When Peter MacKay won the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party in 2003, he did so in part with the support of David Orchard, a staunch traditional Tory, with promises to re-examine the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and to reject merger talks with the Canadian Alliance. Within weeks of gaining the leadership, however, MacKay began secret discussions with Harper on a merger of the two conservative parties. These talks resulted in an announcement on 16 October by the two leaders that an agreement in principle had been reached on a merger. The merger agreement was ratified overwhelmingly in December 2003 by separate votes by the memberships of both parties.
The merger was bitterly opposed in some quarters, especially among traditional conservatives. The same day as the merger was announced, 8 Dec 2003, Joe Clark and two other Progressive Conservative MPs left the party. Other MPs and supporters soon joined them, believing the merger was less a coming together of equals and rather a takeover by the Canadian Alliance. The decision to drop the term "Progressive" from the party name was viewed as more than symbolic; instead, it seemed an indication of a social conservative strain running through the Alliance. Indeed, the new Conservative Party seemed to many more like the American Republican Party than the traditional Tory Party.
Harper won the leadership of the Conservative Party on 20 Mar 2004, defeating Tony Clement, a former Ontario Cabinet minister, and Belinda Stronach, head of Magna Corporation. Weeks later, Harper and his newly minted party found itself in a federal election. Despite a buoyant economy, the governing LIBERAL PARTY, headed by Paul MARTIN, was immensely unpopular in many areas of Canada, being viewed as corrupt and untrustworthy. Harper's Conservatives hoped to harness this discontent to their advantage, and for a time seemed successful. Heading into the last couple of weeks of the campaign, several polls showed the Conservatives on the verge of forming a minority government. However, the loose comments of some Conservative candidates in the last days of the campaign (compulsory abortion counselling, ending support for minority language programs, and using the notwithstanding clause to restrict Charter rights) raised concerns the party had a hidden agenda on social issues. Harper's own comments the year previous in support of the unpopular Iraq war also raised fears a Conservative government might align Canada too closely with the United States on foreign policy. Many Canadians also viewed Harper's Conservatives as wanting to allow a parallel private health care system in Canada.
The election of 28 Jun 2004 saw the Conservative Party take 99 seats and nearly 30% of the popular vote, enough to secure Official Opposition status to the once-more victorious Liberal Party. Some critics suggested the result fell short of expectations. They pointed out the percentage Conservative votes was considerably less than the Progressive Conservative Party and the Canadian Alliance had garnered in the 2000 election. Others, however, noted the new party had gained seats overall, especially in Ontario, and that Canada's right wing was now united for the first time in over a decade. From this perspective, it could be argued the party was well positioned for future elections.
The minority Liberal government struggled over the next year and a half, beset by a scandal involving the misuse of public funds. Finally, in November 2005, the Liberal government fell. Running on a platform that emphasized democratic reforms while otherwise abandoning or downplaying some of the party's more contentious policies, Harper's Conservatives emerged victorious in the 23 Jan 2006 election. The victory was tenuous, as the Conservative Party won only 124 seats within the 308-seat House of Commons. (The number of Conservative seats increased to 125 two weeks later when a former Liberal Cabinet minister crossed the floor.) Nonetheless, many observers viewed the election results as significant, signalling a long-term shift in political power in Canada to the western provinces, especially the prosperous province of Alberta, Harper's electoral home. Harper was sworn in as Canada's 22nd prime minister on 6 Feb 2006. He immediately chose his Cabinet of 27 ministers, significantly fewer than the 38 positions held by the Liberal government, and did not appoint a deputy prime minister.
Harper's government quickly passed several measures, most notably a decrease in the Goods and Services Tax from 7 percent to 6 percent, then later to 5 percent. The government also quickly made good on promises to allow the GUN CONTROL registry to become moribund, to scuttle Canada's support for the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, to cancel the Kelowna Accord dealing with Aboriginal issues, and to pursue SENATE reform. The Harper government also passed Bill C-16, which fixed election dates, ostensibly preventing a government from going to the polls at its own discretion.
Beyond these immediate measures, the Harper government's performance over the next 2 years faced increasing criticism. The party was criticized for being highly confrontational and partisan in dealing with other parties in the House of Commons, and secretive and controlling in its dealings with the media and public. Some noted the increased centralization of power within the prime ministerial office. The government faced further criticism in the spring of 2007 when a document was revealed that instructed Conservative MPs on how to impede all-party committees from doing their mandated jobs.
At the same time, the Harper government successfully managed to push through certain policies, most notably gaining parliamentary support for continued Canadian involvement in the increasingly controversial AFGHANISTAN mission.
In the summer of 2008, flush with financial contributions and facing a weakened Liberal Party headed by Stéphane DION, the Conservative Party believed that the time was right to go to the polls. The party ignored its own bill on parliamentary dissolution, arguing that Parliament had become "dysfunctional." An election was called for 14 Oct 2008.
For a time during the election, it appeared that Harper's Conservatives would obtain a much sought-after majority. However, a backlash in Québec over cuts to arts programs damaged hopes of a breakthrough in that province.
The election was further marked by a sudden escalation of the financial crisis that had been spreading throughout the world since 2007. In this context, the question of who might best manage the economy became central.
In an election marred by the lowest turnout in Canadian electoral history, the Conservative Party was elected again, with a second minority. Although it lost votes, it marginally increased its percentage of votes overall by comparison with the other parties, and increased its seat total to 143.
Heading into its second straight term, the Conservative Party initially promised a new spirit of cooperation with the other parties to deal with the escalating economic crisis engulfing the world and Canada. The government's fiscal update, presented to the House of Commons on 27 Nov 2008, was rejected by the other parties who viewed the Conservatives' response to the emerging economic crisis as inadequate. The Liberals and NEW DEMOCRATS signed an accord to form a minority coalition government with the Bloc Québécois agreeing to not vote against the coalition on a matter of confidence for a period of two years. The idea of a Liberal-NDP coalition was immediately applauded and denounced throughout Canada, raising also the spectre of a constitutional crisis.
Panicked by this abrupt turn of events, the Conservative government asked Governor General Michaëlle Jean to prorogue Parliament. Prorogation was granted on December 4. By the time Parliament reconvened in late January 2009, the public mood had shifted strongly in support of the Conservatives, especially in English-speaking Canada. Lacking political support, and perhaps will, the Liberal Party stepped back from its coalition bid. Its leader, Stéphane Dion, resigned and was soon replaced by Michael IGNATIEFF. The Conservatives had weathered the coalition storm.
The threat caused the Conservative government to change direction on the economy, however. With the economy worsening in the United States and elsewhere, and its effects now washing across the Canadian border, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced the introduction of a program of economic stimulus to combat the recessionary slowdown. Termed "Canada's Economic Action Plan," the plan also soon proved a stimulus to Conservative fortunes as the government could claim credit for the mild upturn in the economy that occurred over the following two years.
In other policy areas, the Conservative government continued to advance "tough on crime" measures, increased military expenditures, and targeted tax breaks. Opposition critics condemned these policies as fiscally unsound and designed primarily to garner political support, but these concerns found little resonance with the Canadian people.
Rather, the greater concern expressed regarding the Conservative government proved to be less its policies than its manner of governance, viewed by many as authoritarian, partisan, and intensely secretive. The public's more general concerns regarding Canadian democracy were reinforced in late 2009 when Prime Minister Harper once more advised the Governor General to prorogue Parliament for the period 30 Dec 2009 until 3 Mar 2010. As stated by the government, the purpose of recessing Parliament was the XXI Olympic Winter Games, held in Vancouver, but opposition MPs argued that prorogation was in fact meant to avoid troubling questions about the treatment of Afghan detainees.
The parliamentary session that followed was short and largely uneventful. In June, however, the government made the controversial decision to make voluntary completion of the long form CENSUS. The decision was widely criticized not only by other political parties but by a wide swath of corporate, union, and non-profit groups as well as academics. The decision led to the public resignation of Statistics Canada's director.
Internationally, the Conservative government slowly moved away from its hawkish stance on Afghanistan towards a more familiar Canadian position of social and economic development. A withdrawal of Canadian combat troops from Afghanistan by June 2011 was also enacted.
The government took controversial stands on a number of international issues, such as support for Israel that some viewed as at odds with Canada's tradition as an "honest broker" in the region. The Conservative government's opposition to measures to deal with climate change and the de-funding of agencies whose family planning initiatives included the right to abortion also brought criticism. In the fall of 2010, Canada lost its bid for a seat on the United Nations' Security Council. Critics charged that this was the result of Canada being increasingly offside with many underdeveloped countries. Conservative supporters, however, claimed that Canada was standing up for firm principles and that loss of the seat was not a reflection on the government.
Partly out of fearing to cause an election, for which they were unprepared, and partly out of agreement with Conservative policies, Canada's opposition parties during the period after the 2008 election often went along or at least did not oppose the government. There was much sabre rattling, but each threat of bringing down the government soon evaporated.
By the spring of 2011, however, the Parliament was at an end. The opposition parties felt they could no longer support the government and still save face; the governing Conservatives believed that an election might at last bring them a majority. The defeat of the government's budget on 25 Mar 2011 paved the way for the election that followed.
The 2011 election proved surprising in many respects. Going into the election, many expected a minority Conservative government once more. Harper's Conservatives campaigned on a platform of economic stability in uncertain times. While some viewed the campaign as lacklustre, it was effective in controlling messaging and avoiding any major gaffes.
Liberal leader Ignatieff carried on a very traditional campaign of town hall meetings which initially appeared effective in countering an unrelenting barrage of Conservative attack ads questioning his patriotism, which he had faced since becoming leader two years earlier. But a poor performance in the televised leaders' debates, combined with his party's dismal fundraising and acute failures in articulating a distinct set of policies, steadily diminished Liberal support as the election wore on.
Still, no one could have predicted the Liberal Party's widespread collapse nor that of the Bloc Québécois in its home province. While the New Democratic Party led by Jack LAYTON was the prime beneficiary of the latter's difficulties, the Conservative Party proved the overall beneficiary of the changed political scene. When the votes were tallied on 2 May 2011, the Conservative Party had emerged with its long-sought majority, taking 166 seats and nearly 40 percent of the vote. The NDP became the Official Opposition with 103 seats (31 percent), while the Liberal Party was reduced to 34 seats (nearly 19 percent) and the Bloc 4 seats (6 percent). The Green Party elected its first and only member, leader Elizabeth MAY.
The government's Throne Speech, delivered on 3 Jun, offered little that was surprising. Promises included Senate reform, abolishment of per-vote subsidies, the end of the long gun registry and the Canadian Wheat Board's single desk selling, continued support for the military, and harsher prison sentences.
The government faced immediate opposition to several of these initiatives, most surprisingly from many Conservative Senators appointed by the prime minister who questioned the efficacy and legitimacy of Senate reform. With a new majority under his belt, Prime Minister Harper appeared in good position to advance the cause of embedding conservative principles and policies at the heart of Canada's political system.