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Canada Politics: Stephen Harper’s Troubling Overton Victory

Updated on October 6, 2015

Harper and the Overton Window

Stephen Harper has accomplished much during his almost a decade long tenure as Prime Minister. Whether you disagree with his policies or not, his success is undeniable; from focusing the economy on the energy sector to tough on crime and fighting face veiling. The singular issues fall to the wayside however when you consider the entirety of how he’s managed to shift the face of Canadian politics Rightwards.


In politics there is a concept named the overton window wherein it is argued that there is a window of publically acceptable political beliefs on the Left-Right spectrum that leaders generally must follow. One way to develop an understanding of this spectrum is to visualize a line stretching horizontally and divided by Left, Right and the center indicated.

Left-Right spectrum.
Left-Right spectrum.

Now to better understand the overton window imagine there is an envelopment around the line which indicates the degrees of acceptable ideology in public policy.

The Overton Window.
The Overton Window.

Stephen Harper has shifted this window sharply to Right by aggressively forcing through Reformist-like legislation and ignoring the following dissent long enough to make their policies part of the political fabric - ex. omnibus bills. Effectively, the same above images still apply after this Rightward shift as a center still exists and there remain both Left and Right leaning policies in relation to this center. However, what has actually happened is that the center has moved Rightwards and has taken a more conservative shape.

Overton Window's rightward shift.
Overton Window's rightward shift.

The Changed Political Fabric

Stephen Harper has left the politics of the Canadian Left crippled and secured the position of what is now Right of center ideology in the country. Even after he’s Left 24 Sussex this will ensure that the Reformist wing of his party will still have a place in Canadian politics as their policies are more politically viable than ever.


For an example of how this is manifested in Canadian political policy look no further than this latest 2015 election. The New Democrats, nominally the Left-wing party of Canada, has shifted firmly to a centrist position in policy including promising a balanced budget as a deadrock and only moderate increases in the lowest corporate tax rate in the industrialized world. Justin Trudeau’s Liberal’s, hailed as having outflanked the NDP to the Left, have campaigned on a platform which for all intents and purposes is not particularly Leftwing at all. The most ‘shocking’ element of their platform (running government on deficits of about 10b dollars a year to invest in infrastructure) would not be so radical had this election taken place even ten years ago. The other two Federally viable parties are hamstrung in their ability to support policy which is not small-c conservative and neoliberal in nature. Even from a purely pragmatic standpoint this is a huge issue; how is our government supposed to be able to effectively respond to future troubles if tools which are ideologically labeled Leftist in nature such as state interventionism and higher taxation were to be required?


It is a testament to how successful Harper has been in changing the political landscape of Canada that we consider ideas such as national daycare, national pharmacare and moderate economic stimulus to be particularly Left-wing ideals; and at the same time as all of this it is considered that Patriot Act esque Bill C-51, Citizenship revocation laws, constant political attacks on the Muslim community and muzzling of scientists are reasonable centrist positions.


Through brute force and stifling dissent within and disregarding dissent from without Stephen Harper has made Canada a more conservative country than it has ever been. It will take years to reverse this trend if it can be done at all and to do it Leftwing forces in this country will have to reorganize and successfully craft a message of political change the voters will believe in.

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