Thursday, May 19, 2011

A curious start to Harper’s first majority government

I’m taking a brief break from Liberal navel-gazing to turn my attention to other affairs of state, namely yesterday’s cabinet shuffle and senate appointments by the “The Harper Government.”

First, I should note that I’ve made an executive decision: I’m raising the bar on my partisan outrage trigger by about four notches. These guys are going to be governing for the next four years with relatively few constraints and they’re going to do lots of things I disagree with; if I amp it up to 10 every time I’m going to lose my mind. So I’ll still call attention to decisions I disagree with, but I’ll save the hyper-ventilation for the really egregious stuff.

Frankly, I think we could all do with four years of toned-down rhetoric. It got a little crazy during the perpetual minority period. I hope to see everyone make the adjustment. Perhaps we can see a more constructive parliament where, with an election not always imminent, opposition parties offer constructive advice on legislation and the government, from time to time, actually listens. And perhaps instead of the regular “will you trigger an election” stories, the media can instead write about policy and challenges and ideas. Call me crazy, but you never know.

Since it’s been so long, a little majority refresher may be useful. Generally, with a four (with fixed election date) year mandate, a government will do all the needed but high-impact and potentially unpopular stuff in the first year or two, with the hope it will be forgotten or forgiven when they go to the polls in four years. The second half of the mandate is gearing-up for the election with feel-good stuff to win the public over. The real governing is generally in the first two years.

So I’ll be watching for signs of how the Harper Conservatives intend to use their majority mandate in this “go big or go home” period, and if they’ll signal a new direction from their minority approach.

Frankly, I’m not expecting to see Scary Steve or an outbreak of radical social conservatism. He could go that route if he wanted, but it would make things tough in four years. I think Harper wants to make the Conservatives Canada’s new natural governing party, and that means he’ll stay relatively middle of the road to appeal to a broad swath of the population, maybe throwing the odd bone here or there to his more conservative base.

What I would expect to see, though, is austerity measures to bring the government into line, reduce spending and cut the size of government.

The beginning

We’ll really begin to get a sense of the course he’ll chart when Parliament returns next month with the speech from the throne. If we try to read between the lines of the cabinet shuffle though, the stay the course messaging they’ve been signaling may well prove accurate.

It’s a big cabinet, tied for the biggest in Canadian history with one of Brian Mulroney’s. He created new positions and made sure every region was covered. If he is planning to shrink government and usher-in an austerity era, he could have signaled it with a leaner, meaner cabinet: show the buck stops here, so to speak. Instead, millions more will be spent on salaries, staff and bureaucracy to support the new ministers. It’s an odd signal, and an opportunity lost.

Of course, the other thing to watch for in a majority is restless backbenchers. It’s not uncommon to try to give everyone a title so they don’t get restless and start plotting. And if you’ve been left our of the biggest cabinet in Canadian history your chances of making if next time aren’t great, so we’ll see if Conservative backbenchers start to strain at the yoke a little.

I don’t have too much comment on specific cabinet appointments. John Baird to Foreign Affairs raised eyebrows. Personally, I think he acted like a partisan jerk in past positions because that’s the role Harper wanted him to play. I think he can also play the collegial diplomat, if that’s what Harper wants. Most of the major positions are otherwise unchanged, although B.C. has lost a lot of cabinet clout without Stockwell Day and Gary Lunn.

Blowing up the Senate to save it?

If anyone was surprised by Harper appointing defeated candidates rejected by the voters to the Senate, you need to seriously give your head a shake and get out more. I’d have to question where you’ve been for the last five years.

Sending people that quit the Senate to run for the House and lost back to the Senate was a new twist, but still, the list of failed candidates appointed to the Red Chamber by Harper was already long, and includes Salma Ataullahjan, Yonah Martin, Claude Carignan, Fabian Manning (now twice), Michel Rivard, John Wallace, Leo Houskas, Michael Fortier and Suzanne Duplessis. And now add Larry Smith and Josee Verner to the list, making 11 Conservative Senate appointments that have been rejected (at least once) by the electorate. (UPDATE: 12, I forgot Don Meredith)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; Stephen Harper isn’t serious about Senate reform. If he was, he’d propose comprehensive constitutional amendments, which is the only way to properly and effectively reform the Senate. Let me know when that happens; I’ll be the one not holding his breath.

Anyway, while these appointments weren’t surprising, the level of chutzpah was as it seemed to serve no purpose. He can appoint whomever he wants; the optics of who he appointed though were deliberately provocative. It’s an odd way to expend political capital.

Anyway, I’ll wait for the throne speech, and the re-introduction of the budget, so see where they’re really going. In the mean time, back to more Liberal navel-gazing.

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CanadianSense said...

Excellent post, it is nice to read the ambulance chasing will be minimized, let's hope other Lib bloggers incorporate your new outrage thermometer.

We have an opportunity to see how our PM delivers on his platform, if the entitlement culture in Ottawa is curtailed.

We the voters will decide in 2015 if we'll give another mandate, not us bloggers or perpetual anti- Conservative whiners.


Mark Richard Francis said...

I'm be surprised if Harper paid attention to the 60% who voted against him.

Koby said...

"I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; Stephen Harper isn’t serious about Senate reform. If he was, he’d propose comprehensive constitutional amendments, which is the only way to properly and effectively reform the Senate."

It is not the only way to effectively reform the senate and yes he is serious.

Under the Conservative plan, new senators would be elected and would be limited to serving out a 8year term. None of this is unconstitutional, but that does not mean that there would not be problems implementing such a plan. The elephant in the living room is that if the senate’s lack of effective powers flows from the senate’s lack of legitimacy, then electing senators might provide the senate with a degree of legitimacy it currently does not hold. One problem with proceeding thusly is that current senators are free to serve until the age of 75. As a result, Harper’s actions could either transform an unelected political body with no real power into a largely unelected political body with real political power or commit Canadians to the farcical and expensive act of electing people to office who hold no real power. Always content to play the Tin Man and Lion to Conservatives scarecrow, the Liberals remain largely mum on the subject.

That said, I expect Harper will overcome this problem by demanding that all sitting Conservative senators resign and stand for election and dare Liberal senators to do the same.

If it works, god help us. For the main problem with Harper’s piece meal senate Reform plan is not that it has no chance of working. No, the main problem with such an undertakiing is that it might work. An elected and effective senate is a stupid idea.

Indeed, giving the 135,851 in PEI the power to determine everything under provincial jurisdiction, provincial representation and 4 MPs well all the while giving the 170, 422 residents of Brampton West one MP is bad enough as it is. Piling on and having one "effective" Senator for every 33,963 PEI residents and one senator for every 506,678 Ontario residents is beyond stupid and grossly undemocratic.

H7N9 Watch said...

Koby, If Harper was serious about Senate reform, he would have mentioned it at the time of the appointment. Or not made an appointment. Or not appointed three losing candidates. Any one of those options would have been at least a plausible signal that he was serious about Senate reform.

Jeff said...

Koby, I think I've made most of the points I have to make Senate reform in this post: so forgive me if I refer to it and don't write them out again at length. I think it summarizes my thoughts on this well.

Purple library guy said...

I think there is one thing people are overlooking when they discuss how a Conservative majority will govern.

The bottom line for me is that these Conservatives are basically bad at governing. They have no interest in or respect for governance as a concept. It's partly that they don't think government should be doing most things it does in the first place. And it's partly that even to the extent they acknowledge government might have a role, that's not what they're there for--the basic purpose of modern Conservatives is to defeat enemies and amass power and wealth for themselves and the class they identify with. Presented with a lever of power, that's what their instincts say it's there for. So they just basically have no patience for careful policy-making or administration with an eye to the public good.

As a result, only part of the dangers of a Conservative government have to do with their pre-planned intentions to enact austerity measures. Much has to do with what will happen as they are hit with the need to make policy decisions about governance on an ongoing basis, and they react according to their instincts and ideas about what it is to be in government.