Premiership of Stephen Harper

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Premiership of Stephen Harper
February 6, 2006 – November 4, 2015
Stephen Harper
Cabinet28th Canadian Ministry
Election2006, 2008, 2011
Appointed byMichaëlle Jean
SeatOffice of the Prime Minister

The premiership of Stephen Harper began on February 6, 2006, when the first Cabinet headed by Stephen Harper was sworn in by Governor General Michaelle Jean. Harper was invited to form the 28th Canadian Ministry and become Prime Minister of Canada following the 2006 election, where Harper's Conservative Party won a plurality of seats in the House of Commons of Canada, defeating the Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin's government. In the 2011 federal election, Harper won his first and only majority government.


From Canadian confederation until the 1993 election, the Liberal Party's control has been the rule of who was in power in Canada, with short-lived Conservative governments to break up their long stretches of governance. This was described by Harper as "a benign dictatorship, not under a strict one-party rule, but under a one-party-plus system beset by the factionalism, regionalism and cronyism that accompany any such system".[1] In 1993, the Progressive Conservatives were reduced from a majority government to fifth place and two seats in the House of Commons. They were displaced by the Reform Party of Canada in Western Canada, the Bloc Québécois in Québec, and the Liberals throughout the country due to vote splitting.[2]

Harper was elected in 1993 as a Reform MP. He resigned before the 1997 election and became an advocate of the Unite the Right movement which argued for a merger of the Progressive Conservatives and Reform. Harper was suggested as a possible Progressive Conservative leadership candidate in 1998 but he declined. Harper went on to win the leadership of the Canadian Alliance (the successor party to the Reform Party) in 2002. In 2003, Harper and Progressive Conservative leader Peter MacKay agreed to merge their parties into the new Conservative Party of Canada.[3] Harper was elected leader of the newly united Conservatives in 2004.

In the 2004 election, the Liberals were reduced to a minority government due to a government spending scandal and the success of the newly united right-of-centre opposition party. Harper went on to lead the Conservatives to win a plurality of seats in the 2006 election[4] and formed the smallest minority government in Canadian history.[5]

First and second mandates[edit]

The Conservative platform in the 2006 election was focused on five priorities: accountability, tax reform, crime, child care and health care.[6]

The new government gained approval for the Federal Accountability Act, which eliminated corporate and union donations to political parties, tightened lobbying rules including the cooling-off period for former civil servants and political staff, and introduced several offices to exercise independent oversight over government spending and accounting such as the Parliamentary Budget Officer.[7]

The federal Goods and Services Tax (GST), introduced by the former Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney, was reduced from 7% to 6%,[8] and later to 5%.[9]

Under Harper, the government introduced several pieces of legislation as part of a "tough on crime" agenda including mandatory minimum sentences for serious and violent offenders. Some of the legislation did not gain approval in the minority parliament.[10]

The previous Liberal government had begun negotiations with the provinces and reached agreements to begin to fund a publicly funded child care program. The Conservatives stopped this process, as promised in their election platform,[11] and instead launched a $1200 per year stipend for each child under age six, paid directly to parents whether or not they incur child care expenses.[12] Harper pledged to work with provincial and local governments, not-for-profit organizations, and employers to create additional spaces, and budgeted $250 million per year for these initiatives.[13]

In the area of health care, the Harper government also promised to introduce a "Patient Wait Times Guarantee" in conjunction with the provinces. While they did negotiate changes to the 2004 10-year health accord with the provinces with an eye to shorten wait times,[14] Harper was criticized by Maclean's columnist Paul Wells for downplaying this fifth priority.[15]

After taking action in these core policy areas, several media commentators suggested that the government lacked direction.[16] Despite having introduced legislation to fix election dates every four years beginning in October 2009, Governor General Michaëlle Jean granted a request from Harper to call new elections in October 2008. Harper said he asked for this early election because the opposition parties were delaying the work of parliament, while the opposition stated Harper wanted to get a new mandate before Canada felt the effects of the 2008–09 global economic slowdown.[17]

In the realm of foreign policy, Harper and his ministers began to move away from the internationalist agenda that was central to the Liberal Party's agenda, while supporting and joining with the administration of US President George W. Bush on a number of issues. In this period, Canada reduced its visibility in the United Nations, which was seen as dominated by dictatorships. In addition, the funding and support for activities of political non-governmental organizations (NGOs) through the Canadian International Development Agency was scaled back significantly.[18]

Third mandate[edit]

In October 14, 2008 election, Harper and the Conservatives again failed to get a majority, but increased their representation in Parliament from 127 to 143, still 12 seats short of a majority.

On February 15, 2012, the House of Commons voted to eliminate the federal Long Gun Registry. The Bill received royal assent later that year. This had been a long-standing election promise and was supported by 2 members of the third party New Democrats.[19] The registry had been cited as an example of cost overruns as well as criminalizing legitimate gun owners. The cancellation has led to conflict with some provinces, including Ontario and Quebec, who sought to retain the information from the registry.[20][21]

In February 2012, Bill C-30 was presented to Parliament by Harper's government. The legislation, entitled the Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act despite not having any provisions related to child sexual abuse online or otherwise, was designed to aid law enforcement's ability to track online activity. It provided provisions for the government to gather information online about citizens without a warrant, and without their ability to be aware they were under suspicion. Controversy over the warrantless privacy invasion and the poor behaviour of the minister introducing the legislation led to a public backlash over privacy concerns. Justice Minister Vic Toews did not understand details of the bill when questioned by the press, and accused anyone who opposed this bill as supporting child exploitation.[22][23] This led the government to send this legislation directly to committee for review,[24] and possible termination.[25]

In February 2012, the Robocall scandal emerged regarding attempts at voter suppression targeting non-Conservative voters in 200 ridings during the 2011 election.[26] The Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Elections Canada investigated the calls[27] but ultimately did not refer the matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions.[28] Michael Sona (a Conservative campaign worker in the riding of Guelph) was later found guilty of one count of willfully preventing or endeavoring to prevent an elector from voting in an election, an offence under the Canada Elections Act, and sentenced to nine months in prison.[29]

Popular support[edit]

The Conservatives won 124 (or 40.3% of the total) seats in the House of Commons of Canada in the 2006 election while receiving 36.3% of the popular vote, and won 143 seats (or 46.4% of the total) in the 2008 election while receiving 37.7% of the popular vote. In the 2011 election, the Conservatives won 166 seats (54% of the total) with 39.6% of the popular vote.

Conventional wisdom before the 2011 election held that winning a federal majority without significant support in the province of Quebec would be nearly impossible.[30] The Conservatives disproved this by winning an eleven-seat majority with only five seats in Quebec. The Conservatives won considerably more popular support outside of Quebec than they did elsewhere, carrying 48% of the popular vote outside of Quebec. This was only the second time in Canadian history that a federal government was formed without a substantial number of seats from Quebec.

Media speculation had been that the Conservatives would need to win in excess of 40% of the popular vote to form a majority government, the stated goal of Harper in the 2011 election. However, the Liberal Party was able to win a majority with only 38.5% of the popular vote in 1997 and the Conservatives have previously come very close to a majority with 37.7% of the popular vote (12 seats short) in 2008 and with 35.9% of the vote (6 seats short) in 1979.

Harper led the government through the longest lasting federal minority government in Canadian history, which ended when he achieved a majority victory in 2011.

Opinion polling between the 2006 and 2008 federal elections[edit]

From December 2006 to August 2008, the Conservatives and Liberals exchanged leads in opinion polls. From September through the election in October 2008, the Conservative led in all polls.

Opinion polling between the 2008 and 2011 federal elections[edit]

The Conservatives led in every public opinion poll released from March 2010 until the election. From January to September 2009 and again from January to February 2010 several polls showed the Liberals tied with or slightly leading Harper's Conservatives.

Opinion polling after the 2011 federal election[edit]

The Conservatives continued to maintain 37–39% support after the election. In March 2012, some polls showed the NDP tied with or surpassing the Conservatives and others show the Conservatives with a slim lead.[31][32][33] In May 2012, the Tories dipped into second place behind the NDP,[34] but the NDP quickly dropped again. In April 2013, the Conservatives dropped in second place in the polls behind the Liberals and their new leader Justin Trudeau. The Liberals would keep their lead until 2015. Upon the beginning of the election campaign in summer 2015, the three main federal parties were neck and neck with about 30% each in most polls. The Liberals ended up edging out the other parties during the campaign, and won the 2015 Canadian federal election.

Relationship with parliament, opposition parties[edit]

For most of Harper's tenure as prime minister, he led a minority government meaning he relied on the support (or abstention) of other parties in order to maintain the confidence of the House of Commons. The Harper government often relied on the official opposition Liberal caucus abstaining in whole[35] or in part[36] in order to allow confidence measures to pass. The government lost its first confidence vote on a Liberal sponsored censure motion on March 25, 2011, prompting Harper to seek dissolution and the calling of the 2011 general election.

Confidence in the House of Commons[edit]

The principal motions of confidence in the Canadian House of Commons are matters of supply (motions and bills concerning the budget and spending government monies) and the motion in reply to the Speech from the Throne. The government may also designate any vote to be a matter of confidence, and opposition parties may introduce motions that explicitly express a lack of confidence in the government. During this period of Harper's tenureship, he began to increase the scope of what bills of the government could be considered confidence measures, reflecting the increasing willingness of the government to trigger an election based on favourable polling conditions.

Non-confidence motion and prorogation of Parliament, 2008[edit]

Harper precipitated a national controversy, which threatened to overturn his government, by fielding a spending bill in the fall of 2008 which would have stripped taxpayer funding from political parties and taken away[37] the right to strike from Canadian public service workers as purported solutions to the effects in Canada of the global economic crisis. Outraged opposition parties formed a coalition, intending to call a vote of non-confidence that would have toppled the Harper government, but he avoided the impending vote of non-confidence by asking the Governor General to prorogue Parliament until January 26, 2009. Following the resumption of parliament, Harper introduced a new budget which was allowed to pass when members of the Liberal caucus abstained from the vote.

Senate appointments[edit]

As prime minister, Harper recommended the appointment of 38 persons to the Senate of Canada. All of these senators were members of Harper's Conservative Party. Three (Michael Fortier, Fabian Manning, and Larry Smith) subsequently resigned from the Senate to seek election to the House of Commons.

Harper had long been an advocate of an elected Senate and appointed four senators (Bert Brown, Betty Unger, Doug Black, and Scott Tannas) based on the result of Alberta Senate nominee elections. Harper introduced legislation to provide for elections to advise the prime minister on whom to recommend for appointment to the Senate and to cause appointed senators to serve fixed terms, to, in essence, create a de facto elected Senate without changing the constitution.[citation needed] Harper's Senate appointments and reform proposals were criticized for failing to address the balance of seats among provinces, possibly being unconstitutional, and for running contrary to the spirit of his previous pledges for an elected senate. Harper argued that, without appointing senators, the Liberals would have continued to enjoy a majority in the senate despite lacking popular support, the senate would become less and less able to function, and all of his appointees agreed to resign and seek election to the senate should his reform proposals pass.[38]

Libel suit against Liberal Party[edit]

Harper launched a lawsuit on March 13, 2008, against the Liberal Party of Canada over statements published on the party's website concerning the Chuck Cadman affair. This was the first time a sitting prime minister had sued the opposition for libel. The $2.5-million suit named the Liberal Party, the Federal Liberal Agency of Canada, and the unnamed author or authors of the statements published on the Liberal website. The articles at the centre of the lawsuit were headlined "Harper knew of Conservative bribery"[39] and "Harper must come clean about allegations of Conservative Bribery".[40] Those articles questioned Harper's alleged involvement in financial offers made to Cadman to sway his vote in a crucial 2005 Commons showdown. The suit filed in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice did not name Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion or MPs Ralph Goodale and Michael Ignatieff—whom Harper also threatened to sue.[41] The lawsuit was settled out of court in 2009 with both parties not disclosing the terms of settlement.[42]

Dona Cadman said that prior to the May 2005 budget vote, Tom Flanagan and Doug Finley, two Conservative Party officials, offered her husband, Chuck Cadman, a million-dollar life insurance policy in exchange for his vote to bring down the Liberal government.[43]

Domestic and foreign policy[edit]

Harper, Mexican President Peña Nieto, and U.S. President Barack Obama at the 2014 North American Leaders' Summit

Harper's government introduced 9 budgets. The 2011 budget was not passed prior to the calling of the 2011 general election, but was adopted soon afterward. Starting in 2018, each of his budgets ran a substantial deficit as a result of the 2008 global recession. Budgetary equilibrium returned in 2013, earlier than it was originally predicted. Harper's economic policy included a multitude of new spending and reduced government revenue revenues due to reductions to the Goods and Services Tax and corporate income taxes. Harper campaigned on a pledge to increase defense spending and has cut it in real terms.[44]

As with any Canadian government, the principal foreign relations issue is the relationship with the United States, Canada's closest neighbour and largest trading partner. The ongoing War in Afghanistan was also a major foreign policy issue for the Harper government, who withdrew Canadian troops from Afghanistan in 2011. As a result of economic sanctions against officials of the Russian government stemming from the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, Harper had to contend with a sharp reduction in trade with Russia.[45]


Although the majority of Conservative seats were from the Western provinces, the majority of names which Harper put forward to the Governor General for appointment as Cabinet Ministers were from Ontario and Quebec, in the interests of regional balance. The new Conservative Cabinet was substantially smaller than the prior Martin government because it initially did away with junior ministers (known as Ministers of State, and previously Secretaries of State). Several pundits in the media described Harper's Cabinet as moderate, and a tempering of the Conservative Party's roots in the Canadian Alliance and Reform.[who?]

In selecting his cabinet Harper chose outgoing Liberal Minister of Industry David Emerson as Minister of International Trade and Minister for the Pacific Gateway and the 2010 Winter Olympics, and Michael Fortier, a senior Conservative Party operative and campaign strategist, as Minister of Public Works, and as an appointee to the Senate. Emerson had been re-elected to parliament as a Liberal only weeks earlier, while Fortier did not contest the previous election at all. Harper argued that the appointments were necessary to provide two of Canada's largest cities (Vancouver and Montreal) with Cabinet representation, as the Conservatives did not win seats in these cities. Critics countered that no such concessions were made for Canada's largest city, Toronto, where the conservatives also failed to win a seat, but proponents of the Prime Minister contested that MP and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, representing the nearby city of Whitby, would represent Torontonians in Cabinet.

Opposition politicians and other critics attacked the appointment of Emerson as hypocritical, as several members of the Conservative Party had criticized former Conservative MP Belinda Stronach for crossing the floor to the Liberals and receiving a Cabinet appointment in 2005, shortly before a critical budgetary vote that amounted to a confidence motion for the then-ruling Liberal party. Emerson's decision was also met with opposition in his riding, where the Conservative candidate had received less than 20% of the vote in the previous campaign, although Emerson himself was re-elected by a large margin over the NDP runner-up. The Harper government defended Emerson's appointment as tapping a politician with previous federal Cabinet experience. Emerson himself suggested that it would help the Conservatives move to the middle of the political spectrum.[46]

Harper's recommendation of Fortier for appointment was also controversial, as the Conservatives had previously criticized the unelected nature of the Senate. Both Harper and Fortier have stated that the Senate appointment is temporary, and that Fortier will vacate his position at the next federal election to run for a seat in the House of Commons.

Other choices were met with greater support. Former Toronto mayor David Miller called Harper's selection of Lawrence Cannon as an appointee to Cabinet as a "very positive step" and "a signal Mr. Harper's serious about reaching out to cities".[47] Harper recommended the appointment of Jim Flaherty as an elected MP to represent the city along with the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). Flaherty represented the riding of Whitby—Oshawa, in the Durham Region of the eastern GTA, and his selection as Minister of Finance was viewed positively by the Bay Street business community.[48]

On March 3, 2006, Ethics Commissioner Bernard Shapiro announced that he was launching a preliminary inquiry into conflict-of-interest allegations against Emerson and Harper. Shapiro said that he would look into what influence may have been wielded in the decision by Emerson to cross the floor.[49][50] Conservatives criticized Shapiro's probe as partisan and accused him of applying a double standard since he was appointed on the advice of the former Liberal prime minister, and had turned down earlier requests in 2005 to investigate Stronach's floor-crossing in which she received a Cabinet post, as well as a questionable land sale by Hamilton area Liberal MP Tony Valeri.[51] Shapiro was also criticized by former NDP leader Ed Broadbent for "extraordinarily serious credibility problems".[52] While agreeing with Harper that Shapiro's investigation was inappropriate, Broadbent and opposition MPs criticized Harper for refusing to cooperate with the Commissioner.[53]

Shapiro concluded that a minister crossing the floor to take a Cabinet position would only have been inappropriate if said Cabinet position was offered in return for some action in Parliament, such as preventing the government from falling on a confidence vote. Emerson's appointment did not fall under those conditions and Shapiro cleared both Harper and Emerson of any wrongdoing on March 20, 2006.[54] However, Shapiro declined to launch any investigation into Belinda Stronach's floor-crossing,[55] even though it was done for exactly the reason that Shapiro claimed would be inappropriate.[56]

Deputy Prime Minister and succession[edit]

Unlike his recent predecessors, Harper did not name one of his colleagues to the largely honorific post of Deputy Prime Minister. Various observers had expected him to name MacKay, the former leader of the Progressive Conservative Party and his deputy party leader, or Lawrence Cannon, as a Quebec lieutenant, to the post. Harper did, however, name an order of succession to act on his behalf in certain circumstances, starting with Cannon, then Jim Prentice, then the balance of his cabinet in order of precedence.

Media relations[edit]

Unlike previous Prime Ministers of Canada, Harper insisted that the Prime Minister's Office had the right to choose which reporters ask questions at press conferences,[57] which, along with other steps aimed at limiting and controlling media access, created some conflict with national media.[58] It was reported that the Prime Minister's Office also "often [informed] the media about Harper's trips at such short notice that [it was] impossible for Ottawa journalists to attend the events".[59]

Before the 2011 election, the Canadian Association of Journalists wrote a letter to the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics strongly criticizing the Canadian government for severely restricting access to documents that should be made available to Canadian citizens.[60] The CAJ stated, "Open government is not revolutionary and the government of Canada is behind compared to other nations and even some provinces."

In 2011 Stephen Harper violated copyright when he sang the song "Imagine" without permission of the owner in a video that was later uploaded to YouTube. As a result, the video was removed by request of Yoko Ono’s publishing company.[61] Although Canada's 2012 Copyright Modernization Act permits non-profit performances of copyrighted songs like "Imagine", it is still not legal to upload recordings of such performances to the Internet.[62]

"Canada's New Government" and "Harper Government"[edit]

While Her Majesty's Governments of various political stripes have traditionally used the term "Government of Canada" to describe the government in its communications materials, the Harper government broke that tradition for two extended periods. From taking office in February 2006 until October 2007, the government was branded "Canada's New Government" and from late-2010 to mid-2011 it was branded the "Harper Government". The former was the subject of ridicule by other parties and some media commentators,[63] while the latter was criticized by some academics and former civil servants as a partisan misuse of government resources.[64] This is "political marketing", as constitutionally, any Government of Canada administered by a Canadian Ministry—Harper's premiership being the 28th Canadian Ministry— is known formally as "Her Majesty's Government".


The term "Harperism" was coined and used by some in the Canadian media to describe the Harper's policies and style during his premiership. The term has been used pejoratively to describe what some see as Harper's authoritarian approach to his cabinet and in the prorogation of the 40th Canadian parliament.[65]

Relationship with public service[edit]

Stephen Harper described his relationship with the public servants as tense. In 2007, he told CBC interviewer Rex Murphy "Probably the most difficult job, you know, practical difficult thing you have to learn as a prime minister and ministers, our ministers as well, is dealing with the federal bureaucracy. He added "It’s walking that fine line of, of being a positive leader of the federal public service, but at the same time pushing them and not becoming captive to them . . . I could write a book on that one".[66]

In 2013, former director-general with Citizenship and Immigration Canada Andrew Griffith wrote that "Under the Harper government, one of the main challenges for the public service was having its knowledge and expertise put into question". Griffith noted cultural differences between the more liberal-oriented public servants and an ideologically-driven conservative governments. Griffith also said that the government's short term political agenda clashed with the public service's long-term planning.[66]

He related his experience working with the then-minister of immigration Jason Kenney, who changed the working culture of his department to the dismay of most of his co-workers. Indeed, Kenney intended to use his department to build the Conservative Party's base, and his minister's office frequently intervened in the works of the department employees, requiring them to take into consideration the minister's outreach to various communities. Under previous ministers, these considerations tended to be ignored.[66]

Phoenix pay system[edit]

Stephen Harper introduced the Phoenix pay system as part of his 2009 Transformation of Pay Administration Initiative, to replace Canada's 40-year old system with a new improved, cost-saving "automated, off-the-shelf commercial system." In June 2011, IBM won the sole-source contract to set up the system, using PeopleSoft software, the original contract was for $5.7 million, but IBM was eventually paid $185 million.[67] According to The New York Times, Oracle Corporation's PeopleSoft software system was "widely used by corporations and institutions to manage operations, finances and employees."[68] In March 2014, according to an IBM spokeswoman, the Crown took over responsibility for "training design and execution" from IBM," in a cost-saving measure. The government adopted a 'train the trainer' approach rather than follow IBM's recommended system.[69]

Prior to 2012, about 2,000 pay advisors/specialists in 101 federal departments and agencies "processed pay, advised employees, and corrected errors" in scattered locations.[70] When the new Miramichi Public Service Pay Centre was opened in May 2012, the PSPC began to eliminate pay advisor positions in 46 individual departments and agencies and replace them with "460 pay advisors and 90 support staff" at new centralized location in Pay Centre. By 2016, the PSPC had cut 1,200 pay advisor positions.[70] Following centralization, these departments and agencies administrators no longer had "direct access to the new pay system." There were an additional 55 departments and agencies who maintained about approximately 800 pay advisors who continued to enter pay information for their own employees in the new Phoenix system.[70]

In May 2015, IBM made the recommendation that government delay its planned rollout of Phoenix due to critical problems.[71] In June 2015, before Phoenix was launched, some federal employees complained about not being paid, and there were reports that the Miramachi pay centre employees were overwhelmed.[72] The Auditor General's May 29, 2018 report "Building and Implementing the Phoenix Pay System" found that in June 2015, Public Services and Procurement Canada cancelled a pilot to test Phoenix in a single department to assess whether Phoenix was ready for government wide use.[73]

By 2018, Phoenix has caused pay problems to over 50 percent of the federal government’s 290,000 public servants through underpayments, over-payments, and non-payments.[74] The Office of the Auditor General (OAG) conducted two reports, one if 2017[70] and another in 2018[73] reviewing the Phoenix Pay System—a payroll processing system for Canadian federal government employees that is run by Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) which has been controversial for a number of years—[73][70] The 2018 report said that the Phoenix system was an "'incomprehensible failure' of project management and oversight."[75]

Campaign promises[edit]

The governments of Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper fulfilled the majority of their campaign promises and scored highest on fulfilling their campaign promises compared to any other "Canadian government over the last 35 years", according to an August 30, 2019 publication based on research at Laval University. The 237-page publication, Assessing Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Government. 353 promises and a mandate for change, includes the work of "two dozen Canadian academics". They found that Justin Trudeau's Liberal government kept 92 percent of pledges, when complete and partial pledges were added together, while the Harper government kept 85 percent of complete and partial pledges. When only completed, realized pledges were calculated, Harper's government, in their last year, kept 77 percent of promises while the Liberal government kept 53.5 percent. The book notes that Harper's pledges tended towards transactional pledges which target sub-populations while Trudeau's government's promises were transformative.[76][77][78]


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