Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Earth is still turning

It’s been one year since Canadians tentatively gave Steve Harper a minority government. It’s been a year that has challenged our presumptions and preconceptions of Mr. Harper, but a year that hasn’t given us much more insight on who this guy really is, or how he would govern with a majority.

Clearly, the scary Steve Harper of Liberal mythology hasn’t materialized in 24 Sussex. Some may argue it lies in wait of a majority. Inarguably Harper has been moderating his agenda; the whole year has been an exercise in appealing to the middle enough to get his sacred majority.

While there have been hints of a harder Conservatism from the Harper government, from Vic Toews’ musings on kiddie jails, the government’s slashing of the Status of Women and the scrapping of the Court Challenges Program to name but a few, I don’t think the scary Steve Harper so-con of lore really exists. There are certainly many of those folks in his party, and his caucus, and how long he’ll be able to keep them placated is unclear. But I don’t think Harper
himself is a so-con, but rather a provincial rights, small government, decentralizing fiscal Conservative. Scary enough, perhaps, but abortion should be safe.

Indeed, in many areas this so-called Conservative government has been decidedly liberal, or at the very least un-Conservative. While there have been notable exceptions, Harper’s government has seemingly borrowed a few pages from the Red Tory playbook of old, perhaps the influence of Brian Mulroney and the Mulroney protégés that joined Harper’s inner circle after the 2004 election, such as Senators Hugh Segal and Marjory LeBreton.

We saw a budget that increased spending, created new programs and rather than offering simple, broad-based tax relief, created a myriad of targeted tax credits designed to appeal to specific demographic groups. Rather than the usual Conservative mantra of less red tape, the changes created a heavy burden of paperwork for taxpayers.

We also saw a Mulroney Conservative-style approach to Quebec, from shoveling the pork to recognizing nation status for the Quebecois, of the sort that made a young Steve Harper bolt the Progressive Conservatives to help found the Reform Party some 20 years ago.

We also saw a great deal of the old-style politicking that Reformer Steve used to decry, from welcoming floor crossers with cabinet posts, appointing Senators and putting them in cabinet, doling out the patronage appointments to the party faithful and putting Conservative partisans on the bench.

It all begs the question, just whom is the real Steve Harper? Has he grown and changed, or is he bidding his time?

He has certainly shown himself to be ready to adapt and compromise in recent years. He has taken to heart the political lessons handed to him during his career, particularly those of the 2004 campaign. Pragmatism has been the refrain from Conservative supporters; he’s doing what he needs to do to broaden the base and get a majority.

Harper’s recent seeming attempts to out-liberal the Liberals, including re-implementing many of former Environment Minister Stephane Dion’s green programs, have caused some observers on the right to lament the seeming death of Conservatism. I don’t know about that; I’d say it’s likely in hibernation. He does risk losing his support base though; their patience won’t be limitless.

But as this Harper government hits the one year mark the political landscape is murkier than ever. Whatever we may suspect he’d do with a majority, the Harper minority government has been decidedly and purposefully unscary; that card has been removed from the Liberal deck. But while he accomplished that, Harper can't be happy about being stalled in the polls at the one year mark. He's not gaining traction yet.

Perhaps because in his quest to not let the Liberals define him as scary Harper has failed to offer an alternative definition of himself. And indeed, many of his Conservative base seem to be wondering what happened to the Steve Harper they thought they knew.

That will be his biggest challenge for however much of a second year he has before an election. He may try to run on Liberal scandal, but Canadians will be judging the Harper Conservatives on their record in government and it’s a record that defies easy categorization.

Will they still harbor fears of Scary Steve? Will they see the moderate Steve as a true conversion of philosophy, or a pragmatic calculation by a saavy, power-hungry political operator?

Only time will tell. With a re-energized Dion-led Liberal Party and a surging Green Party though, it’s safe to say that for Harper year two will be a great deal more challenging than year one.

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Jacques Beau Vert said...

I find the "scary Harper" idea to be a really lame ad campaign brought to you by the Liberal Party. He is as scary as Ed Broadbent.

Anyone who still does believe that there's a scary monster waiting to be unleashed as soon as he wins a majority is a fool. We've had some good Prime Ministers from different parties and provinces - he's one of those.

I mean, I opposed Stockwell Day at all turns, that guy was nuts - Harper isn't Stockwell Day.

Devin Maxwell said...


Yeah. It's kind of like the "13 years of inaction and corruption" campaign...

bigcitylib said...

Not scary, just crappy. About 2/3rds of Canadians don't like his tax policy, don't like his environmental policy, don't like his child-care policy, don't like his tilt to the U.S. in foreign affairs...

Running on the slogan "minimally competent goverment on issues you don't support" will not get him a majority.

Bailey said...

I think your third paragraph really hits the nail on the head in describing Harper.

"...I don’t think the scary Steve Harper so-con of lore really exists. There are certainly many of those folks in his party, and his caucus, and how long he’ll be able to keep them placated is unclear. But I don’t think Harper himself is a so-con, but rather a provincial rights, small government, decentralizing fiscal Conservative. Scary enough, perhaps, but abortion should be safe."

I would agree with much of that and have been thinking that for a little while now.

Nice post.

Scotian said...

My problems with Harper never were rooted in the notion he was a socon (although it did worry me that many of his closest political comrades are clearly socons) but rather in his radical notions of decentralization, his belief in the American conservative concept that government is always bad and something to be reduced (whereas Canadian Conservatism was rooted in the premise of conserving the ability of the government to moderate the influence of the market economy) and his links to the Straussian political movement which was also a core teaching in the neoconservative movement and clearly linked to the foreign policy of the Cheney Administration.

On those fronts Harper has shown himself to be exactly what I suspected, although he has been shrewd in not going too far too fast and when it backfires he backpedals real good, just like with the cutting off of media coverage of repatriation ceremonies like Bush did of dead soldiers. Only Harper claimed it was at the families’ request (despite never consulting with them) and then when he backpedaled he blamed the Defence department for his blunder. This is just one of many examples of Harper backpedaling from a decision he made so "decisively".

I also have real problems with the idea of a majority government in the hands of a man that has spent much of the last 2 decades badmouthing Canada and how it has evolved and what it has evolved into. CPCers want to talk about the 13 years of Liberal inaction yet they want Harper's speeches on culture war necessity (which is less than 4 years old I might add), calling Canada a welfare basket case, a backwater, second rate, the Atlantic region full of the culture of defeatism, etc forgotten/ignored as old news and irrelevant (got to love the double standard there). The radical decentralizer of the Canadian federation Harper is the Harper on the public record until 2005 when he finally understood that if he campaigned openly on his agenda/beliefs that he would never form a government as he was shown in the 2004 election results when he did campaign more openly on his principles. This is one of if not the most decentralized federations on the planet yet for Harper it is a tyranny and a dictatorship, which goes a long way to illustrating Harper's real view of how confederation should work and if he gets a majority he *WILL* decentralize federal powers of the Provinces as much as he can without a Constitutional conference and if he feels comfortable enough with his majority it would not surprise me in the slightest if he were to open up the Constitution regardless of the risks in doing so.

As it is Harper stained the reputation of his shiny new government the first day it was sworn in. The Emerson buyout and the Fortier appointments made clear that all of Harper's lofty moralizing prior to assuming power was empty rhetoric and without that perception of higher standards and values the CPC and Harper has a much harder row to hoe even if the scary Steve Harper hasn't materialized yet.

I don't entirely agree though that the scary Harper perception is completely lost to the left/Liberals/NDP (if Layton ever starts acting like he understands the threat anyways) thanks to his foreign policy actions in the last year. Aligning us with Israel in the war with Lebanon was a very poorly received act in this country, as was the softwood sellout, as was the Hot Air Act, as was the Khan debacle (what should have been something that hurt the Libs and helped the CPC appears to have had the opposite effect, much like with Emerson although not as intensely). He has let enough of his real beliefs shine through from time to time combined with his clear tyrannical media control and running this government like he is a President instead of a PM with a cabinet that actually acts on its own responsibility. Just look at how few Ministers get to make any real announcements without Harper being present.

Harper is not as easy to paint as scary, but thankfully his real actions in government provide a basis to expose him for what he is, a power hungry ideologue who will say and do anything to get to that majority and then once comfortable with that majority will then suddenly show Canada his true intentions. We saw an example of that with the Wheat Board actions, this was certainly not a significant part of their platform in the last election yet they make it sound like that just because it was mentioned that it was a solemn pledge that must be fulfilled. Yet the CPC government does all it can to rig the vote, eliminate voters that would be inclined to keep the board and brings in barley producers that never sold to the board despite properly speaking only those that sell to the board should be voting on whether to change it or not. This shows just how ruthless and undemocractic the CPC can be when it wants to get its own way on the ideological agenda since it is clearly ideology that is pushing these actions. In other words anything they say even once in the past can be cited as "proof" the electorate wants it. If he can keep the SSM debate promise based on one comment on the first day of the election imagine what else he can justify if he ever gets a majority.

We also know that Harper is selective on what promises he values enough to keep. The one about getting every dollar back in the softwood file is one, the not appointing Cabinet Ministers to cabinet is another, the Income Trusts are a third, the apparent change of heart on non-renewable resources being incorporated into the equalization payments being a fourth, and there are others. This is all in one year Harper has shown this to the Canadian people and the fact that in his first ever year as a government and during a period of great instability in the main opposition party he has been unable to get near majority territory in the polls since the fist few months of this regime. Indeed, if anything his support is slightly slipping and going back to the 30% range it always floated around. Harper has flopped badly when he was in the best position he could ever be to bring in a strong CPC government and create majority winning conditions. Indeed his ability to only get a weak minority when the perfect storm in his favour was at his back in the last election shows just how much reservation there is in the voting public.

If when he had all the cards he could not get ahead except very briefly last spring and has sunk well back of where the party was in the last election he is in trouble. His media approach has also made this government and Harper himself virtually indistinguishable, which is great when things are going well and liked by the pubic but when they are not it is a major problem for not just the leader but the wider party as a whole in our system. He cannot simply claim his cabinet ministers acted stupidly without his awareness and be taken seriously given his actions to date, and the inability to throw a minister under the bus when things go bad is a major weakness, especially in the Parliamentary style of government. So the fact that Harper is doing so poorly despite every advantage he has had over the last year shows that Canadians still have a strong distrust and suspicion on a hidden agenda, especially since he has such a weak minority that to do anything really controversial (now that the Libs have a leader meaning they can handle a election unlike last year which was why Harper could act like he had a majority for the first half of the year) could well not just bring down the government but cost the CPC government again. After all, Canadians do understand the difference between what a minority and majority govenrment can do and what kind of limits a weak minority places on any ideological party to enact its core beliefs.

Anonymous said...

There are always two reactions to a challenge or threat: fight or flight. The flight reflex represents the "scary" side of a challenge, which I, personally, rarely experience. My concern is usually in seeing that I'll have to engage in "fight" to challenge what I fundamentally believe are simply wrong-headed policies and actions, which the Harper conservatives (and the Right in general) have always proposed and which I don't believe they can ever really change without losing the appeal of offering some sort of political alternative. Given a choice, I'd rather not fight, so I find the challenge presented by the Harpies to be more wearying than anything else. But, like the glorious "Common Sense Revolution" and the 300 or so years we all spent enduring the Reagan/Thatcher/Mulroney era, these dysfunctional political fads have to be brought to an end, and sooner rather than later.

These conservatives always represent a challenge to be fought, and while Prime Minister Steve isn't scary, it doesn't mean we have to stop fighting this brand of narrow, mean-spirited, anti-democratic and authoritarian approach to governance.

Finally, it's just speculation, but I think the decline/discrediting to the point of undeniability of neoconservatism in the US has taken a lot of the wind out of Steve's sails. He may rationalise this as a valuable learning experience in his political maturation, but given the amount of time he's been in politics, I think it's pretty clear that Prime Minister Steve's learning curve is a little too long to ever convince the rest of us that he'll ever be a truly effective prime minister.

Jeff said...

this fool finds him scary AND crappy.

Jeff said...

I had already written too much, and could have written a lot more on this topic. Suffice to say, I'm not saying Steve-o isn't scary in other ways, and I'm not saying that we don't have a lot to challenge him on.

In this post I wanted to touch just on the Con government this past year. I have a few things to say on how we can challenge him and frame the next election, that will be a post in a day or two.

For now, let him enjoy his punch and pie while he can... :)

Anonymous said...

Or cabbage rolls and coffee (courtesy of Mrs. Vilve Yachke). Though I doubt the Canada-hating traitor ever saw SCTV.

rob said...

Great post, Jeff.

Jay said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jay said...

As a married gay male, I find Mr. Harpers attacks on me and my husband well beyond scary. Monstrous and reprehensible is better. Being straight you probably wouldn't understand what that was like for 11 months of waiting to see what he would do and how he would do it.

Not only will this man play with the rights of canadians to get votes he has also shown he has no problem with doling out cash to buy votes from etnic minorities and nations/provinces (whatever we are now) in Canada.

He's an asshole for lack of a better publishable word.

He could adopt every liberal policy out there, save the the environment, fix health care for a generation, fix the so called fiscal imabalance, give childcare to every child in canada for free, I would never put an X by his name on a ballot because of the games he played with my rights.

To hell with him.

I showed restraint in this comment by the way.

Anonymous said...

My brother has done a draft of his income tax return and his statement to me was "the so-called tax breaks are much like the Citi Bank ads - they've got their hands in your pocket".

wilson said...

''As a married gay male, I find Mr. Harpers attacks on me and my husband well beyond scary.''

What attacks? I have NEVER read anything where PMSH ATTACKED gay marriage. Please provide a link.

Do you mean that he kept a promise to hold a free vote on debating SSM, which some Liberals supported and some Conservatives didn't...and that no ever thought would pass.

Jay, you can't vote Liberal either then, because not all Libs support SSM.

Jay said...


A promise to try and remove a right is an attack. If I remember correctly, the Liberals introduced SSM marriage with a MAJORITY voting it in. Harper was riding the wave of so-con bigotry. No one ever, except for Harper, campaigned on removing a right of Canadians. There were a handful of people who went against the first vote on SSM but very few on the vote in 2006.

And one of them crossed the floor recently saying he was a true conservative. So he wasn't a liberal and my bets are neither are the others.

What about your assertion that the gun registry was an attack on farmers when all people with a gun was treated equally? And why are you not outraged at Harpers failed promise to scrap it? What about his rehashing of policies you claimed were useless and a waste of tax dollars. Even better, you claim there is no such thing as climate change/global warming. How do you feel about that? You voted for a man who thinks he's a liberal and is going against everything you have been cutting and pasting from propaganda sites for the last year. Aren't you at least mad about your index finger getting calloused from all that clicking?

Hypocritical ass.

Anonymous said...

Scotian response was exact re harper and the cons. party. His 3rd paragraph were my sentiments exactly. I truly believe Harper does not like/love our wonderful country. He would have been much happier as a politician in the U.S. Rep. type of Govt. I read all of his statements when he was Pres. of the Nat'l Coalition group and I don't feel he has changed his stripes...just hidden them for a while. I am a senior and the thought of Harper getting a majority scares the life out of me and for my fellow Canadians. And why aren't any of his MP's and only a few of his Cab. MP's able to speak? Your comments please.

Anonymous said...

Putting us in harms way afghan, As Bush said Stave my b. buddy.
Stockwell day Mcay the lier, here's a 100 bucks for your kids, Quebex is di stinker so is China I got mine F*&&^% you, more oil for (cough hack)US, F*&(*&^ the Climate can't wait for him to crawl back under the rock from west he came steve... my children thank you.