Harper’s big tent?

TheStar.com – opinion/editorials
Published On Sun Aug 28 2011.

Has Prime Minister Stephen Harper suddenly discovered the joy of political magnanimity, now that he has his cherished, unfettered Conservative majority? Certainly, he’d like us to believe so.

Despite his disdain for Parliament in the past, highlighted by his cynical moves to shut down the House of Commons — twice — when it served partisan Tory interests, Harper now vows to “govern for everyone.” He’s “prepared to adapt and listen … when necessary,” he assured reporters on his swing through the Arctic last week. He expects to have to “make some compromises” when the Commons resumes on Sept. 19.

And he has struck a commendably flexible tone on the sluggish economy, too, promising more “targeted investments,” a low borrowing rate and cautious, limited austerity.

We’ll see. This show of political modesty looks good on Harper, though the 60 per cent of Canadians who did not vote for the Tories on May 2 will no doubt withhold judgment until they see him deliver. Until now Harper has treated Parliament shabbily. He was so dismissive of the Commons that the last Speaker cited the government three times for ignoring MPs’ rights. And Harper managed the unique feat of being defeated on a contempt motion. He has been consistently hyperpartisan, high-handed and secretive. So any softening would be for the good.

With the New Democrats headed by interim leader Nycole Turmel after Jack Layton’s death and the Liberals headed by interim leader Bob Rae, many expected Harper would simply roll over the opposition as he tries to clean up what he has labelled a “left-wing mess” in government. He may yet.

The Conservative agenda ranges from cutting a deal on Canada-U.S. border security to filling Supreme Court vacancies to curbing federal spending, signing trade deals, cracking down on a declining crime rate, worrying needlessly about immigration, gutting the long gun registry and freezing foreign aid. Can tinkering with employment insurance, equalization or health funding be far behind?

Of course the Tories have a mandate to ram through pretty much whatever legislation they like between now and the 2015 election, thanks to the NDP surge on May 2 and a Liberal collapse that split the centre-left vote. The opposition can kick up a fuss and make life hard for the Tories, but in the end the government will have its way.

Still, Harper is playing a long game. He aspires to broaden the Conservative tent, which he can do only by increasing the party’s centrist appeal not by alienating moderates. And bullying the opposition could backfire, triggering a unite-the-left push to bring the NDP and Liberals together. There’s clearly method in his moderation.

How much genuine conviction there is, we’ll soon see.

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