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Former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks March 7 at Uris Hall.

Former Canadian prime minister cautions against ignoring populism

In a world teeming with trade and immigration controversy, Stephen Harper, the conservative former Canadian prime minister, urged a Cornell audience not to ignore rising populist or nationalist campaigns.

“You don’t have to agree with these populist movements,” he said. “If you think that just yelling at them, denigrating them, ridiculing them or delegitimizing them will make them go away, you’re very mistaken.

“There are very real things driving them, and if they’re not addressed in some realistic fashion … things are going to get much worse,” he said.

The former prime minister supplied a thoughtful, international perspective on an array of topics March 7 in an event at Uris Hall, hosted by the Cornell Republicans. He spoke about his book, “Right Here, Right Now: Politics and Leadership in the Age of Disruption” (Signal Books), published last fall, which outlines his thoughts on the global economic crisis a decade ago, changing politics and conservatism.

Harper engaged in a Q&A-style conversation with Michael Johns ’20, president of the Cornell Republicans; questions were solicited from students in advance and posed to Harper by Johns. The former prime minister provided reactions and replies – with a touch of humor.

Prime minister from February 2006 to November 2015, Harper noted that since he left office, Britain voted for Brexit, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders rose in the U.S. presidential primaries, and democracies faced populism, nationalism and sometimes Marxism.

“I left office in late 2015,” he quipped, “and the world went to hell in a handbasket.”

In his years as prime minister, Harper worked with leaders from around the world, including presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. “I had good relationships with them,” he said. “They are different people, different personalities, different agendas.”

While Harper is a conservative, he enjoyed working with both presidents, he said. Fundamentally Canada and the U.S. share values, security and economic interests, he said.

“I think it is important for all Americans to understand that I attended international summits of leaders from all over the world [with Bush and Obama],” he said. “[T]hey are impressive individuals, very different individuals and different in ways that people sometimes [don’t] perceive.”

Harper said that Bush is extremely outgoing and gregarious. “He came across on television as very wooden, but he could not be more different than that. He’s a very open personality,” he said. “Barack Obama is a very elegant, gracious individual – and much more cautious and much more formal. But both are very impressive.”

When asked to cite his two key achievements, Harper said founding the modern conservative party of Canada – gathering the conservative groups under one umbrella – and leading Canada through the global financial crisis of 2008 and expanding Canadian trade.

Johns, reading a question from an audience member, reminded the prime minister that he once called himself a “libertarian-conservative.” Along with the United States, Canada helped to bail out General Motors and Chrysler in 2008. As a libertarian, Harper was asked, how do you justify bailing out those two large automakers during the economic crisis in 2008?

“I used the term libertarian-conservative [to describe myself], but I never considered myself a pure libertarian – for all kinds of reasons. Unlike most libertarians, I’m actually an economist,” he said. “The real market economy doesn’t work how most libertarians say it works.”

Harper covered a wide range of topics, including trade with China, Cuba-U.S. relations, and the conflict between India and Pakistan. He ended by supplying advice for college students ready to face the world of employment: “Find things you’re passionate about and pursue them. If you [do], you’ll work hard and be successful.”

Media Contact

Gillian Smith