WikiLeaks: Canada’s Harper Embodies American Right’s Worst Tendencies

Stephen HarperWe’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the fifty-third in the series.

Recent cables published by WikiLeaks from the American embassy in Ottawa paint a less than flattering picture of Stephen Harper. The Canadian prime minister, whose Conservative Party took a commanding majority in nationwide elections last week, has built his political success on a platform of aggressive nationalism concerning the country’s Arctic sovereignty, pro-business economics, and keen avoidance of doing anything about climate change.

But from the perspective of American diplomats, Harper has a decidedly different list of priorities he pursues in private. In a cable that dates to January 2010, US Ambassador to Canada David Jacobson outlines what he sees as prime minister’s top five policy objectives.

Not surprisingly, “Harper’s top goal for 2010 is remaining in power,” which Jacobson notes will force the country’s conservatives “to claim credit even when it is not due to them.” While Harper has enjoyed unrivalled personal popularity throughout Canada, his party was not as warmly embraced. “Harper failed to convince the public to give them a majority” in successive federal elections during 2004, 2006, and 2008, though Jacobson notes that a new round of elections in 2010 might prove beneficial to the party.

Conservatives arguably have the most to gain in a new election, given the many self-inflected wounds suffered by the Liberals under [Michael] Ignatieff over the past year. The Conservatives nonetheless do not wish the public to blame them for a new and still unwelcome election.

In fact, it’s not clear if Harper’s Conservatives have much going for them beyond Ignatieff’s incompetence to effectively organize a viable opposition.

Liberal disarray and disappointing fundraising in the second half of 2009 leave the Liberal party in poor shape to face an election, which Ignatieff now admits that the public does not want. Nor have the Liberals hit upon a potentially winning issue. They and the NDP have tried to turn the treatment of Afghan detainees transferred by the Canadian Forces to Afghan authorties in 2006 and 2007 into a major embarrassment for the government. So far, the public isn’t biting (51 percent remain unaware of the issue…), and it is far from clear that there is much political utility for any of the opposition parties in making a major push to continue this probe.

According to the cable, Harper’s second priority, after preserving his own employment, is to “re-grow the economy.” While the prime minister and his associates have taken the lion’s share of credit for helping steer the ship of state through the turbulent economic waters of the 2008 financial and economic crisis, the US embassy in Ottawa wasn’t so sure these claims were the entirely accurate. “The jury is still somewhat out on whether long-standing monetary and fiscal policies were the main factors,” the cable notes, “or whether Canada’s huge resource base and openness to international trade were not at least as much factors.” It didn’t matter, though because “the Conservatives have in any event pretty much succeeded in convincing the public that they are more trustworthy on this issue than the Liberal would be.” Still, “The Conservatives do not appear to have any bold measures up their sleeves to improve the economy, but appear content to wait for…a rising global economy—especially the US—to life all boats.”

Harper and his gang might have been waiting to ride the coattails of an American recovery, but it’s clear that the Canadian prime minister didn’t like Washington’s methods for stimulating the economy. From the embassy’s perspective, Harper had developed something of an obsession with what it considered his third priority: overturning provisions in the American Reconstruction and Recovery Act. Harper had addressed this issue “so often with President Obama that it has become somewhat of a private joke.”

While American protectionism was centrally important to the Harper government and his big business allies, it wasn’t clear to Jacobson than the topic was all that important to anyone else, or that any success on this front would be of much political utility. “The public—but not the business community—has largely lost track of the dispute…so even a failure in the talks might hurt Conservatives less than would been likely only a few months ago. None of the opposition parties has any better plan on how to reverse any US inclinations.”

The cable paints Harper as particularly dismal on environmental politics, a topic the American embassy considered important to the prime minister’s future success despite his personal disinterest. The document points out that Harper agreed to attend the historic 2009 multilateral negotiations in Denmark to stem the worst effects of environmental degradation.

Harper somewhat grudgingly went to Copenhagen for the UN summit on climate change, but only after President Obama announced that he would attend. PM Harper’s participation was virtually invisible to the Canadian public, and there was considerable negative coverage of his failure to play a more prominent role—or even to sit in on the President’s key meetings with world leaders.

Jacobson correctly suggests that Harper’s lackluster performance at Copenhagen left his government in the unenviable position of looking at once detached from what many consider the most important international security issue facing mankind, and a lap dog to American power.

Environmental Minister Jim Prentice was sent out to do the media scrums and to insist that Canada was a helpful participant and would work closely with the United States on a continental strategy on climate change. Now he must come up with some proposals that make Canada not seem merely to be going slavishly along with whatever its American “big brother” decides to do—which will not be easy.

Making matters worse,

A substantial proportion of the Canadian public and industry…are opposed to Harper taking a leading role and are even opposed to him following any likely leads set by the Obama administration. In that respect, given Canada’s role as a major petroleum and natural gas producer, he will have an even more difficult political balancing act that will the United States or the Europeans.

But once again, the Conservatives would be bailed out, Jacobson predicts, not by their own creative thinking or popularity, but by the opposition’s incompetence. “No big, sexy initiatives are likely from the Conservatives…Luckily for the government, the Liberals also do not have any great ideas up their sleeves.”

Most interestingly, given the election results of last week, the cable notes that “getting out of Afghanistan as gracefully as possible” would be Harper’s fifth and final major priority over the coming year. Despite his original gung-ho support for NATO operations in Afghanistan, Harper more lately repeatedly insisted that Canada would begin withdrawing its presence in the country by the end of 2011.

Diminishing public support for the mission, a sense that Canada had dones more than its share, and unspoken relief that the US surge will let Canada off the hook all argue against any Canadian political leader rethinking Canada’s strategy, at least for now. Absent a federal election in which the Conservatives win an actual majority…the likelihood at present is that Canada will withdraw on schedule, as gracefully as possible.

Harper changed his message while campaigning in April, announcing that “I have never said there’s no risks in Afghanistan,” defending his decision, without consulting the parliament, to extend the country’s commitment in Central Asia by three years. The plan would leave roughly 950 of the 2,500 troops currently in the country behind to train Afghan and military personnel. With a new majority, however, we may expect to see other tweaking of previous Harper promises with regards to the Afghan state-building project.