Hot! Harper’s revolution missing in action

montrealgazette.com – home – Instead of making historic change the Conservative government is mostly just minding the store. Where is the hidden agenda?
April 28, 2012.   By Michael Den Tandt, The Gazette

“There is a spirit in this land, the true spirit, the true character of the Canadian people – a compassionate neighbour, a courageous warrior, a confident partner – that’s the spirit of the Canada I know. Canadians are proud of that spirit, and they trust us to live by that spirit.”  – Stephen Harper victory speech, May 2, 2011.

Quite a night that was. Historic, many have said. But what happened?

For five years after he won the keys to 24 Sussex Dr. in 2006, the narrative of Stephen Harper rested on two pillars. First, he was tactically brilliant, a ruthless and effective political gamesman. Second, he was stridently ideological, champing at the bit to remake Canada in his own image. The “hidden agenda,” Harper’s critics assured us, would roll back the clock on a host of long-settled social issues – abortion, gay marriage and capital punishment being the Big Three – and impose a wrenching, Mike Harris-style revolution across the land.

But one year after the vote that gave the Conservatives their fabled majority, guess what? Tactical brilliance is missing in action, with the government lurching from one pratfall to the next. And the Faustian hidden agenda? Received wisdom, among Harper haters, is that it’s approaching full flower. But if you drill past the surface, you’ll find your customary entitlements virtually unchanged. How can this be?

Indeed, apart from a few highly symbolic flashpoints – gun control and marijuana come to mind – the hidden agenda is gone, absorbed in a mush of accommodative compromise, to the point where government spinners have resorted to patiently walking journalists through all the ways in which, they claim, the Conservatives are transforming the country. Most Canadians have responded to this putative revolution with a blink and a yawn.

All of which raises this question: does Harper have a larger plan, beyond reshingling the roof ? Or is he just another Canadian mainstream manager, Jean Chrétien from Alberta? This prime minister’s lifelong dream, it has long been said, was for the Tories to replace the Grits as Canada’s Natural Governing Party. Can they have succeeded too soon, and too well?

Worse yet, could Harper be John Diefenbaker 2.0? Conservatives rarely miss an opportunity to extol The Chief ‘s policy innovations (one of which was the Canadian Bill of Rights, precursor to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms). But as a dynasty builder, Diefenbaker was a failure. In 1958 he won the biggest majority in Canadian history – then proceeded to squander it with a series of egregious missteps. Dief was sent back to opposition in 1963, where he remained until 1967, when he lost the Tory leadership in a palace coup.

There’s something about normally dour people, when they are genuinely happy – a prodigal instinct, perhaps. Such was the case with Stephen Harper on election night a year ago, when he stood before a rapturous Calgary crowd to deliver a victory speech that was magnanimous and, in a couple of places, inspired. For five weeks, Harper had run what was easily the nastiest federal campaign in modern memory, all but accusing the opposition of treason. But on this night, Harper looked . . . joyful. He graciously saluted his opponents and promised a government for all the people.

Come last September, following a triumphal earlysummer tour by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge that seemed to put the icing on Harper’s cake, the Conservatives got down to business, ticking off one long-delayed promise after another – kill gun registry, check; kill wheat board, check; withdraw from Kyoto Protocol, check. On every front, the Conservatives pushed hard, limiting debate routinely and baiting the parliamentary budget officer, Kevin Page. This, of course, became the first surprise of Year One: the default position of reflexive aggression, which many believed had been driven by the strictures of survival in a minority, had become a permanent character trait.

On the policy front, it looked last fall as though the Tories would shift hard right to match their aggressive rhetoric. The Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson, in a TVO-sponsored talk in December, noted that “the (May 2) election was one of the most significant in Canada’s history, because it signalled the eclipse of the Laurentian Consensus, and Ontario’s transformation into a Pacific province.”

Ibbitson’s Laurentian Consensus, outlined in an essay in the Literary Review of Canada, holds that the eastern, urban establishment, a marriage of Ontario and Quebec elites, that governed Canada more or less uninterrupted (Diefenbaker was an aberration) in the country’s first century and a half, had been overthrown. Ibbitson suggested this reversal was both permanent, because of the West’s growing demographic and economic might, and dramatic, because of the philosophical differences inherent in the shift.

In January in Davos, Harper seemed to confirm this notion, outlining a road map that, by minority Harperian standards, was bold: he promised major reform in immigration, research, trade, resource development, and old age security. In the lead-up to the March 29 budget, there was a steady drumbeat of leaks from wellplaced government sources, all heralding a “transformative” budget.

And indeed, the budget did yield some interesting changes. Immigration is being made more responsive to economic needs; free trade is being expanded on multiple fronts including Europe and India; research investment is being overhauled; resource extraction is being streamlined, by dramatically hacking back the regulatory review process and giving the federal cabinet, and not the National Energy Board, final say on all pipeline project approval, and the age of eligibility for old age security moves to 67 from 65, which has drawn lots of attention and chest-pounding from the opposition.

But here’s where it all breaks down, it seems to me – the Laurentian Consensus, the end of liberalism, the triumph of western, populist conservatism. Very simply: there is nothing, not a line in Budget 2012, that could arguably not have been introduced by a Liberal Party led by a John Manley (minister of everything during the Chretien years), or a Frank McKenna (former premier of New Brunswick) – in other words, by conservative Liberals.

Harper is master of all he surveys. He can introduce, within reason, any policy he likes. He is also a true-blue conservative, both fiscal and social. Most of his cabinet and the overwhelming majority of his backbenchers are, at the very least, economic conservatives.

Yet when one surveys the grand sweep of federal policy, looking for truly important structural changes or efforts to roll back the sheltering arms of the Canadian state, one finds – nothing. Zero.

Health care? Spending increases of six per cent a year through 2017, after which the rate of growth will be tied to population growth and adjusted for inflation, with a floor of three per cent. Free trade? Liberals pushed that in the ’90s. Immigration? If anything the numbers of new Canadians are expected to increase. The military? After a series of annual budget increases since 2006, Canada still spends just 1.5 per cent of GDP on defence, among the lowest in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Policy toward Quebec? Accommodative.

There is one area, arguably, where the Tories are doing things in a way that looks and feels quite different from what Liberals might have done, in similar circumstances. That is its handling of federal-provincial relations, which hurls entire areas of provincial jurisdiction, previously seized by Ottawa, back at the provinces. But even here, the concept is not new or particularly radical: in the late 1970s a western Progressive Conservative named Joe Clark called it the Community of Communities.

From this, cutting through attempts to create distinctions because, well, it’s more interesting that way, it seems the Harperites, one year into their majority, are not doing anything dramatically different from what a Chretienstyle Liberal party might have been expected to do. Don’t ever ask them to admit it. But this is mainly pragmatism, billed as transformation.

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