A referendum on Stephen Harper and his meaner Canada

Posted on August 6, 2015 in Governance Debates

TheStar.com – Opinion/Commentary – Over the last 10 years, the Conservative leader has vastly constrained the power of government. This October, Canadians will endorse or reject that agenda.
Aug 05 2015.   By: Thomas S. Axworthy

The 2015 election campaign will polarize around the outsized figure of Stephen Harper. His visit to the Governor General last Sunday kick-started what ‎will be Canada’s longest and most expensive election in recent history. What is at stake in the newly launched 79-day campaign and what can Canadians expect from the $50-million each party will be allowed to spend? (Though only the Conservatives will have the resources to spend this much, the reason Harper wanted a campaign twice as long as normal.)

Stephen Harper is the magnet that moves the election compass. ‎The overriding question Canadians must answer as they scan their election ballots on Oct. 19 is whether they want four more years of Harper as prime minister. His admirers emphasize that he is smart, decisive, patient and strategic. He has increased Conservative support in the last three elections — not greatly but in small enough increments to gain and keep power culminating in a majority government in 2011.

Harper’s virtues, for example, can be plainly seen in his successful attempt to roll back the federal government’s capacity to use its spending power to influence the lives of Canadians.

Years before he became leader of the Conservative party Harper assessed the strength of the then-dominant Liberal party and bemoaned its skills in introducing programs that made the federal government a partner in influencing the life chances of Canadians. His strategy as prime minister is to starve the federal government of resources by limiting spending, delivering benefits through the tax system rather than through programs, and cutting taxes wherever he could. Weaken the federal government enough fiscally and no future prime minister could ever again contemplate building a Just Society.

It has been little remarked upon but Harper’s strategy of starvation by stealth has been brilliantly successful. According to the Royal Bank’s analysis of the 2015 budget, federal government revenues to GNP were 18.4 per cent in 1980-81‎ but only 14.5 per cent today. Federal program spending was 16 per cent of GNP in 1990 but only 13 per cent today. To put this in perspective historically, in the early 1960s prior to the growth of social spending under prime ministers Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, Ottawa spent about 16 per cent of the country’s GNP. After the introduction of medicare and other social programs this went up to a quarter of GNP by the mid 80s. But now, under Stephen Harper, Ottawa’s spending influence has been dialed back to pre-Pearson levels.

Stephen Harper knows his Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman and these conservative prophets would be mightily impressed by how their star pupil is doing.

‎So Harper has been both relentless in implementing a key conservative tenet and successful enough in touting its merits that neither the NDP nor the Liberals are challenging it.

Both opposition parties have basically adopted the main outlines of the Harper fiscal framework while questioning program priorities within it.

Yet Harper’s demerits are as plentiful as his merits and this has prevented him from growing the Conservative base into a permanent majority. His style has alienated a vast number of Canadians.

“Politics‎ ain’t beanbag,” a columnist wrote more than a century ago, referring to the rougher side of political campaigns. But the partisanship of the Harper Conservative party is well beyond the Canadian norm. Critics of the Harper government are enemies to be destroyed not opponents to be debated. This take-no-prisoners attitude emanates from the top — Harper is ruthless as well as being relentless.

This meanness gives the opposition parties their chance. NDP leader Tom Mulcair is an experienced politician with a history of superior performances in the House of Commons. The NDP victory in Alberta has given that party a lift at exactly the right time. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau represents generational change and has recruited an impressive slate of new candidates.

According to most surveys a large plurality of Canadians will vote for anyone but a Harper Conservative. If either one of the opposition parties‎ can become the clear non-Harper alternative they will be well on their way to success. But an even split between the NDP and Liberals could let the Conservatives come up the middle because Harper is a master of turning out his base.

In the weeks ahead we will hear from all parties details of platforms, their hopes for Canada’s future and their fears for Canada’s present. The 2015 election, however, will mostly be about one thing — it is a referendum on Stephen Harper.

‎Thomas S. Axworthy is a senior fellow of the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.

< http://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2015/08/05/a-referendum-on-stephen-harper-and-his-meaner-canada.html >

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