Stealth and misdirection are constants of Harper’s majority

Posted on May 3, 2012 in Governance Debates

Source: — Authors: – news
May 3, 2012.    By Andrew Coyne, The Gazette

One year on, we can say that Stephen Harper has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. If there was room to doubt what was achieved by five years of minority government, after a year of majority Conservative rule it is now clear: total national confusion.

The prime minister who, according to the Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson, “bestrides Canadian politics, a principled economic and social conservative who is reshaping the nation,” is also the prime minister my Postmedia colleague Michael Den Tandt describes as “just another Canadian mainstream manager, Jean Chrétien from Alberta.”

The recent budget, according to the former clerk of the Privy Council, Alex Himelfarb, signals “the crushing of the progressive state,” conjuring images of “the ’20s and ’30s, a time of massive inequality and personal vulnerability which presaged the Great Depression.” On the other hand, Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells reports, “I haven’t spoken to a single Conservative who’s satisfied with the budget. … Most Conservatives feel like a 16-yearold who hoped his birthday present would be keys to the family car. Instead, Dad lets him shoot a few tin cans with a BB gun.”

This is unusual, if not unprecedented. Pundits will naturally disagree on the merits of a government’s program. It is less common to see them disagreeing on whether it has one. I cannot think the government is distressed to find the punditry in such disarray. Indeed, I think it is deliberate.

If the Harper government has had one overriding objective from the start, it has been less to do with policy than perception. Whatever it has done or not done, its primary concern has been that these choices should not be pieced together into a coherent philosophy of government. Whether remaking federal policy or embroidering upon the status quo, the thing it has wanted everyone to understand is that it was not part of any plan.

This is the point of continuity between the minority and majority governments. The policy direction has firmed up, perceptibly. For example, the government is no longer in the business of raising spending by $37 billion in a single year, or declaring potash companies to be strategic assets. What has not changed is the refusal to explain what it is doing, still less why.

All is stealth and indirection, surprise and ambiguity, as before. Big changes, when they happen, are done suddenly, casually, without warning or justification, as if they were of no importance: buried deep in an omnibus bill, sloughed off in the course of a committee hearing, tucked in at the end of an answer in question period, dropped on the table at a premiers’ meeting. The closest thing to a vision statement, the speech in which the prime minister mused, indecipherably, on the need to reform pensions, was delivered in the Swiss Alps.

When the president of the United States wants to announce a major change in policy, he goes on national television. When Harper does it, he scribbles it in the margin of whatever mystery novel he’s been reading and leaves it on the bus.

So, although there have been some important shifts in policy in recent months – a major rewrite of federal environmental policy, a substantial retreat on the F-35 purchase, a possible extension of the Afghanistan mission beyond 2014, an effective redrafting of the terms of fiscal federalism – they would, for the most part, have escaped public notice.

Even the government’s most ambitious plans, such as the simultaneous negotiation of free-trade treaties with virtually every major trade bloc in the world, or its top-to-bottom reform of immigration policy, are presented as faits accomplis, unveiled in rapid succession without much opportunity for consultation, or for opposition to form.

It may be a majority, in other words, but it’s still playing the minority game: only it is no longer the opposition parties it is attempting to outfox, but the public.

Time was when a government that wished to implement some major reform would first issue a green paper, to kick off discussion; then a white paper, containing more finely tuned proposals; and only then proceed to legislation. But this government has no wish to win hearts and minds. The Harper government’s strategy, rather, is to take ground in a series of lightning-fast guerrilla raids; to neutralize opposition, as by the de-funding of advocacy groups, rather than to rally public opinion to its side. But while the public might have been inclined to look indulgently on such behaviour when the dupe was the opposition, it is less likely to be so tolerant when it discovers the joke is on it.

The government has squandered what little trust it enjoyed before, with the consequence that when it wants to ask the public to do something difficult, it meets only suspicion and hostility; what was a strength when it was weak – its endless willingness to twist this way and that, or swallow itself whole if that was what was required – is a weakness now that it is strong. Where another government might have “spent some political capital,” as the cliché has it, this one discovers its account already overdrawn. Which only reinforces its instinct to dissemble.

And so, a year after it was elected, having been careful throughout to avoid the public’s wrath, it nevertheless finds itself down 10 points in the polls. It has been able to rely upon guile and deception to get by until now. But what will it do for the next three years?

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