With Friday’s announcement of the resignation of the MP for Calgary Heritage, the political career of Stephen Harper officially ends and the debate over his legacy begins.
The Alberta talk shows and Twitter traffic have been overwhelmingly positive. But like all legacies, Harper’s will be mixed. A balanced budget in 2015 has to be measured against the string of deficits that preceded it, after Prime Minister Harper inherited a sizeable surplus from the Martin/Chretien era. Over nine years as PM, Harper added significantly to the national debt. Harper ran deficits seven out of nine years and added over $150 billion in red ink.
Also factoring into his legacy is where Harper’s government chose to spend — and where it didn’t. Spending on public safety increased. So did spending on defence — at least at first, before it got squeezed by other priorities. Spending on culture and the environment was cut. Direct program spending was cut; transfers to the provinces and to individuals went up.
He will be remembered for — and is proud of — cutting the GST. It was a popular measure, but economically it’s very difficult to determine who prospered as a result, and how. Income splitting, the Child Tax Credit, targeted tax credits (fitness, arts, transit passes), an increase in the basic personal exemption — all Harper tax policies, all praised by his supporters and damned by his critics.
His tax policies seemed to be tilted against single parent families and parents without children. His dizzying array of targeted tax cuts complicated an already bloated tax code. As a result, taxes are generally down — but compliance costs are up.
Harper liked to boast about being a great job creator. While it’s true that the economy added 1.2 million jobs since the 2008 recession, many of them were part-time or low-wage. Manufacturing jobs were lost. Harper’s employment success was premised largely on the energy sector boom — which went bust towards the end of his mandate.
The Harper years might be remembered for their emphasis on international trade. He implemented trade deals, such as the one with South Korea, and negotiated others (the European Union and the Trans Pacific Partnership). But exports as a percentage of GDP actually fell during the Harper years.