Harper’s sleepy majority

Will Prime Minister Stephen Harper proceed with promised ’major’ reforms in 2012?
Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper attends a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing December 3, 2009. REUTERS/Jason Lee (CHINA)
Harper's sleepy majority
Jason Lee/Reuters

What does Stephen Harper want to do with his parliamentary majority? “I want to make sure that we use it,” he told CTV’s Lisa LaFlamme in a year-end interview. “You know, I’ve seen too many majority governments, the bureaucracy talks them into going to sleep for three years, and then they all of a sudden realize they’re close to an election.”

Let’s see what the Prime Minister meant, if he meant much. Harper was born while John Diefenbaker was prime minister. He saw eight majority governments elected between that one and his own. History does not record much napping.

Pierre Trudeau introduced official bilingualism and multiculturalism during his first mandate, and invoked the War Measures Act to stop the October Crisis in Quebec. In his second majority, from 1974 to 1979, he introduced wage and price controls and joined the G7. During his third he won the 1980 Quebec referendum, repatriated the Constitution with a Charter of Rights, and introduced the National Energy Program.

During his first majority, Brian Mulroney negotiated the Meech Lake accord and the free trade agreement with the United States. He led the world in opposing South African apartheid and responding to famine in Ethiopia. With his second majority, Mulroney passed the first free trade deal, expanded it to Mexico, brought in the GST, fought the Charlottetown referendum and put Canada on the side of the democrats when the Eastern Bloc collapsed.

With his first majority, Jean Chrétien ended a generation of deficit spending and fought a second Quebec secession referendum. During his second mandate he passed the Clarity Act and launched a huge knowledge-economy effort: Millennium Scholarships, Canada Foundation for Innovation, Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Canada Research Chairs. His third majority featured the largest Canadian military expedition since Korea and a same-sex marriage bill.

You don’t have to like this list. I’m not saying Harper’s predecessors were heroes. I am saying they were not sleeping. If the Prime Minister’s comments have any meaning, he must have something up his sleeve at least as big as those accomplishments. If he doesn’t, he won’t be the first politician to congratulate himself for his achievements before he fails to achieve them.

His interviews suggest Harper plans something big. Four times during his CTV interview, and once with the Chinese-language Fairchild network, he used the adjective “major” to describe his plans for 2012.

“What can we do to make some major transformations so we can bring more capital into this country and have it working and creating jobs and getting better trade linkages with some of the economies that are growing?” he said. “That’s the big challenge in front of this country.”

Again, later: “There’s going to be a whole range of areas where this government’s going to be taking initiatives over the next year to secure the sustainability of our key programs. Not just in terms of reducing the deficit, but for a generation to come. And at the same time, making some major reforms in various areas so that we can continue to grow this economy and attract capital.”

What’s driving this talk? Harper mentions the demographics of an aging population, and immigration as an important response. But mostly he’s fed up with the U.S. and Europe as major trade partners. He calls Barack Obama’s chronic indecision on the Keystone pipeline “a wake-up call . . . that we’ve simply got to broaden our markets.”

One hopes he doesn’t think he’s the first Canadian leader to have this idea. Or the only world leader who has it now. Trudeau’s failed “third option,” to diversify trade away from the U.S., was launched 40 years ago. Chrétien’s first Team Canada trade mission to China was 18 years ago. How is Harper’s next trade trip to China going? Maybe not super-great. “Whenever Chinese leaders want to issue an invitation, we’ll accept it,” he told Fairchild’s Rita Giang. “So really, the ball is in their court.”

But the Chinese court is full of balls. There are no monopolies on an obvious idea. Australia, Brazil, South Africa, Russia, Mexico and dozens of smaller players are also trying to boost their trade with partners that aren’t the U.S. and the E.U.

Canada might still beat the world by being bold. It’s striking how rarely Harper sounds bold when any discussion descends from slogans to details. Take foreign policy. On Syria, he pleads the lack of a Security Council resolution. On Egypt: “We’ll try and do what we can do to encourage stability and encourage the forces of democracy, but we don’t go into these things blind. There are some very real risks.”

A policy of bold action only where success is assured is a policy of offering help where none is needed. It is a bold decision to join others’ victory parades. There is nothing major about it.

Incidentally, the bureaucrats I talk to aren’t plotting to put Harper to sleep. On the contrary. Many wonder whether this government will wake up. One of Ottawa’s most experienced civil servants tells me the widespread belief is that Harper’s government is so obsessed with each morning’s headlines that it cannot plan. This official predicts a year of high-level early retirements from the civil service if Harper does not start using his majority.

This corner offers no firm predictions. Harper will make 2012 interesting, or it will be interesting despite him.