taxes, balancing the books and more austerity.

But Liberal leader Justin Trudeau had a rallying call that struck a much more powerful chord, saying he would run a budget deficit to invest in the country's creaking infrastructure.

"Toronto is gridlocked. The idea that commuting was going to get better resonated strongly with people," says Richard Nimijean, a professor in Canadian studies at Ottawa's Carleton University.

Harper seemed to exaggerate how well Canada rode out the global downturn, he adds, whereas Mr Trudeau focused on how many people felt - like their wages were stagnant and the housing market out of reach.


Appearing to be mean-spirited

The Conservative leader took a hard line on taking Syrian refugees and opposed the wearing of the niqab by Muslims at citizenship ceremonies.

While there was sizable support for him in both these issues, the tipping point came soon after the niqab furore when he pledged to set up a police hotline to report "barbaric cultural practices".

"That's where it crossed the line and people - especially on social media - said it was too much," Mr Nimijean says. "There's a fine line between being cautious and conservative and being mean.

"Then along comes Trudeau talking about positive values and people thought 'This is where I want to park my vote.'"


Rallying liberal opponents

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mourners in Ottawa

Bill C51, which strengthened government powers of surveillance after a series of shootings targeting the government in 2014, rallied many against what they felt was an attack on civil liberties.

If the election had happened earlier in the year, Bill C51 might have been an even bigger issue in the campaign. Interestingly, Mr Trudeau voted for the bill and said the Liberals would introduce amendments to ease public concerns.

But his tone was in marked contrast to Harper, says Annis May Timpson, an expert in Canadian politics at Linacre College, Oxford in the UK.

"Trudeau's statements about maintaining security and human rights are critical to his view of the world."


Falling out with Obama

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The two neighbours clearly did not have a great warmth for each other. The Conservative Mr Harper pushed the Keystone XL pipeline hard on a lukewarm Democratic US president.

According to the Globe and Mail in late 2014, Harper was "deeply frustrated with a president who, he believes, is incapable of making a difficult decision".

It was in Canada's economic and military interest to get along with the US, says Mr Nimijean, but it never happened, compounding a sense that the country's global image was taking a battering.

Canadians like to see themselves as a middle-power, honest broker in the world, he says, but Mr Harper never figured out the US or China, and his Middle East policy veered from balanced to pro-Israel.

"If there's a feeling our leaders are out of touch, when you lose that emotional connection, you've lost them," says Mr Nimijean.

Pulling out of the Kyoto climate change protocol and failing to secure a position on the UN Security Council added to a sense of unease about Canada's place on the global stage.


Failing to clean up politics

In 2006, Mr Harper pledged to clean up politics and he introduced a bill to increase federal accountability.

But he failed to keep more than half of the pledges, says Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch and a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa. That's a vote loser, he adds, when you consider that 85-90% of Canadians don't trust politicians.

Along comes Mr Trudeau and he promises to introduce some of the measures Harper missed, he adds, like increasing public access to information, putting key government appointments in the hands of an independent panel and changes to the voting system.

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