Stephen Harper has vanished. Where is he? Does he have anything to contribute?

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Stephen Harper has vanished from sight in the past six months, but his Where’s Waldo status may be about to change. Harper will address the Conservative convention in Vancouver later this month. Recently he also spoke to Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson and other Republican super donors about how fractured political parties can unite.

In Canada, Harper last spoke publicly on October 19 when he conceded defeat in the 2015 federal election. He resigned almost immediately as Conservative leader but remains an MP for the riding of Calgary Heritage. He receives a salary of $167,400 but could collect considerably more in pension each year if he resigned his seat.

His seat is empty

He has not spoken in the House of Commons for almost a year. These days his seat on the Conservative front benches is usually empty, although he does slip into the House for a majority of the votes. (There is no sure way to determine if any MP is in the House on any given day, an obstruction which defies the concept of open government – but that’s another story).

Harper maintains a tiny constituency office in Calgary, but there are few signs of activity at the location. He has attended luncheons at both the Ranchmen’s Club and the Calgary Petroleum Club, so his Alberta establishment credentials appear to be solid.

Keeping a low profile

A fellow Canadian vacationer in Las Vegas this winter recognized Harper, wearing an untucked shirt and with a baseball cap pulled low over his forehead. They had a chat about hockey. Harper was also sighted in Florida, once again wearing the ball cap.

Why is he keeping such a low profile? Given his past behaviour, he could be in a funk, but more charitably he may want to avoid being a distraction to interim leader Rona Ambrose and the Conservative caucus. Who can forget John Diefenbaker’s decision to hang around and torment his successors Robert Stanfield and Joe Clark for 16 years after being forced out as Conservative leader?

Harper, of course, had a frenetic job for almost 10 years as prime minister and he became unemployed in a most public way. It’s not surprising that he might take some months to unwind and to contemplate his future. What might that future be?

Following his passion — if any

He has a Master’s degree in economics from the University of Calgary, where he shared with his crusty peers a zeal for neo-conservativism. However, classroom teaching and faculty meetings may not appeal to him.

Harper could follow the example of Brian Mulroney, who sits on a number of well-compensated corporate boards, or of Jean Chrétien, who is a high income earner as counsel for a big law firm. However, those who know Harper say that money is not a big motivator for him. Does he, then, have a noble cause which he wants to champion?

Former Prime Minister Paul Martin has devoted much of his recent time and energy toward improving education for Indigenous children. In another jurisdiction, Jimmy Carter spent his post-presidential years writing elucidating books, working as a negotiator to resolve conflicts and helping Habitat for Humanity build houses. Surely Mr. Harper has a passion to do more than offer advice to wealthy American Republicans.

This piece appeared in slightly briefer form on the United Church Observer website on May 12, 2016.

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