Don Martin: The lingering clout of Stephen Harper gets a leadership test
OTTAWA -- The longer he’s not prime minister, the more interesting and influential Stephen Harper becomes.
This week saw a flurry of headlines breathlessly covering his comments on Iran, which would-be Conservative leadership bid he will endorse and his resignation from the party’s fundraising arm to work at preventing another candidate from getting his old job.
Harper has evolved into an extraordinary combination of elder statesman influence outside Canada while continuing to flex considerable muscle within the party he co-founded with current hopeful Peter MacKay in 2003.
To believe or perceive that Harper’s endorsement will carry a winning campaign across the finish line clearly shows the party faithful still respect the judgment of a leader who lost to sunny-ways, deficit-bloating Justin Trudeau in 2015.
And at a time when Canada appears increasingly isolated on the world stage, a Harper who had never set foot outside North America 20 years ago is now a globe-trotting, first-class flying, red-carpet-welcomed guest wherever he accepts a lucrative speaking or consulting gig.
All this while avoiding the media limelight where his contempt-laden disdain for journalists has only festered with time and, ironically, made him even more coverage-worthy.
Not that his record in the political afterlife isn’t without blemish.
He was in regular contact with Andrew Scheer, where either his advice was bad or ignored as controversies erupted around the nearly departed leader.
But it’s still a testament to the former prime minister that, love or loath his record, he’s more welcome around the world than the current prime minister, particularly in India, Israel and throughout the United States.
He’s a powerful background force in Alberta, where understudy Jason Kenney is now premier.
His views were so respected in Saskatchewan, the government ignored the queasy optics and hired him as a consultant.
Behind the scenes, the growing staff at Harper and Associates have no trouble keeping the man and the brand busy, even as he moves into an Alberta foothills mansion, designed by wife Laureen, which befits someone pocketing more in an hour-long speech than the average Canadian earns in a year.
There’s no one who has ever left the title under an electoral cloud who has done political retirement any better, except for perhaps Brian Mulroney.
Interestingly, the Conservative leadership race now heating up will feature a subplot showdown between these two titans of former prime ministerial alumni.
While Harper is expected to bless the campaigns of MP Pierre Poilievre and Peter MacKay, Mulroney is working hard for Jean Charest, the one candidate Harper is reportedly anxious to defeat.
In a way, the leadership race is also a contest to crown the most powerful elder statesman of conservative politics in Canada today.
Put your money on Harper.