The Harper Factor: Objective or Objectionable?

While the pursuit of objectivity is famously thought to be difficult, history reveals it remains an essential virtue in advancing our sum of knowledge in both the physical and social sciences. Raising a standard of objectivity can guide us through emotional thickets and tangled issues that otherwise block a clear view.

If you've lived in Canada in the last decade you'll know there has been no more polarizing political figure than former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a man so partial that only the most brave (or foolhardy?) thinkers would subject him to dispassionate analysis. Yet this is exactly the feat undertaken within the new book The Harper Factor. Co-editors Jennifer Ditchburn and Graham Fox recently addressed audiences at Carleton University and explained that understanding the past is essential to directing our future. They asserted that, love him or hate him, Harper's tenure oversaw an important chapter in Canada's ongoing story and within the larger context of world history. Canadians now have a fresh opportunity to understand the impact of a man who held the nation's highest office for nearly ten years.
 
Uniquely suited to this task is Jennifer Ditchburn, an award-winning parliamentary correspondent and Editor-in-Chief of Policy Options magazine. Co-editor Graham Fox is currently president and CEO of the Institute for Research on Public Policy. Together they have assembled an impressive list of cross-partisan contributors that survey and analyze the effects Harper had on policy to reveal "the good, bad and ugly in almost every policy area." 
 
Impartiality is inconvenient for those of us who like our fish battered on one side. And let's face it, Harper left few voters indifferent. But set aside the personality of the man and the way he conducted himself in public; what then remains is the effect he left for future generations. Unfortunately, as stated in The Harper Factor , "There have been precious few analyses of [Harper's] actual impact on public policy." Ditchburn and Fox appear to be among a rare breed who demand that public policy be appraised by evidence more than partisanship. 
 
Ditchburn and Fox invited an impressive list of well-credentialed contributors from academia, government, business, media and the non-profit sector to answer the question: What impact did Stephen Harper have on public policy now and for future generations? Each chapter discusses the lasting effect Harper had on national defence; health care; international policy; immigration; law and order; and journalism, to list some topics. 
 
Following Ditchburn and Fox's reading, many of these issues were taken up by a panel discussion hosted by Professor Susan Harada, Associate Director of the School of Journalism at Carleton. The co-editors were joined on stage by contributing author Paul Wilson, Harper's former policy director, and Derek Antoine, PhD candidate and Instructor in Carleton's School of Journalism and Communication.   
 
The panel displayed a charming array of informed agreement and civil dissent, much to the audience's amusement. During one notable moment, Fox mused that it was difficult to discern a signature achievement of Harper worthy of future celebration. Wilson's ensuing chuckle was joined by the audience after he countered: "Well, we may indeed celebrate a balanced budget."
 
Ditchburn and Fox freely admitted that bias is nearly impossible to weed out of any intellectual endeavour, however they stringently demanded that their authors views be based on analysis, evidence, and research. To this, Professor Susan Harada remarked that, in her opinion, "That's what gives the book its heft."
 
Overall, some chapters of The Harper Factor are critical, others are more complementary of his record. While some of its authors disagree, one consensus remains: "Stephen Harper's record is decidedly more nuanced than both his admirers and his detractors will concede. [This book] is aimed at those who are genuinely curious about his impact on public policy in Canada. To echo the title, what has been the Harper Factor?"