At first I was optimistic that the Stephen Harper Conservative government might be a good thing for the country. Given its minority status after the last election, and the fact that the Liberals and one other party can bring about Canada’s third national election in less than four years, I expected a humble, conciliatory government that works closely with other parties. You know, the kind of government they said they’d be during the last campaign.
Turns out that Harper has about as much interest in working with other parties as he does in holding a civil discourse on the issues, which is to say he has no interest in this government but his own. Elected under the pretense of bringing integrity and accountability back to Parliament, Harper has so far been all swagger, all the time.
Here’s why I’m scared:
His language and attempts to frame the debate on certain issues seem to echo the failed Bush administration south of the border – for example, it’s "tax relief" not tax cuts, and anyone who wants to discuss the Canadian mission in Afghanistan like an adult is accused of wanting to "cut and run".
These days Harper is gambling, and rightly, that the opposition parties won’t risk forcing another election so soon after the last one. Harper is currently enjoying a honeymoon 40 per cent approval rating – almost enough for a majority government if an election were called tomorrow. But what’s going to happen in another few years when the honeymoon is over and other parties can safely challenge Harper?
Instead of looking down the road and toning down his swagger Harper is actually daring the other parties to vote against his initiatives. He dared them to vote against his child-care allowance plan. He dared them to vote against extending the military’s involvement in Afghanistan to 2009. He dared the Liberals to use their Senate majority to block the first budget, which includes income tax cuts, huge cuts to Liberal programs, and a one per cent reduction in the GST.
When his nominee to head a non-partisan commission that reviews public appointments was nixed by Parliament (because said nominee was revealed to be a staunchly partisan conservative), Harper accused the other parties of playing politics and decided to drop the whole commission until the Conservative Party has its majority. In other words, it’s Harper’s ball and he’s going home.
That move prompted more than one commentator to use the word "petulant" in describing Harper, meaning "childishly sulky or bad-tempered". The perfect word – all Harper had to do was come up with another, and less publicly partisan, nominee to head the commission, but instead he chose to throw an embarrassing tantrum.
I have a few other beefs with Mr. Harper. One is his party’s decision to cut funding to over 100 climate change programs across Canada, pending review. It doesn’t matter if those programs were successful or not, it’s just that Harper never was a fan of Canada’s decision to sign on to the Kyoto agreement. He prefers the U.S. approach of dangling carrots to industry, or the Australian "do our best, but set no targets" scheme to the hard greenhouse gas reduction targets required by Kyoto.
Harper has also dropped a plan to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, despite the fact that it would free up more police time for his party’s heralded crackdown on crime. The ill-conceived war on drugs and criminalization of addiction continues…
Harper did resolve the softwood lumber issue, but did so by agreeing to a system of tariffs in exchange for free access to the U.S. market – a boon to raw log exporters and a punch in the face for the whole concept of free and fair trade. The agreement basically set aside dozens of court rulings in Canada’s favour, not to mention $5 billion in tariffs already levied, by legitimizing American protectionist policies.
To be fair, not everything Harper has done has been negative. His government cut the entry fee for new immigrants in half, while streamlining the process for adopted children from abroad to get citizenship. A lot of families also seem to like his childcare allowance scheme, even if it doesn’t create any more daycare spots and falls well short of meeting actual costs.
It’s probably also a good thing for Canada that he’s patching up relations with the U.S., but that’s easy enough to do when you were not the leader in power during the start of the unpopular Iraq war and the numerous trade disputes that have arisen since Bush took power.
But I still can’t shake this bad feeling. One reason is Harper’s recent decision to wrap up his public appearances by proclaiming "God bless Canada", mirroring the U.S. Presidential standard of "God bless America".
I’m a firm believer in the separation of church and state. Among other things, that’s what enables us to teach evolution in schools, and gives women the right to seek safe, medical abortions. It’s also easier to unify a country politically when religion is left aside.
Harper won the last election fair and square. But next election he won’t have a Liberal scandal to pick on, or a guaranteed share of the moderate "guess it’s time for a change" vote. His success depends on how well he steers his policies to the middle ground, but so far all he’s making are right-hand turns.