What to watch for under Harper majority
In the aftermath of the federal election last week, many are asking what Stephen Harper will do when he takes his long awaited and much-craved majority for a test drive. He has an opportunity to frame a sensible medium-term agenda. But will he blow the chance? Many Ottawa-watchers are seized with precisely that question, but no one has a clear idea. The uncertainty amongst “insiders” in the capital is palpable -- an odd state of affairs given the Tory majority.
My guess is that he’ll move quickly to implement the measures he unequivocally stated he would do. The Conservatives will reintroduce some of its signature initiatives such as its “tough-on-crime” agenda, and the oddly contradictory abolishment of the long-gun registry. They will introduce legislation to end pay equity in federally regulated institutions and eliminate subsidies to political parties. Doing this quickly will be a nod to his base and caucus for their loyalty. It will also solidify the Conservative lock on party fundraising, leaving the other parties eating their dust for the foreseeable future.
The Harper Conservatives will not deviate much from its governing philosophy of “gradual incrementalism”, a baby-step approach to reframing government and Canada in its image. Mr. Harper is not a bold, broad sweep kind of guy. He is after all, the son of an accountant. He is also undeniably a hugely successful career political tactician. What Harper has accomplished in ten years is nothing short of remarkable. From forming a protest party that was a regional rump, to uniting the divided right, to destroying his life-long archenemy, the Liberal Party, Mr. Harper has proven to be a formidable political chess master.
That the last thing he wants to do is fool around with his winning formula. There can be no dispute that it has worked for him and his Conservatives. That is one of the reasons why very surprising for Mr. Harper to become the champion of “openness, accountability, and transparency” as he was when in opposition. Being just the opposite has served him well, although the same cannot be said for Canadian democracy. We will see other moves that satisfy the base such the introduction of Senate term limits, and provincial elections for senators. But by their very nature, both of those would have no constitutional standing since Senate reform, something Harper has long promised, requires an amendment to the Constitution. So, it will be smoke and mirrors, much like his fixed election date law that he then broke to call an “unnecessary election” in 2008.
I don’t expect the conduct of foreign policy to be much different, either. The Conservative support for Israel will not waver, which means that Canada will not have a balanced policy in the Middle East. The government will move aggressively on major files such as negotiations with the United States on establishing the “security perimeter” and a new trade agreement with the European Union. I do expect Harper to find a way to distance himself from with the acquisition of the $30 billion fighter jet contract. He has to given the wild cost overruns and questionable performance merits of this aircraft.
I’ll be watching for what role Ottawa plays in the support for the proposed Enbridge pipeline between Alberta and Kitimat, and the revised Prosperity Mine project.
Closely linked to both is what the Conservatives plans will be on national environmental policy and our role in future international climate change discussions. On these, my bet is that they’ll stay on the course they’ve laid, which is not much.
Of concern to me are appointments to the bench, particularly the Supreme Court of Canada. Several vacancies will come up. Conservatives of the small ‘c’ variety have never much liked the Canada Act of 1982, and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, in particular. They have also seethed at the “liberal” interpretation of the Charter by justices appointed by Trudeau, Mulroney and Chretien. I’ll be watching for Harper to name to the bench people who have a decidedly firm view on “judicial restraint” with respect to Charter rights. Also look for human rights tribunals to be wound down. That, too, is red meat for Conservatives.
In the next four years, Mr. Harper will have some major files to deal with. He has already promised to give provinces more for health care. At the same time, he will be under enormous pressure to do something about making the system more efficient and accessible. Wait times are getting longer and there is a shortage of doctors and nurses.
Contrary to what Mr. Harper has been telling Canadians, our national fiscal situation is far from healthy. The federal debt recently hit $570 billion, a new record. And when the accumulated deficits of Ottawa and the provinces are combined, the picture is much worse. The federal deficit, by any objective measure, is now structural. That’s because, much like their Republican cousins in the U.S., Harper’s Conservatives talk a good fiscal responsibility game but they don’t deliver. Something has to give. So, watch for major cuts, most likely in places where they have nothing to lose politically such as public service pensions, and perhaps the CBC. The federal finance department has also undertaken a review of the entire basket of Crown Corporations. There are many that have no logical public policy rationale. We can expect that the Conservatives will privatize a handful, much like the Mulroney government did in the 1980’s.
I don’t expect the Harper Conservatives to embark upon an ambitious agenda to fulfill an obligation to its social conservative base. They know that is too fraught with political risk. However, we should brace ourselves for four years of more divisive wedge politics and an increasing polarization of our body politic. Like the Tea Party, that is to their strategic advantage.
All in all, I think Mr. Harper will not surprise us much. It will be more of the same political management -– as opposed to national leadership -- with an eye firmly on securing another majority mandate by 2015. With a terribly weak opposition, Mr. Harper has a lot of flexibility to do appease his base and continue firmly on a numbing path of “gradual incrementalism”.