Stephen Harper offers a record of selective accomplishment

Posted on July 10, 2015 in Governance Debates – Opinion/Commentary – An analysis of the prime minister’s record using the yardsticks Stephen Harper set when he took office.
Jul 09 2015.   By: Carol Goar, Star Columnist

The prime minister wishes to be judged on his record. “Most of the decisions you have to make in this job are hard ones,” Stephen Harper says in a Conservative pre-campaign advertisement. “You just work hard and try to make the best decisions possible for Canada.”  No election platform, no indication of his priorities, just a 28-second personal assurance that he is up to the job.

There is a better way to judge a prime minister on his record. Compare what he achieved to what he sought a mandate to do.  That requires either a copy of the 2006 Conservative election platform or a photographic memory. Harper’s campaign team is betting most voters have neither — a reasonable wager in an era of paperless communication and rapid technological obsolescence. Who keeps a 47-page electronic document for nine years? Who keeps a computer for that long?

Fortunately, there are still a few copies of Stand Up For Canada around. I have one. It begins with a message from a much younger-looking Harper: “The time for accountability has arrived. We need to replace a culture of entitlement and corruption with a culture of accountability. We need to replace benefits for a privileged few with government for all.”

It sets five overarching goals. Each is backed up by about a dozen specific promises.
Clean up government.
Cut taxes.
Crack down on crime.
Give all parents a child-care allowance.
Reduce wait times for medical procedures.

By far the thickest chapter of the Tory manifesto is the one on government accountability; a well-timed response to the sponsorship scandal that was roiling the Liberal government. Harper promised to de-politicize procurement, advertising and polling; clamp down on lobbyists; ban corporate and union donations to political parties and candidates; appoint officers of Parliament on merit alone; release all public policy research; strengthen the power of the auditor general and ethics commissioner; create an independent parliamentary budget officer and provide real protection for whistleblowers. How has done on this ambitious checklist?

He did appoint a parliamentary budget officer in 2008. But Kevin Page, Ottawa’s ostensibly independent financial watchdog, soon ran afoul of the government. When he questioned the finance minister’s fiscal projections, the Tories turned on him, cut off his access to government documents and denigrated his forecasts (which consistently proved to be more accurate than the finance minister’s).

He did ban corporate and union donations (finishing a job begun by Jean Chrétien) but added his own twist, eliminating public funding of political parties and putting his rivals at a disadvantage. He did toughen Ottawa’s Lobbyists Registration Act, but left enough manoeuvering room for consultants, lawyers and industry representatives to penetrate his government’s inner circle. He did tighten Ottawa’s procurement rules, then quietly diluted them.

On the negative side of the ledger, he restricted access to public documents; his government routinely withholds publicly funded reports, studies and records from the Canadians. He ramped up partisan federal advertising; the Tories use taxpayers’ dollars freely for self-promotion. He weakened protection for whistleblowers; his government makes life miserable for any public employees who dare to contradict or embarrasses him. As for cronyism, the scandal-engulfed Senate tells the story.

He made clear headway on three of his commitments:
He did slash the GST and doled out scores of tax credits, deductions and exemptions.
He did crack down hard on crime, compelling judges to impose harsh sentences, jailing young offenders, revoking the citizenship of foreign-born Canadians convicted of a criminal offence, ending house arrest and other programs designed to reintegrate inmates into society.
He did introduce a universal child care benefit. To pay for it, his government de-invested in preschool learning and child care centres.

His final promise — to cut medical wait times — was a mirage. Harper knew the provinces, not Ottawa, controlled the delivery of health services.
He did not promise — or provide — leadership on the environment. Nor did he offer — or attempt — to reduce poverty, strengthen democracy or respect the courts. If voters assumed these were inadvertent oversights, they were wrong.

It is not a sterling record; it is one of selective accomplishment. It reflects Harper’s ideology, not the mandate he sought from voters.

What fell by the wayside was Harper’s pledge to “replace benefits for a privileged few with government for all.” Without that, there was no fulcrum.

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