Does Harper have a plan?

WELLS & COYNE debate Stephen Harper’s political record, and how the PM will go down in history
Paul Wells and Andrew Coyne

Sean Kilpatrick/CP/ Chris Wattie/Reuters

On Oct. 13, Maclean’s will present a round-table discussion on “Canada’s Conservative Government: Radical Change or Driftat Vancouver’s Norman Rothstein Theatre. The debate will be broadcast live on CPAC, and feature Monte Solberg, a former Conservative party cabinet minister, Deborah Grey, the Reform party’s first elected member of Parliament, and Michael Byers, a professor and Canada Research Chair at the University of British Columbia. The event will be moderated by CPAC’s Peter Van Dusen, and include Maclean’s columnists Paul Wells and Andrew Coyne. This week, Wells and Coyne kick things off.

Paul Wells: Andrew, if he lasts in office long enough to sit beside Jim Flaherty for next February’s budget speech, Stephen Harper will by then have been Prime Minister for longer than Lester Pearson was. And if he’s still Prime Minister at the end of 2011, he’ll have passed Diefenbaker. Already, at the not-quite-five-year mark, it is fair to note that Harper has held the job for a significant portion of our nation’s history, and to pause to take stock. That’s what we’ll do with our guests in Vancouver on Oct. 13.

The question is whether his longevity is his biggest achievement or whether he has done something with that time. I tend to the latter view. I think Stephen Harper is becoming a significant Prime Minister. He’s made modest but real policy changes; he’s forestalled change of the sort a Liberal government would have implemented; and he’s changed the political culture of the country.

One excellent way to miss all of this is to use total government spending as your yardstick. It’s gone up under the Conservatives, so they’re not conservative, right? Sure, if you like. But in the meantime the Harper Conservatives have replaced Paul Martin’s fledgling national daycare system with the $100-per-child monthly child-care cheques, a $2.1-billion shift from institutions of state to individuals. And they sharply increased transfers to the provinces (“fixing” the “fiscal imbalance”), a radically decentralizing move I’m surprised you haven’t complained about more.

Meanwhile the Insite safe-injection drug facility in Vancouver must fight Harper all the way to the Supreme Court to survive. As health minister, Ken Dryden would have installed a dozen more safe-injection sites across the country by now. The Kelowna accord on Aboriginal government would have been implemented, to the tune of billions of dollars. Executive federalism on the Liberal model—an obstinate federal government forcing provinces to coordinate and report to citizens on social policy in return for new transfers—has essentially disappeared, and you can’t find Harper’s intergovernmental affairs minister with bloodhounds. I like some of these moves and not others, but it’s hard not to notice that they happened.

Finally, Harper’s longevity is an achievement, because he has done it by deepening his appeal to a hardy base of just under one-third of the population. The very demographic groups that felt Ottawa’s power corridors were not for people like them are the ones that now support Harper most ardently. That’s why, when professional associations and university faculty clubs denounce something Harper has done, he is so sanguine: he draws his support elsewhere, and that support doesn’t much care what you or I say; they are quite sure Harper is their man.

Andrew Coyne: Paul, you make a strong case for a weak client, but that’s still a pretty thin list: a couple of ditched Liberal campaign promises from 2006, plus a probably doomed legal fight against a Vancouver safe-injection site. This is what they have to show for nearly five years in office? (As an aside, they didn’t actually end federal support for “government-run” daycare. Budget documents brag of transferring $1.1 billion annually to the provinces for child care and other early childhood programs, including “the creation of new child care spaces.”)

I note you did not include a more recent Liberal promise on the list of Tory kills: the carbon tax. Rightly so: the Conservative alternative—a mishmash of carbon-trading, regulation, and subsidy—was just as costly, twice as complex, and half as effective. Liberals boasted of how market-friendly their plan was; Conservatives, how interventionist theirs was.

Still, that remains your best argument—all the things they didn’t do, the Liberal policies they didn’t enact, what might be called “significance by omission.” Because when it comes to actual policy departures, there just isn’t all that much: certainly nothing resembling an identifiably conservative agenda—or an agenda, period. Granted, a minority Parliament imposes certain constraints. But the Conservatives have not noticeably been tugging on the leash. If anything, they’ve been pulling the opposite way, as seen in the vast expansion of federal spending on their watch: more than 40 per cent in just five budgets.

You dismiss this as more or less irrelevant, but I can’t see how. The central question of modern politics, after all, is the size and scope of government. Spending is not just a measure of that, it is the determinant: without the funds, governments cannot do any of the other things that divide left and right. So it is hardly a footnote that, over the past five years, the Tories have spent some $112 billion more than was required to keep pace with inflation and population growth. (True, a chunk of that has gone to the provinces, but that’s hardly a point in the conservative column: the conservatives I know want to abolish federal-provincial transfers.)

Let’s turn things around. Suppose it were put to the Liberals: okay, we’ll let you keep Insite and the Kelowna accord, in exchange for cutting spending by $112 billion. Think they’d take that deal?

PW: Andrew, this might be a good time to point out that I’m not trying to argue that Harper’s government is wonderful, or that it’s my kind of bunch; if I were running the country I too would want it to stay out of deficit more often. I’m trying only to argue that Harper’s government matters to the direction of the country, and if fiscal balance were my only measure of significance, I’d need to write off Ronald Reagan, who tripled his country’s national debt, and Dick Cheney, who said deficits don’t matter, as insignificant.

The structure of spending matters too: the fact, for instance, that provincial revenues, including transfers from Ottawa, are wildly higher than federal revenues. That’s the kind of change you used to argue against when less of it had happened.

Sweeping change stirs the imagination, but it’s easy enough to undo. What remains of Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution? Not a lot, because Ontario’s political culture permitted the election of Dalton McGuinty’s government, which has undone much of what Harris did. That’s why Harper’s work on Canada’s political culture—the legitimization of the Conservative party as a voting option among large numbers of new Canadians, the very pronounced tilt toward Israel in the Middle East, the transformation of Canada’s three largest cities from centres of power to centres of opposition—also matters. It suggests his legacy will endure.

AC: Paul, anybody who stays in office long enough will inevitably produce some kind of legacy. That’s a given. The question is, what kind: does it add up to anything beyond a random assortment of tactical feints, impulse purchases, and settled scores?

We’ve talked about some of the things they haven’t done. Let’s talk about some more: like cut personal income taxes, control spending, balance the budget, shut the pork barrel, reform EI, restore local democracy, give MPs more independence, allow referendums on important issues . . . all these and more, bedrock party principle before they took office, all tossed aside since. Change Canada’s political culture? I’d say the culture has changed them.

You say fiscal or economic or democratic conservatism are not the only measures of the government’s record. But if anything they’ve given social conservatives even less, beyond the failed attempt to abolish the gun registry. Certainly on the one issue that matters most to so-cons, abortion, the Conservatives have not only done nothing, but are forbidden even to discuss the issue.

And while the list of discarded convictions (Afghanistan, Quebec) and broken promises (income trusts, fixed election dates) is a long one, what’s truly disquieting is the sheer incoherence of the government’s agenda, not just year to year, but week to week, even day to day. They just seem to stumble aimlessly from one needless controversy to the next. Prorogation? The national anthem? The census?

Sure, it would be nice if there were one marginally conservative party on the political menu, just for variety’s sake. But failing that, mere competence—stability, predictability, internal consistency—would do.

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