The consequences of Stephen Harper.
What everyone has been missing.
Douche, turd, control-freak, automaton, 'neo-con': at some point or another, I have heard our current PM, Steven Harper, described with those words. On the one hand, Harper should feel quite flattered: even if people think he is douche, at least there is no one out there questioning his intelligence. On the other, it is troubling that despite the (seemingly) constant image-campaigning by the PMO, he is still thought of in less-than-flattering terms by Canadians. However, it is Harper's intellect that is the most under-analyzed aspect of the government. The Cons have had a tough summer, and I seriously doubt that anyone will disagree with that statement. After being "Cuillard-ed" in the spring, they have had to watch the economy slowly slink towards recession. On top of that, they have to had to plan a (real) response to the new Lib platform (I'll cover that one in another post). Then there is also the increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan, and the (ridiculous) furor over the Order nomination of Morghentaller and the (equally ridiculous) furor over Bill C-61.
Personally, I sympathize with Harper the control-freak. After all, just look at the hand the guy has been dealt in terms of a government. His party was (at first) so entrenched in "opposition mode" that they came across as amateurish during question periods, when the most common response was to blame the Liberals for being corrupt or incompetent. Especially Baird "the Bulldog." With morons sitting in your cabinet, how are you supposed to come across as a credible GOVERNMENT? You micro-manage. First, you kick McKay to the sidelines because the only accomplishments of note that he could list (after holding a variety of portfolios and party positions) was being chummy with Condy Rice and making inappropriate remarks about his "dog." Besides, the guy is a douche who can't be trusted to keep his promises.
Then, you get the rest of the party to SHUT THE HELL UP. Baird the Bulldog can't be kept quiet, but you make damn sure that everyone else does not say a peep to the press because they are categorically so unreliable. Harper has recently received some flak from the liberals for his “culture of secrecy.” It’s not a culture of secrecy, it is a culture of “my guys are too stupid to talk to the press so I tell them to SHUT THE HELL UP.”
SO, after a couple of years of micro-managing, Harper finally has a government that can argue about policy and governing and not the usual fall-back of party-politics. Unfortunately for the Cons, whatever momentum they have been trying to gain is stymied by the Liberals: the official opposition is a very well-experience political machine, and they know how to make life a living hell by bringing party-politics to the centre-stage of media coverage. Committee this, committee that. This leaves you with two options: let your government get embroiled in the myriad lawsuits and committee inquiries that are threaten to derail your ability to govern; or, you seek a majority government in a snap election.
The Catch-22 is immediately apparent: the first option is an enshrined process integral to democratic society, seeking to avoid or subvert it is anti-democratic. On the other hand, Harper promised that elections would start being held on a regular schedule, so that the nation is not disrupted by opportunistic elections. Since Parliament was dissolved today, Harper loses any integrity he could pretend to have earned by going back on a promise (and bill) his government made. He deserves credit for being pragmatic, but certainly does not deserve votes.
Basically, I don't doubt that Harper is a capable leader. He may even be one of the best PMs this country has ever had. His government is simply plagued with an un-sellable brand, and a bunch of douches.
Unfortunately for Harper, though, I still think that he is a douche because his government is devoted to a program that is completely opposite to what I think Canada needs. Unfortunately, I feel that I am in the extreme minority of Canadians who understand this fundamental point.
Allow me to elaborate. Glance through any of the myriad news-sources that you can scan online, and you will come across a variety of mouth-pieces that make sly and vague remarks about how the Cons platform is "whatever it may be"; or, they try to make direct comparisons to the 'neo-cons' of the Bush administration. Both perspectives are missing an essential point. The current Conservative government DOES have a platform, and saying that it is similar to the neo-con politics of the Bush administration completely misses the mark.
Let's pull a quote from a recent Globe and Mail article:
Speaking to a Montreal business crowd, Mr. Harper launched his harshest attack on the Liberal policy, saying it would concentrate money and power in Ottawa.
“I tell you that this new tax on carbon is going to destroy all that our government has built in the last two and a half years,” the Conservative Leader said.
Waitaminute. What does it mean that everything achieved in the last two years is threatened by concentrating money and power in Ottawa?
Harper's platform, really more of a program, is one of de-federalisation. After all, what sort of an idiot cuts taxes AND raises spending? The sort of idiot that wants any (future) federal government's spending to be so tight that they can't meddle in regional affairs by holding a massive coffer of cash. That's right. Remember: ‘Stevie-H’ entered national politics as an advisor for Ross Perot and the Reform Party. A regional party devoted to preserving REGIONAL (in this case, Western) interests. In many ways they were just like the Bloc, but without the annoyingly puerile sabre-rattling of the Quebec separatists. From what I understand of the Reform agenda, they just wanted to make sure that the West (mostly Alberta) was protected from policy sent out by Ottawa.
Harper's government is simply actualizing this agenda. This is why, when I read the news, one can connect several seemingly independent events to form a single constellation of de-federalisation: recognizing Quebec as a "distinct society"; the listeriosis outbreak in Ontario; Arts Funding cuts; rejecting the goals outlined in the Kyoto accord; and, increasing military spending.
A distinct society?
The recognition of Quebec's "distinct" status should require little explanation: it is simply an instance of the federal government acknowledging (without submitting) regional interests. By giving French-Canadians recognition for being a distinct society, however, Harpo can accomplish two things: gain political capital and set the stage for more regional recognition. The Cons want to gain votes in Quebec, and the only way that they can do it is by showing that a (supposedly) federalist party can promote Quebecois identity more successfully than the Bloc. Since the Cons expect to be locked out of the urban areas (liberal strongholds) they will have to fight in the predominately Bloc battle-grounds.
Furthermore, recognizing Quebec’s distinct society easily paves the way to recognizing any number of other “distinct” societies. Why not also recognize the Gàidhealtachd in Eastern Canada and Eastern Ontario as distinct societies as well?
In my opinion, when you start recognizing “distinct” groups, especially in response to regional urging, you (as a Government) are setting a stage that will make permissible new means of exclusion.
The listeriosis outbreak (sandwich-gate?) highlights a program of eliminating federal-level inspectors in favour of local-level (corporate) ones. In the case of the tainted sandwich meats, we are seeing the detrimental result of limiting the federal government's ability to impact business.
It is one thing to remove strings that may impede business. Unfortunately, it is something else for a government to neglect its duty to protect its citizens from harm. Unfortunately, in Ontario, there are still strong memories associated with another (conservative) government’s cuts to inspector funding: Walkerton.
The Kyoto Accords
The Kyoto Accords, and the general discussion (argument) about environmental policy is certainly a touchy issue today. Here in Ontario and the rest of the Eastern Provinces, most people have the opinion that people living out West don't care about the environment, and don't mind the massive cloud of death sitting over northern Alberta. Why else would the government be so opposed to the accords, rather than taking the Liberal strategy of delay and re-write? Well, one of my best friends is from Calgary, and I have also had the opportunity to meet many people from Alberta. I left all of those experiences with the impression that the environment is very much a real problem on their minds. However, it was also quite apparent to me that they are thoroughly opposed to the Ottawa-East dictating how they should approach the problem. Based on these experiences, I doubt that Harper simply "does not care" about the environment in the way that many say he does. Rather, I think that he would rather let individual regions determine their own response.
When (the premiers of ON and Quebec) McGuinty and Charest announced plans to adopt carbon taxes, and their own commitment to protecting forests, the government was (perhaps uncharacteristically) demure in its response. Despite what Harper and his cronies may think, they will not try to force a regional leader's hand to follow the federal plan (cap-and-trade being the most recent suggestion). Of course, there are exceptions to this. Jim Flaherty (that moron among imbeciles) decided to let his own politics (as a Conservative) influence his reaction to the news of the Ontario economic slow-down. He decided to play Conservative against Liberal in that debate, and the Conservatives are going to lose ground in Ontario because of it. However, that instance is, to me, a failure by Harper to yank the leash in time.
At first, when I heard about Canadian actors and filmmakers lamenting the number of cuts made to Arts funding, I laughed and thought “if you can’t get enough private funding it is because your project is a bad idea.”
Of course, the issue is much more complex, and much more politically motivated. When your government is threatened by impending deficits, you have to cut money from somewhere. Well, why not strike two birds with one stone and cut money to Arts Funding?
On the one hand, the arts grants were established to help to promote Canadian identity. Of course, this assumes that everyone in Canada agrees on what the council that awards the grants determines to be “Canadian.” I have a strong feeling that when it “Bubbles Galore,” Canada’s “XX” film was revealed to have been produced through funding from the federal government, some of the more “conservative” elements in Canada (nationwide) may have felt slightly off-put by the insinuation that the film was in some way “Canadian.” Similarly so for many other productions that have benefited from the same funding system.
Hmmm…so, how does this relate to a program of “defederalisation?” Well, in my opinion, I would hazard a guess that a politician interested in representing regional interests would want to reassure voters that the federal government will no longer be giving tax dollars to film makers that present content that [voters] would find offensive. Basically, Harper wants to make sure that (Ottawa) the federal government cannot force a particular (disagreeable?) “Canadian image” on the Canadian people.
In some ways, the cuts to funding are similar to cuts to business inspectors. This is a program of removing the government’s involvement in the arts. I doubt that the intention is to stifle artistic development in Canada. Of course, this government’s decisions have proven to be nothing if not short-sighted (re: the Cadman Affair).
Arming the Army of the Republicans?
My final instantiation of the Conservative plan is, admittedly, a bit of a stretch. After all, if I am insinuating that Harper is so strongly in favour of regionalism why would his government promote a strong (central) military? This has more to do with the fundamentals of government’s responsibility than a particular agenda of de-federalisation. One of a government's responsibilities is the defense of the state. Pumping money into the army satisfies his government's desire to impress upon the international community a Canadian commitment to self-determination. Basically, I am betting that Harper has some advisor who has told him that the reason that other leaders don't take him seriously is because Canada lacks military muscle.
Or, maybe not.
So, the real problem with Stephen Harper? He believes that it is Canada's best interest to have a weak federal government. In a follow-up post, I will discuss why this view is erroneous.
UPDATE: added quote from recent Globe and Mail article.