Fourteen months after forming a minority government, and with other parties showing little interest to defeat that government, the Conservatives are doing just enough to run the country and directing most of their energy toward ensuring they stay in power. They certainly aren’t the first minority government to take this approach. But at a time when substantial, long-term policy issues are begging to be addressed Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservatives are spending too much energy on the next election.
Of course, substantial long-term policy issues are always staring governments in the eyes, and a minority government’s ability to tackle some of these issues is limited by other parties’ willingness to take them on. But Canada’s New Government is a long way removed from its Reform Party roots. Reform started as a little bloc of alienated westerners fed up with the bloated old parties, so focused on power and patronage. Reformers were conservatives but they were going to bypass the Ottawa establishment and get things done.
As we now know, that approach produced a few seats in the House of Commons but no true power. To win enough seats in central Canada to amount to anything more Reformers had to become Conservatives. And today the party is indistinguishable from the other established parties.
Except that the Conservatives are the party Canadians have chosen to lead the country right now. Not a majority of Canadians, only a plurality, but that carries a higher responsibility than Canada’s New Government has shown. The Harper government seems to think its mandate is to establish conditions for a majority government.
In a time when dynamic change is taking place in manufacturing, in labour, in energy and in the environment — or, for those few climate-change deniers left, dynamic change in public perception of the environment as an issue — Canada’s New Government has done little to address these changes.
On the environment and climate change, the Conservatives’ Clean Air Act, which is supposed to lay out a national plan for the regulation and control of greenhouse gases and air pollutants, has been so heavily amended by Parliamentary committee that the government’s likely to let it die on the order paper. The EcoTrust Fund provides $1.5 billion for the provinces and territories to address climate change initiatives. An EcoEnergy Carbon Capture and Storage Task Force was announced last month that will investigate capturing carbon dioxide emissions and storing them underground.
While Canada’s New Environment Minister, John Baird, says he recognizes it’s time for action on global warming he has been criticized by scientists for dismissing the need for further research — and cutting funding for further research — on how to adapt to a changing climate.
On the labour shortage that is hitting Western Canada, the Conservatives have again recognized the issue but real change is slow in coming. Former Citizenship and Immigration minister Monte Solberg and Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity Jason Kenney have visited Whistler to hear local concerns. John Weston, the Conservative candidate for West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country, claims credit for these meetings, and they should not be dismissed. But voters can decide whether cabinet ministers have visited Whistler out of concern for our labour issues or the party’s determination to reclaim the riding.
As for helping immigrants solve the labour shortage by recognizing their professional qualifications, the Conservatives set aside $18 million in their 2006 budget for a Canadian Agency for Assessment and Recognition of Credentials. And little has been heard about the issue since.
The Conservatives are, for all intents and purposes, spending their time on an election campaign without declaring an election. Recently they launched a series of attack ads on Liberal leader Stephane Dion and opened up their campaign war room to the press.
And the prime minister is setting the example himself. After alleging the Liberals were “soft on terrorism”, last month Stephen Harper tried to connect the Liberals with the Taliban, saying: “I can understand the passion that the Leader of the Opposition and members of his party feel for Taliban prisoners, I just wish occasionally they would show the same passion for Canadian soldiers.”
But for all the political cheap shots and provocation, there is no election in sight. Because the polls show Canadians wouldn’t elect a majority Conservative government right now.