Montreal, January 29, 2006 • No 164




Martin Masse
is publisher of QL.




by Martin Masse


          With an unexpected contingent of ten MPs elected from Quebec, Stephen Harper will soon become head of a minority Conservative government in Ottawa. I should be proud. Harper was a reader and subscriber to Le Québécois Libre several years ago. I was his first organizer in Quebec when he re-entered politics in the fall of 2001 to contest the leadership of the Canadian Alliance. Of all politicians elected to power in this country, he will surely be the closest to the libertarian movement.


          I got to know Stephen Harper in the mid-1990s, when I worked as an organizer for the Reform Party of Canada of which he was one of the star MPs. Despite deep roots in the western provinces, the party was perceived by much of the media and the establishment political class as a marginal movement defending extremist positions, had almost no influence in the east and only a few supporters in Quebec. It was a coalition of conservatives, western populists, religious traditionalists, libertarians and classical liberals.

          Notwithstanding controversies surrounding the use of politically incorrect language by some of its MPs, most Reform positions came back to the same theme: limit the size of the federal government by decentralizing powers to the provinces and reducing government interventions in the economy and the lives of individuals. The Reform Party was vilified by the political establishment and media precisely because they were making few compromises and had clear principles that were contrary to the statist ideology that prevails among the elites.

          After the transformation of the Reform Party into the Canadian Alliance and its ultimate merger with the old Progressive Conservative Party, this election should have been the final victory for those Reformers who spent years in the electoral desert while defending their principles. Actually, it’s the opposite that is happening: the election of Stephen Harper will confirm once and for always that it is futile to promote libertarian ideas while playing the game of democratic realpolitik.

The Stephen Harper that I knew

          In response to Liberal attacks which brought back controversial comments that he made a few years ago, the conservative leader declared that even if his positions on some subjects had evolved, his fundamental beliefs had not changed during the last decade. Either he has become a hypocrite and bullshitter like most politicians, and will say anything to explain his contradictions, or he has been completely caught up in the political machine to the point that he can no longer distinguish between his previous principles and the watered down solutions he is advocating today.

          The Stephen Harper that I knew would certainly not be at ease defending the program rolled out by the Conservative Party during this campaign. Between the moment he left as Reform Party MP in 1997 and his return to politics, we got together a few times in Montreal. He was then head of the National Citizens Coalition, a lobby group whose motto was “More freedom through less government.” It would be hard to describe the libertarian ideal more succinctly.

          We discussed politics and philosophy. At that time, Harper was a big fan of QL. I nearly fell out of my chair one day when he told me how he found very interesting my article in issue no 53 of the magazine, the one discussing the “five essential libertarian attitudes”(1). Not only had I forgotten the issue number, but I could not remember one or two of the five attitudes in question!

"The election of Stephen Harper will confirm once and for always that it is futile to promote libertarian ideas while playing the game of democratic realpolitik."

          Stephen Harper preferred to describe himself as a classical liberal rather than as a libertarian, a term which he found too ideological. He has no interest in anarcho-capitalism, but he seemed to be at ease with the idea that the state should be restricted to a few essential functions (security, defense, justice, foreign affairs, etc.) and that government interventionism should be reduced to a minimum. The NCC had no literature in French and no presence in Quebec, and he proposed to hire me to set up a Quebec wing, using the QL network of readers and sympathizers as a foundation. The project never went through because of strategic differences and his return to politics.

          During the leadership campaign of the Canadian Alliance in the fall of 2001 and winter of 2002, I was the official “contact” of the Stephen Harper campaign in Quebec. When I realized the lack of interest of the leader and his entourage in investing in Quebec and developing an organization here, I decided to stop wasting my time and did not stay involved after his election (see my article on this subject in the National Post during the federal electoral campaign of June 2004: “Stephen Harper rediscovered Quebec too late”).

There will be no cuts

          All the same, the Stephen Harper of 2002 still had libertarian instincts. His first priority was to reduce the fiscal burden – to a rate lower than the Americans! (See “How to get Canada back on track.”) Today, he promises to reduce the GST by two percent, which will only have a marginal effect on Canadians’ disposable income.

          The Stephen Harper that I knew would never defend the bankrupt health care system that we have in Canada. Today he defends the government monopoly and promises to oppose any move towards a two-tier system, which makes him essentially a socialist politician like the other federal party leaders. When the complete Conservative platform was announced – full of promises to spend and support all sorts of groups and special interests – their finance critic Monte Solberg assured everybody that “Spending continues to go up. There will be no cuts… We will protect the social safety net.” The Conservative plan is, essentially, a continuation of the status quo. The federal state will not be put on a diet.

          Here is what we got today, a party leader and prime minister who was the most libertarian politician one could imagine getting in this position, taking into account the fact that our movement still has a rather marginal influence. This Conservative government will likely govern just like the old Progressive-Conservatives (that Harper and his Reform friends quit at the end of the 1980s because it was too centrist and beholden to special interests) would have. It might even do worse than the government of Jean Chrétien between 1993 and 2002, when Paul Martin put some order into public finance, eliminated the deficit, contained spending and lowered income taxes. Other than his promise to withdraw from the Kyoto accord and abolish the gun registry, Stephen Harper’s program has practically nothing to distinguish it from a libertarian perspective than the one the Liberals proposed.

          As I have written many times in QL, partisan politics is a waste of time for people who really want to reduce the size of the state. Democracy is a collectivist system whose fundamental logic rests on buying the support of political clients with the big pot of other people’s money that constitutes the government’s treasury. Either we refuse to play the game and stay on the margins; or we absolutely want power, and have to abandon our libertarian principles and adopt an opportunistic attitude. The solution is to work to delegitimize the state from the outside, not to try to reduce it from the inside, which is bound to fail.

          Harper badly wanted to become prime minister and did an excellent campaign to get there. The downside is that he has now become just another irrelevant statist politician, who at best will keep the federal government more or less as it is, and at worst will increase it as did the right-wing statist George W. Bush. The Liberal vermin certainly deserved to be defeated. But if Stephen Harper, a former reader of this magazine, can’t do better, what more can we hope to achieve through political means?


* This article was first published in French as "Stephen Harper: un ex-libertarien devenu un politicien étatiste comme les autres"  (le QL, no 162).
1. This article was published in French under the title “Cinq attitudes libertariennes essentielles”. It was later translated and published in QL no 132 as “Five essential libertarian attitudes.”