Stephen Harper’s swan song to the Conservative party he helped found 13 years ago was a thank-you-and-goodnight speech with a call to rally behind the leader who replaces him next year.
In his first public comments since leading the party to defeat in 2015, Harper made no apology for the campaign or governing mistakes that led to the Conservatives’ loss of their grip on power to his third-party rival, Justin Trudeau.
Instead, the 57-year-old Harper took a broad look at the modern Conservative party, casting it as a key player in Canada’s history and an ongoing political force to be reckoned with. He said the Conservatives have money in the bank and a role to play, despite their critics.
Speaking to 2,200 registered delegates plus an estimated 800 party staff, convention volunteers and observers, Harper acknowledged “the election last fall did not yield the results we hoped for.”
Yet he projected an optimism many of his fellow Conservatives don’t feel in the face of high public approval ratings for Trudeau’s leadership.
Harper said that for the first time in more than 100 years, a long-serving Conservative government “even in defeat has emerged strong and united, as the one and only opposition party positioned to take government the next time round.” And, in remarks prepared in advance, he said: “In 2019, perhaps more than we understand even now, our country will need a strong, united Conservative party, ready to govern.”
He didn’t announce his formal departure date, but the race to replace Harper as leader will kick off in earnest now that he has let it be widely known he is leaving politics for good after Parliament breaks for the summer. Among those seriously weighing a bid who would benefit from caucus support is former Commons Speaker and Regina MP Andrew Scheer.
Breaking his silence after seven months, Harper reviewed the record of his government’s decade in power. He said it supported strong families, citizenship and communities, but emphasized the achievements of the past 10 years were not his alone. They required the time, money and efforts of volunteers, caucus, party staffers and national executive.
He boasted the Conservative party is still the reigning champion of fundraising, with no corporate or union donations, and no big-ticket donors, but rather the support of tens of thousands of individual donors.
He reminded the party’s rank and file that because of all that, the future for the party is bright, clearly signalling the need to rally behind the next leader, whoever he or she may be.