The damage done by doing so little

Andrew Coyne argues that the Conservatives’ drive to stay in power imperils the state of politics itself
The damage done by doing so little
Photograph by Ian Barrett

Most of our prime ministers have been scoundrels: the successful ones, almost exclusively. They say Arthur Meighen was quite a stand-up guy. Alexander Mackenzie, the same. Possibly John Turner or Kim Campbell or Joe Clark might have proved brave and principled leaders, given time. But that’s the thing: they weren’t given time, dispatched instead at the first opportunity by their more unscrupulous rivals. Whether of necessity or simply tradition, in Canadian politics, nice guys really do finish last.

So if the past five years seem a peculiarly ugly, depressing episode in our nation’s political history, it is not because Stephen Harper is unusually unencumbered by principle. Rather, it is the absence of compensating achievement that distinguishes his tenure—if by achievement you mean something more than simply holding onto power. Scoundrels our past prime ministers may have been, but scoundrels with a purpose. Harper’s record, by contrast, is rare in its combination of longevity and vapidity. Seldom has a government lasted so long that did so little.


Let us dispense at the outset with some of the more common critiques. It is not true, as the Liberals claim, that the Harper years have been marked by an unending decline in living standards and rising unemployment—or, to the extent either is true, that a massive worldwide recession could be laid at the feet of the government of Canada. To the contrary, the recession here has been notably less severe than in virtually any other developed country, which if you follow the Liberals’ logic should be accounted to the government’s credit.

Neither is it true, as critics further left complain, that the Harper government has been pursuing a hard-right agenda, for which such apparent contradictions as massive, multi-year deficits have offered a smokescreen. Much of the evidence presented to that effect—a modest military buildup, a tilting back toward Israel—began under the Liberal government of Paul Martin. Much else—the crime bills, the corporate tax cuts, the purchase of expensive fighter jets—has had the support of the current Liberal party, though it pleases them just now to pretend otherwise.

The rest are largely symbolic baubles, neither significant nor particularly “right wing,” except to the hard left and, oddly, the hard right, each of whom has its own reasons to exaggerate their importance. We will not spend money to promote abortion in the Third World? You don’t say. Meanwhile, we remain the only country in the developed world with no abortion law of any kind, with the firm blessing of the Prime Minister. The gun registry is a similarly overblown example.

No, if there is anything that has been a constant of this Conservative government, literally from the day it took office, it has been not ideology and conviction, nor even ruthlessness and cunning, but aimlessness and confusion—at best, as in the Quebec “nation” resolution or the multiple about-faces on Afghanistan, tactical victories won at the expense of longer-term strategic objectives; at worst, as in the national anthem and long-form census debacles, sheer amateurism. And as long as we are dispensing with undeserved criticisms, let us also dispense with some of the government’s flimsier defences.

It is not correct, or not enough, to blame the Harper government’s evident lack of ambition or consistency on the difficulties of navigating a Parliament in which it holds only a minority of the seats. One need not even invoke here the example of Lester Pearson’s incomparably greater achievements in his own five years at the helm of a minority government, which after all had a more natural ally in the NDP. The current parliamentary lineup would certainly place limits on the government’s ability to implement its program: it does not explain why it has none. Any government in the same situation would find itself obliged to adopt an incrementalist, step-by-step approach. It would not, as the present government has done, pursue policies that were diametrically opposed to those on which it was elected, or to its own long-professed principles. That is, if it stood for anything other than, as the Prime Minister said the other day, “power for its own sake.”

Put this to Tory partisans, and they grow impatient. It is not that we have abandoned our principles to hold onto office, they will say, in a tone of wounded dignity. Not at all. It is merely that we have altered our convictions to stay in government. Different thing altogether. But you can only buy this the-Liberals-made-us-do-it defence if you have first absorbed its underlying premise: that it is a far, far better thing to remain in power, at whatever cost in principle, than it is to go down to defeat in defence of those principles. Which is as close a statement of “power for its own sake” as it is possible to make.

And this is the greatest damage done by five years of Harper government. It has not been a bad government, in the conventional sense. After all, as the government’s defenders will say, look at all the things it has not done. It has not lined its own pockets. It has not embroiled the country in a major constitutional crisis. It has not yet produced a billion-dollar boondoggle, at least as the auditor general might define it, which is to say a program so entirely out of control it does not even follow its own terms of reference. And of course, it has not done some of the dodgier things a Liberal government might have done, such as implement a national, government-funded daycare program (though it is still transferring over a billion dollars a year to the provinces to run their own).

More to its credit, the government can claim some successes of its own. If it did not invent the idea of cutting corporate tax rates, it has at least been steadfast in its pursuit. The tax-prepaid savings plans introduced in the 2007 budget were a useful innovation, as are the pooled individual pension plans, lately proposed in place of expanding the CPP. Tariffs on manufacturers’ inputs have been abolished, unilaterally, a first in any major advanced economy. And while free trade with Europe or a national securities regulator remain to be achieved, they at least show signs of vision.

The government’s approach to the recession is its most divided legacy. On the one hand, its handling of the immediate financial crisis, in collaboration with the Bank of Canada, was exemplary. The measures taken—insuring inter-bank lending, at a fee no one would wish to pay; taking long-term mortgage assets off the banks’ books in exchange for short-term treasury bills—did just enough to allay market concerns, without doing so much as to excite new ones. On the other hand, we now have another $150 billion in new debt on the public books: the price of the government’s desire to remain in power, after its political misjudgments in the winter of 2008.

The decision to plunge the country back into deficit, against decades of Reform and Conservative doctrine, was only the most glaring of the government’s many flip-flops, broken promises, and discarded convictions. By now these are a familiar litany: income trusts, Senate appointments, the Afghanistan cut-and-run, the Potash decision, the pandering to Quebec nationalism, the rampant pork-barrelling under the “stimulus” program, the rubbishing of its own fixed-term election law, and on and on. On some issues, such as how to reduce carbon emissions, the Conservatives have popped up to the left of the Liberals: where the Grits proposed the carbon tax favoured by most economists, the Tories boasted of their commitment to command-and-control regulations.

In place of ideology, we have been given partisanship of the most thuggish, obtuse kind, combining vicious attacks on their opponents with robotic repetition of the party line. And as the new dogma of pragma must be enforced as rigidly as any ideology, so the Conservative party, once the party of democratic reform, has given itself up to absolute control from the top—a culture of autocracy also visited upon senior bureaucrats, officers of Parliament, and in the matter of the Afghan documents, Parliament itself.


What has been damaged, if not destroyed, by this endless barrage of opportunistic behaviour is not only conservatism: it is politics itself. To be sure, the Tories have done their best to place off limits such bedrock conservative principles as cutting subsidies, privatization or deregulation. After all, if “even” the right-wing Tories would not go near these, they must surely be beyond the pale. But much worse is the resulting collapse of a politics of consequence.

There is no tension in Canadian politics, no shape or boundaries to it. Other governments, at other times and in other countries, have made decisions for political reasons, sometimes base ones. But they were constrained in this regard by other imperatives: the need to hold their cabinet together, or their caucus, or their base, or at any rate their dignity. There were consequences, in other words, and as such there were limits. But such is the insouciance, not to say eagerness, with which the Harper government has shrugged off its previous positions, and such is the leeway granted it by a Conservative party desperate for the spoils of undivided power, that all such reference points have vanished.

Five years after it took office, it is literally impossible to predict with any certainty what this government will do on any given issue. That, I suppose, is its record.