Does Harper have a plan?

WELLS & COYNE debate Stephen Harper’s political record, and how the PM will go down in history


Sean Kilpatrick/CP/ Chris Wattie/Reuters

On Oct. 13, Maclean’s will present a round-table discussion on “Canada’s Conservative Government: Radical Change or Driftat Vancouver’s Norman Rothstein Theatre. The debate will be broadcast live on CPAC, and feature Monte Solberg, a former Conservative party cabinet minister, Deborah Grey, the Reform party’s first elected member of Parliament, and Michael Byers, a professor and Canada Research Chair at the University of British Columbia. The event will be moderated by CPAC’s Peter Van Dusen, and include Maclean’s columnists Paul Wells and Andrew Coyne. This week, Wells and Coyne kick things off.

Paul Wells: Andrew, if he lasts in office long enough to sit beside Jim Flaherty for next February’s budget speech, Stephen Harper will by then have been Prime Minister for longer than Lester Pearson was. And if he’s still Prime Minister at the end of 2011, he’ll have passed Diefenbaker. Already, at the not-quite-five-year mark, it is fair to note that Harper has held the job for a significant portion of our nation’s history, and to pause to take stock. That’s what we’ll do with our guests in Vancouver on Oct. 13.

The question is whether his longevity is his biggest achievement or whether he has done something with that time. I tend to the latter view. I think Stephen Harper is becoming a significant Prime Minister. He’s made modest but real policy changes; he’s forestalled change of the sort a Liberal government would have implemented; and he’s changed the political culture of the country.

One excellent way to miss all of this is to use total government spending as your yardstick. It’s gone up under the Conservatives, so they’re not conservative, right? Sure, if you like. But in the meantime the Harper Conservatives have replaced Paul Martin’s fledgling national daycare system with the $100-per-child monthly child-care cheques, a $2.1-billion shift from institutions of state to individuals. And they sharply increased transfers to the provinces (“fixing” the “fiscal imbalance”), a radically decentralizing move I’m surprised you haven’t complained about more.

Meanwhile the Insite safe-injection drug facility in Vancouver must fight Harper all the way to the Supreme Court to survive. As health minister, Ken Dryden would have installed a dozen more safe-injection sites across the country by now. The Kelowna accord on Aboriginal government would have been implemented, to the tune of billions of dollars. Executive federalism on the Liberal model—an obstinate federal government forcing provinces to coordinate and report to citizens on social policy in return for new transfers—has essentially disappeared, and you can’t find Harper’s intergovernmental affairs minister with bloodhounds. I like some of these moves and not others, but it’s hard not to notice that they happened.

Finally, Harper’s longevity is an achievement, because he has done it by deepening his appeal to a hardy base of just under one-third of the population. The very demographic groups that felt Ottawa’s power corridors were not for people like them are the ones that now support Harper most ardently. That’s why, when professional associations and university faculty clubs denounce something Harper has done, he is so sanguine: he draws his support elsewhere, and that support doesn’t much care what you or I say; they are quite sure Harper is their man.

Andrew Coyne: Paul, you make a strong case for a weak client, but that’s still a pretty thin list: a couple of ditched Liberal campaign promises from 2006, plus a probably doomed legal fight against a Vancouver safe-injection site. This is what they have to show for nearly five years in office? (As an aside, they didn’t actually end federal support for “government-run” daycare. Budget documents brag of transferring $1.1 billion annually to the provinces for child care and other early childhood programs, including “the creation of new child care spaces.”)

I note you did not include a more recent Liberal promise on the list of Tory kills: the carbon tax. Rightly so: the Conservative alternative—a mishmash of carbon-trading, regulation, and subsidy—was just as costly, twice as complex, and half as effective. Liberals boasted of how market-friendly their plan was; Conservatives, how interventionist theirs was.

Still, that remains your best argument—all the things they didn’t do, the Liberal policies they didn’t enact, what might be called “significance by omission.” Because when it comes to actual policy departures, there just isn’t all that much: certainly nothing resembling an identifiably conservative agenda—or an agenda, period. Granted, a minority Parliament imposes certain constraints. But the Conservatives have not noticeably been tugging on the leash. If anything, they’ve been pulling the opposite way, as seen in the vast expansion of federal spending on their watch: more than 40 per cent in just five budgets.

You dismiss this as more or less irrelevant, but I can’t see how. The central question of modern politics, after all, is the size and scope of government. Spending is not just a measure of that, it is the determinant: without the funds, governments cannot do any of the other things that divide left and right. So it is hardly a footnote that, over the past five years, the Tories have spent some $112 billion more than was required to keep pace with inflation and population growth. (True, a chunk of that has gone to the provinces, but that’s hardly a point in the conservative column: the conservatives I know want to abolish federal-provincial transfers.)

Let’s turn things around. Suppose it were put to the Liberals: okay, we’ll let you keep Insite and the Kelowna accord, in exchange for cutting spending by $112 billion. Think they’d take that deal?

PW: Andrew, this might be a good time to point out that I’m not trying to argue that Harper’s government is wonderful, or that it’s my kind of bunch; if I were running the country I too would want it to stay out of deficit more often. I’m trying only to argue that Harper’s government matters to the direction of the country, and if fiscal balance were my only measure of significance, I’d need to write off Ronald Reagan, who tripled his country’s national debt, and Dick Cheney, who said deficits don’t matter, as insignificant.

The structure of spending matters too: the fact, for instance, that provincial revenues, including transfers from Ottawa, are wildly higher than federal revenues. That’s the kind of change you used to argue against when less of it had happened.

Sweeping change stirs the imagination, but it’s easy enough to undo. What remains of Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution? Not a lot, because Ontario’s political culture permitted the election of Dalton McGuinty’s government, which has undone much of what Harris did. That’s why Harper’s work on Canada’s political culture—the legitimization of the Conservative party as a voting option among large numbers of new Canadians, the very pronounced tilt toward Israel in the Middle East, the transformation of Canada’s three largest cities from centres of power to centres of opposition—also matters. It suggests his legacy will endure.

AC: Paul, anybody who stays in office long enough will inevitably produce some kind of legacy. That’s a given. The question is, what kind: does it add up to anything beyond a random assortment of tactical feints, impulse purchases, and settled scores?

We’ve talked about some of the things they haven’t done. Let’s talk about some more: like cut personal income taxes, control spending, balance the budget, shut the pork barrel, reform EI, restore local democracy, give MPs more independence, allow referendums on important issues . . . all these and more, bedrock party principle before they took office, all tossed aside since. Change Canada’s political culture? I’d say the culture has changed them.

You say fiscal or economic or democratic conservatism are not the only measures of the government’s record. But if anything they’ve given social conservatives even less, beyond the failed attempt to abolish the gun registry. Certainly on the one issue that matters most to so-cons, abortion, the Conservatives have not only done nothing, but are forbidden even to discuss the issue.

And while the list of discarded convictions (Afghanistan, Quebec) and broken promises (income trusts, fixed election dates) is a long one, what’s truly disquieting is the sheer incoherence of the government’s agenda, not just year to year, but week to week, even day to day. They just seem to stumble aimlessly from one needless controversy to the next. Prorogation? The national anthem? The census?

Sure, it would be nice if there were one marginally conservative party on the political menu, just for variety’s sake. But failing that, mere competence—stability, predictability, internal consistency—would do.

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Does Harper have a plan?

  1. You both seem to have missed the fact that a significant portion of spending went to rebuilding our sadly underfunded military. Finally, our soldiers have real equipment. They are no longer riding around in unarmored vehicles in Afghanistan. That's a fairly significant shift from the previous government, and an important one to the Conservative base (speaking as one). And I'm really tired of hearing about the "social conservative" base being a big piece of their support, I'd aruge it has diminished significantly. SSM is here to stay, and so is abortion. It would be nice to see some limits set on abortion, but that's such a hot political potato no one is going to touch it, with or without a majority (and there are a few socially conservative Liberal MPs, don't forget).

    • Conceptually I agree with you – but specifically — do you know about how much of the $110B is comprised of military spending?

    • Martin increased spending on military equipment by about 9% if I recall. Harper by only 2%. This year he announced military spending cuts of $2B. Coincidentally, these cuts and no increases come just as Martin's 5 year military spending budget wraps up.

      I think military spending only proves Coyne's point all the more.

      • In what year did Martin decide it was a priority? Did the Conservatives scrap it or increase the spending?

    • So you're part of harp's base — but not part of the socon base? But you applaud military spending (except nobody is sure why we're there any more, not even the soldiers or their families). And you want to limit abortions. Based on what or who's judgement? Religious moral judgement? Limiting abortion wouldn't even cross my mind — do women who abort do so numerous times? Maybe you're looking for limits like a two-for-one special? LIke at Dairy Queen?

      Sorry, Candace, but in just one brief paragraph, you kind of sound like a socon.

      • limits on abortions refers to WHEN an abortion can be performed, not how many. every country that legalizes abortion also has a law regarding the conditions that are required, usually a limit as to when (ie no late term abortions).. except canada. our law was struck down not because it didn't allow abortions, but because it made it too difficult to get one. that doesn't mean we should have no law, just that the one we had was not fair. yes there are those who want to abolish abortion, but there are also many, like me, who just want some kind of reasonable limits on when it's too late to have one. does that make me a SOCON to you? because i consider myself pro-choice.

      • Re: abortion – I'm with Travii on setting limits as to WHEN, not how many or any of the others. I consider myself pro-choice.

        "But you applaud military spending (except nobody is sure why we're there any more, not even the soldiers or their families). " – I'm not too sure why we're still there, either. But if we ARE going to be there, our soldiers need to be properly equipped. Thanks to the Conservative gov't purchase of the C130s we were able to be in Haiti in what, less than 24 hours? Do you have a problem with that kind of military spending? Do you like hearing about Sea Kings crashing, etc?

        • Candace: I agree with your persectives as described here; sorry I misunderstood your original post.

  2. You guys are off to a fascinating and well argued start on this debate. I'd tend to hew far closer to Coyne than to Wells, or at least to their arguments. Of course, every "government matters to the direction of the country" – that's right up there with Wells' other ongoing observation, that Harper likes being prime minister and wants to keep the job. Well, thanks. Show me a prime minister who doesn't impact over the direction of the country, or who doesn't like the job and doesn't care about keeping it.

    Now, of course, if you're a small or big l liberal, you can't like where Harper says he will take the country, and you certainly don't like where's he's been steering, as Wells and Coyne both point out.

    But the real issue to me is that whether you're a conservative or even a Conservative, it seems a vastly difficult trick is required to support him. If I was a fiscal conservative, the game's over for Harper. If you're a social conservative, there are any number of issues that Harper has really only lightly brushed against. There's some occasional red meat thrown to the base, but these are usually policy statements, not policy initiatives, and they don't tend to see the light of day.

    Add to this the trail of minority governments, and poll numbers that don't seem to budge even against a still-weakened Liberal Party and an NDP that can't break past the high teens, and it seems – it seems – that Harper is actually quite politically dead, on life support by virtue of the Westminster system.

  3. Let me see if I can calrify a few things for what the usual crowd of hareper haters fail to appreciate or acknowledge : here we have a minority PM – who can only exist as PM one confidence motion to another lead our country through the following !(1) an unpopular shooting war in a foreign country (2) the worst global economic meltdwon since the great depression (3) a good chunk of parliament tied up in knots by a party whose goal it is to destroy confederation (4) a combination of all the other oppostion parties clearly all lined up against them and no natural allies there – let me see if get this now – somehwo a pundit thinks that this is no big deal – business as usual and hardly worth consideration … please give me a break – harper has outplayed, outfoxed and outmanouvered all comers so far – he has already retired one leader the LPTs and no doubt will stll be PM after another one bites the dust – hahahah – too funny :)

    • Wayne: "harper has outplayed, outfoxed and outmanouvered all comers so far"

      AC: "does it add up to anything beyond a random assortment of tactical feints, impulse purchases, and settled scores?"

      Well Wayne? Does it?

      • of course it does – the only who would possibly disagree are the obviously frustrated harper haters – case closed – the historical track record of any PM can be based upon only one criteria = the length of time sitting in the chair making decisions that affect the country – now you can moan, groan, gnash your teeth and rend your garments or cry ululululu but it is obviouls that partisan interests effect the statements that you issue forth – the mere fact that you ask the obvious question in this fashion shows your position on the subject and any independent mind would agree with me … the funny thing is that after Harper retires both Jack and Iggy next .. because make no mistake about it that is the near future here no doubt you will then be saying – well at least Harper will not be leader if he only gets another minortiy – hahahahah ! the last resort of partisan politcial frustration.

        • I hope the rest of Canadians set the bar for good government higher than you do, Wayne. Short-term political successes do not make a prime minister or government great.

          • I also hope the rest of Canadians set a higher bar for spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

        • Go fanboy go. I could use the sleep.

        • I concede your point that Harper currently the undisputed reigning champ of campaign politics. But that doesn't imply that he's any good. In fact, I think history will place him near the bottom of the list since he has never won (and likely never will win) a majority.

          More to the point, campaign politics is not a legacy. What is Harper's legacy?

          • If obtaining a majority is a barometer of prime ministerial success, then I guess Lester B. Pearson ranks among the worst for you as well?

            I actually do think Harper's political tactics will leave a lasting legacy. In fact, I think his opposition has already started to emulate him, which is probably the greatest compliment in politics.

            On the positive side, most new leaders — which happen to be Liberals lately — come in and use Harper as a model of success. How he was a cold academic who surprised everyone. Now everyone wants to be this way.

            On the negative side, both the NDP and the Liberals have now resorted to using political advertising between election campaigns, with at least the latter going negative.

          • The point of my post is that a legacy is built on policies, not campaign politics. Pearson exemplifies that.

            And yes – although I'm not as well versed in Canadian political history as I should be, I feel that he would probably be near the bottom of the rankings of campaign politicians despite his policy achievements.

            When would Harper ever be considered an academic? He's a career politician.

          • He's been involved in politics most of his life, yes, as an adviser and advocate. Not sure if this qualifies as a "politician."

          • If Harper's political tactics leave a lasting legacy, it won't be a good one… for anybody (Conservatives included).

          • He's achieved success as a master organizer and tactician. My guess is that you'll see more of this in the future, and it's not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, in some ways he's modernized the way Canadians do politics, relying less on old sweeping concepts relating to things like nationalism, etc, and more on precision policy-making.

            He's a policy wonk who became prime minister. So, in a sense, I think the behind-the-scenes aspect of his reign will be dissected and probably emulated.

          • He's a good organizer… and the other parties should take notes in terms of how parties organize themselves, fundraise, etc. But precision policy making? Yeah, I don't think that's what he's going to be remembered for, IMHO.

          • Maybe precision policy making isn't the best characterization. Instead of these grand themes of old, which Liberals still use on things like child care and even Kelowna, the new approach seems to be more targeted. Even Layton seems to have gone in this direction. The NDP doesn't talk so much about social justice anymore. They talk about the HST, corporate tax cuts, specific criminal provisions, and so on. Maybe micromanaging is a better term. I don't know. Bill Clinton went this way after 1994 and it helped him secure a second term.

          • I'm not sure if that's by design… it would be hard for any government of any stripe to come up with a 'grand' policy approach when it's a minority government these days. Back when there wasn't so much partisanship and instant media coverage, it may have been possible… but think about how much of this government's time is spent just managing to stay in government. The whole 'message control' exercise has to be very labour intensive (and I don't mean that in a snarky way… even the biggest Harper backer would have to agree they spend a lot of time on that stuff).

          • I think it is by design. Paul Wells has documented at least a part of this approach going back years. Take whatever position the Liberals have on something, and nudge it slightly to the right. No grand schemes, just targeted tactics. And I suspect you'll see more of it from others if it hasn't happened already.

            As I said before, I think it's part of a more modern, targeted approach to politics. One, however, that Obama has thrown out the window and led to not only a more polarized electorate, but one that is strongly titled against him.

            Regarding Harper's communications strategy, I think a lot of people criticize it precisely because it's been so successful. The left was relishing the idea of old Reformers going back to old habits once sitting on the government side of the aisle. It hasn't happened. The message discipline has worked, and during hostile circumstances for them.

  4. Eventual epitaph for Harper's government: "Placeholders, until real government returned"

  5. Yes, Harper has a plan, but it's not one that left-wing commentators….and most of them only play at being conservative, but are actually left-wing whether they realize it or not….would recognize.

    • But Emily, that's what Coyne is saying – it's not even the plan he promised. How can conservatives back him when he refuses to stick to his convictions? Forget the Liberals completely, do you genuinely think he's doing a great job, that he's lived up to his promise and that he's someone you want to defend?

      Why do Conservatives keep going to bat for a man who is so spineless that he will not engage with the press gallery, will not admit miss-steps, backs down on his core issues? He doesn't inspire confidence. Come on conservatives, can't you find someone worthy of your support?

  6. I think the Conservative legacy will be one of a series of "tweaks" to the system already in place. Possible exceptions to this might include military equipment purchases and the GST cut. Otherwise the basic fabric of the country is relatively unchanged which probably explains some of their electoral success.

  7. Seems to me that from the start Harper's government was put on a short leash by the Canadian electorate, and little has changed in that regard. I'd think by now that if the people felt comfortable with the CPC, they'd have awarded them a broader mandate.

    Now to be fair, the electorate is currently split five ways, which makes it difficult for any party to gain enough advantage to actually win a majority.

    On the otherhand, the CPC is the only party that's conservative per se, so it seems to me that they aren't splitting their spectrum of the vote with anyone but possibly the Liberals, so maybe the "split" argument is overstated somewhat?

    In any case, the only "achievement" I see from the CPC that the LPC wouldn't have as likely emulated somewhat, is the GST cut.

    And that happened 4 years ago.

  8. I think Paul has it right in that Harper's objectives are first and foremost political. Everyone talks about his desiring a majority (which is certainly true) however the bigger prize would be the removal of either the Liberals or NDP or alternatively their merger. If Harper does ever achieve that, he will have had a remarkable impact on Canada's political landscape.

    Of course, Coyne is also correct. In terms of policy, Harper's achievements are Lilliputian.

    • Huh? I'm not getting you. Uniting your opposition is not a victory, especially in a FPTP system. The Conservatives have proven that.

      • I think Harper spent enough years contemplating the perpetual governance of the Liberals, that he is very wary of getting back to that political situation again, i.e. where the NDP & Conservatives are seen as the voices of the left and right respectively while the Liberals are the centre. I agree that it may not be in Harper's best interest (this is Stephen Harper we are talking about), but the eventual outcome of changing the party financing is a single left of centre party.

        • I am going to go crazy and agree with both you and john g. No, really. A divided popular vote between NDP and Lib is a gift to the CPC, in FPTP. See Liberals, Reform and PC as major electoral gift to. Chretien should STILL be sending roses to Preston Manning every February.

          But: A Liberal-NDP merger would be painting "SOCIALIST!" targets on all candidates of the new party; the damage would be substantial.

      • The point I think is that the elimination of the Liberal "brand", if not the party itself, would be a monumental achievement for the Conservatives. If the Liberals were squeezed into the middle like the Liberal-Democrats in England, it would take the opposition years to recover and solidify any kind of base sufficient to win back government or even to strongly oppose the Conservatives.

    • Stewart you're on the ball.
      <quote>I think Paul has it right in that Harper's objectives are first and foremost political. Everyone talks about his desiring a majority (which is certainly true) however the bigger prize would be the removal of either the Liberals or NDP or alternatively their merger. If Harper does ever achieve that, he will have had a remarkable impact on Canada's political landscape.

      Of course, Coyne is also correct. In terms of policy, Harper's achievements are Lilliputian. </quote>

  9. Another victory for the Conservatives and Canadians is the avoidance of a Liberal “Green Shift” Carbon Tax that would have been implemented by a Dion-Iggy Liberal gov’t, in 2008 and collected $50 Billion over 4 years. In 2012, Canada’s now-defunct Kyoto Treaty GHG target reductions would have had to be mitigated with Billion$$$ of Kyoto Carbon Credits, because there was no way we could have physically reduced our GHG footprint by 32%. A coalition gov’t is still committed to meeting Canada’s 2012 Kyoto treaty targets, but will not admit that openly.

    Of course, both Wells and Coyne are fully aware of the Chinese Carbon Credit scam being perpetrated by the Chinese communist-capitalists and their friendly Liberal-connected Canadian business interests in China who would have been the direct beneficiaries of Billion$$$ courtesy of beleaguered Canadian taxpayers. Come on, Paul & Andy … fess up and tell the whole story in Macleans .. I dare ya …!!!

    • I'd very humbly submit that it is actually quite impossible to be a "communist-capitalist." Perhaps a more accurate description would be to call China a capitalist-authoritarian regime.

  10. The Conservatives didn't exactly put out a very ambitious platform when they got re-elected in 2008, so it shouldn't be surprising that their latest term in government didn't prove to be particularly ambitious. The Tories have gotten more attention for the way they've handled their business rather than any substantive policy achievements. Mind you, it's tough to deliver sound policy when you're a minority government that won't co-operate with opposition. It's no surprise that in hindsight, the term hasn't amounted "to anything beyond a random assortment of tactical feints, impulse purchases, and settled scores."

  11. "That's why Harper's work on Canada's political culture—the legitimization of the Conservative party as a voting option among large numbers of new Canadians, the very pronounced tilt toward Israel in the Middle East, the transformation of Canada's three largest cities from centres of power to centres of opposition—also matters. It suggests his legacy will endure."

    I agree with you here, Wells. Harper is trying to move the polity to the right. There are lots of examples of this, but the most obvious one is his statement "I don't believe any taxes are good taxes." For a rationalist, such a statement doesn't make much sense. However, viewed through the post-modern prism of how much of our politics seems to be conducted these days, defining the Conservatives as the party which is always against taxes actually makes a great deal of sense. It doesn't really matter that the reality is different, for example, the increased payroll taxes that Flaherty is introducing. And what is the alternative ? Explaining to people that taxes are necessary if they want services ? People just aren't very receptive to this argument, no matter how much sense it makes. Harper's professed hatred of all taxes may be intellectually dishonest, inconsistent and hypocritical, but it does constitute a strategy, and it's very hard to fight against.

    • There are Conservative words.

      And there are Conservative actions.

      I think Conservative actions have moved the poltical spectrum far to the "left".

      – deficit spending even before the recession. And then the recession where the most allegedly conservative government in our recent history firmly entrenched the notion more than anyone before it that a market requires government intervention – both direct in the form of corporate welfare and indirect in the form of projects and "stimulus".
      – the expansion of the notion of regional development agencies. Before we had Western diversification and Atlantic Opportunities; now we have them for the southern Ontario region, the north, I think one for Quebec and one for the BC interior.
      – Harper has expanded the interventionist nature of the state as well with such new rules and strict licensing and penalties for driving a boat

      • The reason they went into deficit before the recession was that they cut their revenues by cutting the GST, creating a structural deficit. They would have you believe that cutting taxes is a Conservative policy, even though the Conservatives in a former guise brought in the GST to begin with (which was the right thing to do). Conservatives would claim that they had 'stimulus' forced upon them by the 'Evil Coalition', and to some extent, they would be right, although nobody put a gun to their heads and forced them to spend as much money as they did, nor did anybody in the opposition specify on which projects they should spend the money. If there was going to be stimulus anyway, they were bound to use it to bribe Canadians with their own money, as they have in their quest for a majority government.

        I don't know much about the regional development agency expansion, but it makes sense to expand them into southern Ontario given the deindustrialization which is going on, accelerated by the recession, and into the North, which has suffered greatly due to the decline of its own industries, some due to the inadequate free trade agreement signed by Mulroney. In any case, this appears to fall within the rubric of giving more money to the provinces, a Conservative policy.

        Are there other examples of the Harper Conservative government expanding the "interventionist nature of the state", or are you just one very angry boater ? I don't think one example proves anything one way or another.

      • Somehow one major additional points didn't make it.

        – Harper tacitly confirmed the Conservative Party as a pro-choice party making all 5 in Parliament pro-choice. Not only that but he: won't discuss it, won't allow his MPs to discuss it, won't abide by anything CPC delegates say about it. Even the Liberals don't go that far. The case is closed on criminalizing abortion.

  12. Boys, boys, Anrew, Paul, you're both right.

    Andrew is correct when he states that Harper's "achievements" so far add up to "… a random assortment of tactical feints, impulse purchases, and settled scores …"

    While I certainly hope that Paul is incorrect in stating that Harper has changed to political bent of the country I do believe he has given a true voice to those in the country (about a 1/3 of the populace) who, much like him want to go back to they way things supposedly were.

    Sadly, this is continued mixture of anger, fear and frustration leads to little that is truly valuable to helping people or solving problems that confront us as a country.

  13. "does it add up to anything beyond a random assortment of tactical feints, impulse purchases, and settled scores?"

    The answer is YES. And NO. These tactics will not add up to a significant policy shift to the right, because that's not really Harper's objective. A policy shift can easily be reversed by a subsequent progressive government. These intended sum of these tactics is a polity that's further to the right than it was before.

    He's trying to make it politically impossible for a progressive government to reverse the small rightward shifts he's made.

    Take the census for example. While this decision will negatively impact many areas of policy and is therefore a terrible idea, in the grand scheme of things it's a fairly minor policy decision. But if a future government tries to reinstate a mandatory census, they will be branded as "big brother" and they will have a significant fight on their hands. Poising the census well was not a result of the policy decision, it was the intent.

  14. An interesting topic.

    First, many people seem to forget the state of the conservative movement after the 1993 election. If nothing else, Harper has managed to create a governing alternative to the Liberals that can enact bolder conservative change in the future.

    Second, Coyne suggested that this Conservative government is incompetent. Why? Because of the census and prorogation? You criticize Wells for focusing on the trivial while doing so yourself, in my opinion.

    Third, isn't the Tory crime agenda a significant one, as well as a radical departure from the Liberal and coalition approach?

    Fourth, I suppose I have to challenge Mr. Wells on his analysis of the Harris legacy. I think it was irreversible. All McGuinty has managed to do is to take a few steps back in the other direction, while spending countless billions in doing so. In other words, after Harris reformed the province, McGuinty bought social peace. It's been his entire strategy for governing.

    Fifth, Reagan. Even Democrats today run on his legacy. Obama talks about the man in glowing terms. He's the most successful and popular president since FDR. So, I think you can govern as a conservative and leave a lasting legacy.

    • Let me add a sixth: The dismantling of the Liberal Natural Governing Machine. This is no small feat. Think about how invincible they appeared to be when Paul Martin took over. He even managed to pull out a minority in 2004. Harper persisted and put the beast out of its misery, figuratively speaking. Now, the tables have turned. It's up to Liberals to put their movement back together. I'll leave it to others to decide if Iggy is up to it.

  15. As far as Harper changing the "political bent" of the country, it seems to me people don't change their fundamental beliefs just because some of some politician.

    If Harper was suddenly caught in a huge scandal, would his plummeting numbers suggest people are suddenly less conservative?

    Of course not, but that seems to be the suggestion with this line of thought.

    The reality is far simpler. The political "center" where the plurality sit, is far more elastic than some people want to admit and will stick with a current government more than some like, but will also wipe that party out if you give it reason enough.

    It is the political center that makes the game of politics something other than a foregone conclusion, and unless a party courts these people, no majority can be had.

    Which is why Harper won't get one.

  16. it seems to me people don't change their fundamental beliefs just because some of some politician.

    Maybe not, but a politician is certainly capable of giving a movement or set of principles enduring credibility. It's what Ronald Reagan did. In a sense, he moved the country to the right for the first time since FDR, and that's where it's been since. Clinton knew that, which is why he declared the era of big government over. Too bad Obama wasn't listening.

    • I agree that branding is extremely useful for political parties. It allows them the semblance of a platform, even when they don't have one in actuality.

      That said, Harper is no Reagan, Clinton, Macdonald, Trudeau, Pearson etc.

      Each of the men above were tough individuals, but they all had a human side people could relate to. They made you believe in their vision, and evoked a sense of national unity even in the face of opposition.

      Harper evokes no such feeling from the vast majority so far as I can tell.

      From my perspective, the CPC brand as it stands today has lost all the shine and earnest intent of the Reform party, and is now little more than a cynical political machine intent on riding roughshod over dissenters and debasing our public political dialogue by reducing it to a series of visceral attacks and slogans that deride fact and civility.

      There is no denying it. Harper is taking the low road, and sacrificing what is good about conservatism to meet political ends.

      I doubt very much that a lasting brand of worth can be formed from such manipulation and debasement.

  17. This article misses the point.

    Canadian politics has been fundamentally changed and in large part it is thanks to Harper.

    Regionalism is the new reality and people in Ontario haven't quite grasped it yet.

    When the extra seats get added it will be even more apparent.

    Harper has fully embraced this and is structuring the long term plans of the party on this.
    He is no longer running the country based on a sovereigntist versus federalist campaign.
    Which to certain degree plagues the other 2 national parties. He has done this by recognizing the distinct nature of every region.

    This includes the treating Alberta and BC like Quebec and reducing the amonut of federal oversite in provincial jurisdictions
    Until the liberals come up with an alternative to regionalism, they will not form government, unless it includes other regional parties, like the Bloc.

    There are ways the liberals can combine regionalism and a strong federation. It is a matter of will in the party though.

  18. Another point : Harper doesn't have a majority, which is both a blessing and a curse : if he had a majority, he might be expected to deliver on lots of Conservative and, dare I say it, Reform agenda stuff, and that would not help him in his long term objective of moving the polity to the right. In fact, it would probably hurt it. There would be a backlash. But he would be able to get a lot done, at least in the short term.

    That he doesn't have a majority means he has to duck and dive, making him look at bit incoherent. That hasn't stopped him from moving forward on his long term objective, though. The caution that has been forced on the Harper Conservative government by a minority has prevented a backlash from occurring. It's a very interesting dynamic. It may mean that his government will last longer than if he had gained a majority in 2006. Certainly the minority Parliament has done no good for the Liberal Party of Canada.

    • The minority status of Harper's government has allowed Harper to keep the more rightward policies (abortion, cuts to PS, etc) from being implemented, showing him as a moderate PM. As a bonus it has kept the Liberals on the edge of election readiness, which has prevented them from maturing into a viable alternative.

  19. "it's sad, but true"…and makes no sense. You seem to be saying the Cons are spending boatloads of money because the Liberals would have spent it, anyway. As a rationale for fiscal policy, that's just bizarre.

  20. "Harper Conservatives have replaced Paul Martin's fledgling national daycare system with the $100-per-child monthly child-care cheques, a $2.1-billion shift from institutions of state to individuals."

    1. Martin's government never intended to manage daycare: "The federal government …signed a series of bilateral agreements with the provincial governments to help pay for the construction of child care services, though the provinces retain[ed] considerable flexibility and choice in the design of their individual systems."

    2. Harper did not 'shift 2.1 billion from institutions to individuals'. This is an incorrect characterization of the social policy and spending changes that ensued after the Fed/Prov childcare agreements were canceled. In fact Harper increased the CCTB pursuant to the recommendation found here:…. Secondly, the Provinces have borrowed more than 2.1 billion to apply toward Full Day Kindergarten programs (institutionalized childcare for 4 and 5 year olds). Ontario alone has borrowed 1.5 billion. Thus public spending 'shifted' to Institutions and Harper's spending via the CCTB and UCCB is more accurately viewed as new transfers to individuals.

    It strikes me that Paul Wells has ignored women's issues in his political writing for so long that he hasn't the social policy background to speak knowledgeably about the track record of Stephen Harper.

    • I agree. I saw that when I read what Wells wrote: "I like some of these moves and not others, but it's hard not to notice that they happened." So many of these journalists find it easy not to notice what Harper has done to Canadian women. We need more of this:

  21. Harper will be PM for as long as he wants this job, he is just getting started and hasn't had a real chance to do what he wants to.

    • Are you threatening us with a hidden agenda?

      • Hahaha, you do watch to many conspiracy movies, but no, it isn't a threat, it's a fact, mark my words he will be reelected and his odds are pretty good, you might not like the results but Ignatieff, will not be elected to office so, as long as he is the leader, Harper stays!

    • I don't often laugh out loud when I read these comments but this one brought a chuckle. Knowing that Harper is just getting started is absolutely horrifying to increasing numbers of people. I predict he will resign shortly after he looses power after the next election.

      • You wish, Manchild, he is staying! And you can thumb me down as much as you want, but he is staying!

    • How's he going to do that without a wife?

      • You better have something to back that up, because as a matter of fact, is the other way around, and make no mistake about that, she is his driving force and his biggest supporter!

  22. I would first like to state I lean left of center and in no way agree with our conservative government.
    It's all very simple. Harper is in a Minority government, the agenda he values most (social conservatism+political reform) would a) scare independents in an election and b)have no long term impact because of "a". What he does instead is shrink government responsibility and size (not the same as spending) in small but meaningful ways. For example the whole point of getting rid of the mandatory census is so that people who advocate for government assistance won't have reputable data to make their case with. This will matter in 5-10 years, it's the same with increasing federal transfers; more power to the provinces less power in Ottawa. Also, spending a lot on the military is a VERY conservative principle, Harper is a libertarian at heart and would like nothing more than to provide only military protection and business regulations as the federal government's main functions. The census decision is horrible politics in the short run but will pay off big time for his cause in the future; it was the same when he eliminated the court challenges program, women's advocacy programs etc. The whole point is that he doesn't want federal money helping to justify why federal money needs to be spent. He can make these changes in a Minority situation because although the Libs oppose them in principle it's not enough to fight an election over, the key for the Libs is to frame the sum of the parts. They will fire up their base when it sees how Harper is gutting the social fabric which will in effect shift the political spectrum to the right. The census could be their centerpiece. Ironically, for someone who believes in de-centralizing the power of Ottawa, Harper has increased the PMO's power even more than Trudeau did in the 70s. His pressuring and dismissal of various arms length boards Chairs is truly scary when you consider the fact that their work really does require them to be free of political interference.

    • I've argued for a while that if the Conservatives ran on an election platform based on what they actually want to do, they'd have a pretty tough time getting a minority government, let alone a majority.

    • Aero – you nailed it.

    • The last census took place in 2006, shortly after Harper took power. The same census today would therefore be utterly focused on Harper's reign, and make direct comparisons to the last 15 years of Liberal government very easy.

      That's the last thing Harper would ever want to see, and likely the number one reason he's so hell bent on changing it.

  23. Military, prisons, massive three-day conferences and an arena for Quebec City, you mean… yeah, wouldn't want to piss that money away… last thing I want is for that money to go children's education and welfare…

  24. It's a big ol' world out there …. expand the team to include some of the disappeared .. Salutin,
    Dyer, Jimmy Olsen, Psmith …

  25. Geezus!

    Are you using Wells's Ottawa Rolodex again to pick your guests for vancouver? These are the guests you should have had at the Calgary snoozefest.


  26. Canada goes down the tubes under Harper.

    When Canada throws out CONs they throw them far. Ask Kim Campbell.

    Canadians won't give Harper a majority. Ever.

    That is BAD for conservatives.

  27. Most recent angus reid poll has the conservatives up on the libs by 8%…I guess the phoney baloney summer of discontent is over. There are a lot of big changes happening actually Andrew, think of all the supreme court judges he can appoint…all the senators he can appoint….the heads of crown corps he can appoint….he's changing ottawa in a big way, albeit quietly. In 5 years the remanents of Liberal Ottawa will be largely destroyed – good riddance.

    • Appointing: SC judges, Senators, Crown Corp CEOs…

      The new Conservative Ottawa looks unsettlingly similar to the old Liberal Ottawa.

      • Hey, it's the left wing in this country that has stood in the way of elected senators, elected judges etc. That system seemed to work fine for some people when the commies were in power…now that conservatives are, not so much. Ummm toooooo bad.

        • Jeez, I must have missed the era when the "commies" were in power. Was that before the"fascists"?

        • I didn't like it when the Liberals did it; and I especially don't like it when the Conservatives do it. But then, I'm not a partisan hack. I'm just a person who believes in responsible, accountable, transparent government. My understanding was that Mr. Harper claimed that he would bring these changes to Ottawa.

          Smell that? Change you can believe in: the status quo.

  28. Stephen Harper will be remembered as one of the greatest Prime Ministers Canada has ever had.

  29. Incremental conservatism.

    That was the goal thus far. And given the deck stacked against him, history will judge him as being wildly successful at it.

    And how soon we forget about the specter of seperatism haning over our heads during the long horrible Liberal reign. Harper essentially eliminated that.

    • Incremental Conservatism? Isn't that another way of saying that you're slipping things in the backdoor that you'd never get through the front door? Sure it is. It's basically an admission of the hidden agenda.

  30. I would argue that the country was divided well before Harper got into power. See NEP. See Danny Williams vs. Martin and the lowering of the flag. See Quebec and "the rest of Canada." See the Canadian Wheat Board (unless you're living east of the MB/ON border, in which case you probably think it's a good thing). etc. etc.

    • Lots of us here on the prairies think the CWB is a good idea, Candace. Perhaps it is you and Harper who are out of touch with rural Canada?

      • No, I don't think so. The farmers in my family are now leasing to Alpac for tree farming. Previously they grew canola so they could sell it on the market themselves. So while "lots of us here on the prairies" think it's a good idea (according to you), I can counter that with "lots of us here on the prairies" don't. And probably more on the prairies don't than those unaffected by it east of the ON/MB border.

        • It seems to me that your frame of reference is pretty narrow, Candace. I know farmers from just east of Winnipeg to Alberta. In Manitoba and Saskatchewan (the Prairies) the pro/anti CWB split seems to pretty much follow the Trans Canada, with those north of it supporting the Wheat Board, and those south of it wanting to get rid of the Wheat Board.

          That's a bit of a generalization, of course, but that seems to be the general breakdown, and it's supported by polling and the results of the CWB elections.

          One thing I did notice though is that even those who don't support the CWB were pretty pissed off when Harper and Strahl were meddling in their business and tried to diddle the CWB elections.

          Here's a plan though, why don't you go into Selkirk/Interlake and Dauphin and Regina/Qua'apelle and Rosetown and places like that and campaign full out on getting rid of the Wheat Board? Make it your main platform plank in those areas in the next election. That will put your theory to the test.

  31. To count Harper out is folly, it had been done so many times in the past by the media,the pundits, and all opposing parties, yet look where that got them.

    With minority government, they are usually busy surviving instead of making noticeable changes. As for Legacy, I do not think he has successfully define nor leave one yet.

  32. There has been a deep division of Canada even way before Harper becomes a politician. If there is an example of a Prime Minister that deeply divided a country, you should look at Trudeau's legacy.

  33. Yes he has a plan. The same plan all politicians have for the tax payers money. Spend it all and give it away to corporations that can't make a dime on there own. And want bigger profits for crappy products. Free for all of tax payers money. Politicians don't care about you or I. Just themselves.

  34. Having read #1 here only, Its wayne and gotalesaid who seem to have the better grasp of reality. __Adding to what should be the obvious, Harper can't really be judged w/o considering his no-cooperation opposition and the fact that he has a minority.__Even to the non-partisan mind, it has to questionable that according to the 'oppositiion'( political and media) Harper has basically done nothing they could support. Now even the most brain-dead party must do something right now and then, even if by accident. The Liberals are expert in hit and run opposition, With the assist of the media they'be been able to schedule a different scandal on a monthly basis. How many 'scandals' can you now remember as being significant? __Unfortunately, scandals, real or imaginary, seem to be what shapes our impression of the Cons. So are Cdns get a fair shake from their media or the opposition? They've gutted his every bill and he has had to resort to money bills to get anything through. So how can he be rated as if he had a free hand?__