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POLITICS-CANADA: The Stealth Man Cometh

Paul Weinberg

TORONTO, May 30 2006 (IPS) - Canadian political scientist Daniel Drache has dubbed Prime Minister Stephen Harper “the stealth man” for his ability, so far, to play down his conservative political instincts while steering a minority government among hostile parties on the centre and left.

Drache suggests that Harper is smart enough to lay low about his desire for a radical decentralisation of the Canadian federation, which entails reducing the role of the national government to a few specific areas until he is able to win another federal election – and possibly a majority of elected Conservative members of parliament in the House of Commons.

In a May 24 speech, Harper laid out his vision of the new Canadian government. “And our spending is focused on areas of federal jurisdiction, like enforcing public security and the surveillance of our borders, toughening criminal justice and re-staffing the RCMP [the Royal Canadian Mounted Police] and rebuilding the armed forces of Canada. When we do spend, we want to spend in ways that reflect the real priorities of ordinary Canadians,” he said.

Harper and his government are currently leading in national opinion polls after defeating the Liberals last December. And it is no secret that the Conservatives see their path to majority government as running through French-speaking Quebec, where it made inroads as the major federalist option against the sovereigntist Bloc Quebecois in the last federal election.

(One wrinkle is that Harper’s plans may be jeopardised by the unpopularity of a right-wing Quebec provincial government which is seeking to curry favour with its voters by pushing for greater autonomy for all provinces.)

Meanwhile, some critics say the current debate over the country’s “fiscal imbalance” – in essence, how the federal and provincial governments share and spend tax and other revenues – masks Harper’s real intent to curtail national social programmes. It is also largely confusing for most people, Drache says: “Five people in Canada understand what fiscal imbalance means.”

At the same time, he notes that promises to reduce public spending rarely succeed because of the increasing costs of running a national government.

Marc Lee, an economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in Ottawa, has detected active lobbying below the political radar for massive tax cuts that would be paid for by cutting federal revenues to the provinces in income support and health services, as well as the elimination of Ottawa’s role as an enforcer of national standards in cross-Canada programmes.

This position is being advanced, he notes, by the ideological advocates of smaller government in two major business lobby organisations, the Canadian Council of Chief Executives and the C.D. Howe Institute, a centre-right think tank, as well as nationalists from Quebec who are seeking to reduce Ottawa’s role in areas of provincial constitutional jurisdiction such as health, education and some social services.

“That hasn’t really surfaced in media reports to date, there has been a lot of stuff in the media about equalisation and stuff like that, but to me I think this is the real core issue,” he told IPS.

Lee suggests that Prime Minister Harper has been “a bit more cagey” about these proposals for radical decentralisation beyond enunciating general support for stronger provinces and redressing the fiscal imbalance in his government’s first budget. He also says despite talk by the provinces that they have never recovered from earlier federal cuts to government transfers in the mid-1990s under the Liberals, much of this funding has since been restored.

“The missing story is that the tax cuts at the provincial level [by provincial governments themselves] represent about 30 billion dollars (Canadian) a year in foregone revenues,” he said.

One way, he adds, to satisfy the provinces’ financial concerns is to have the federal government centralise the administration of certain areas like social welfare and the bulk purchases of expensive pharmaceutical drugs for provincial healthcare programmes whose budgets are continuing to rise.

Lee’s fear is that these radical proposals for an already decentralised federation will lead to an increasing patchwork of services like daycare or health in different provinces, depending upon how much money can be gleaned from the proceeds of the sale of local natural resources such as energy. “Fundamentally, this is about how Canada is run,” he stressed.

Beginning in the 1970s with the curtailment of Canada’s unemployment insurance programme and in later in the 1980s with the signing of free trade agreements with the U.S. and Mexico, successive Liberal and Conservative governments in Ottawa, under prodding from the business lobby groups, have whittled away at the activist role that the federal government played in the post-Second World War period in national social, industrial and economic initiatives.

“There seems to be less thrust for those national programmes now, and some resistance to the federal government whenever it proposes a national policy, even on something as elementary as a uniform health system,” said Ned Franks, emeritus professor in political studies at Queen’s University.

As someone who has closely watched the current prime minister both when he was an active politician and a conservative policy advisor, University of Alberta political scientist Steve Patten suggests that Harper is balancing his core political beliefs with the reality of running a party that got elected because of disenchantment with the long-ruling Liberal party.

“There will be a little bit of tension there between what’s politically expedient and what fits the value system,” Patten told IPS.

However, York University political scientist Ray Bazowski argues that Harper has been philosophically consistent in terms of his anti-government beliefs. He says that some of Harper’s hostility to the current framework of Canadian federalism originated with neo-conservative and neo-liberal thinking in United States, which is a more centralised federation than Canada.

He cites, for instance, measures by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who got the states to take over more of the responsibility for welfare even as Washington reduced its financial support in this area.

“The people surrounding Harper from the University of Calgary [some of whom have been his political advisors] are drawn to a conservative and a classic sense of American government,” Bazowski concluded.

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