The Harper Index

Reform Party

Preston Manning groomed Stephen Harper and gave him a prominent role in Reform's formation in 1987 and its strategy; Harper quit on him ten years later.

Stephen Harper got into the House of Commons as a Reform Party activist. He was personally brought into the fold by Party founder Preston Manning and advanced rapidly within it after attending its founding convention. Ten years after helping found the party, he broke with it and Manning.

The Reform Party was created during a period in which the Progressive Conservative coalition of Western populists, Quebec nationalists, and so-called Red Tories in Atlantic Canada was beginning to fracture. It was created by Western conservatives discontent with Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservatives for a number of reasons — their active courting Quebec separatists, their lack of fiscal responsibility, and their failure to respond to Western concerns.

The Reform Party took on a complex mix of neo-liberalism on fiscal issues, social conservatism on moral issues, and Western alienation on issues of federalism.

Harper began his association with the Reform Party when he was recommended to its leader, Preston Manning. Manning invited Harper to make a speech at the Party's founding convention in 1987, and later made him his chief policy officer. Harper is credited with having a major influence on the Reform Party's 1988 election platform, which stressed, among other things, the importance of giving a greater voice to Western Canada in Canadian politics.

Harper was active on constitutional issues during his first term in parliament, and played a prominent role in drafting the Reform Party's strategy for the 1995 Quebec referendum. A long-standing opponent of centralized federalism, he stood with Preston Manning in Montreal to introduce a twenty-point plan to "decentralize and modernize" Canada in the event of a "no" (pro-federalism) victory.

Harper was not associated with the Reform Party's radical wing, and ultimately left the party over its social conservatism. He expressed strong opposition to same-sex marriage but voted in 1994 against Reform getting involved with it.

Through the 90s, Harper and Manning drifted apart. Harper's brand of conservatism and his approach to marketing it did not fit with Manning's more populist, down-home approach. Whether it was the "fiscal conservatism" of Harper vs the "social conservatism" of Manning, as Harper indicated, or simply Harper's understanding that getting elected to govern required more sophisticated marketing, Harper did not run again in 1997. Instead he went on to work for the National Citizens Coalition (NCC), while laying the groundwork for political power through the creation of a new political party he intended to lead according to his own strategic vision.

Columnist William Johnson, in his book, Stephen Harper and the Future of Canada, describes how Harper and Manning had a falling out following the "disappointing results" of the 1988 election. Harper, Reform's chief policy officer, wrote a wide-ranging memo to Manning early in 1989. In it he challenged Manning on how to position the Reform Party as "the only true party of the right." Johnson goes on to say that Harper "was unsparing in savaging Manning's most cherished pronouncements, which he now dismissed as outmoded myths." Johnson then quotes Manning from his book, Think Big, as describing Harper as a smart guy with a big ego. "Stephen had difficultly accepting that there might be a few other people (not many, perhaps, but a few) who were as smart as he was with respect to policy and strategy."

Related individuals, organizations and significant events
Preston Manning

Links and sources
  Murray Dobbin, Harper's Dark Opportunity, The Tyee, May 18, 2007
  Carolyn Ryan, Stephen Harper and the road to power, CBC News
  William Johnson, Stephen Harper and the Future of Canada, Douglas Gibson, 2005, p116

Posted: May 18, 2007

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