Wells: Of shields and swords and elections

Paul Wells on what a large telescope and health care have in common

Photo by Cole Burston/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Photo by Cole Burston/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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On April 6, on the eve of the pandemonium attending Mike Duffy’s fraud trial, Stephen Harper was in British Columbia to announce funding for a telescope. You might say the Prime Minister is taking the long view.

The Duffy trial is what it is. If revelations from the suspended senator cook Harper’s goose then his goose is cooked, and somebody else will send Christmas cards from 24 Sussex Drive this year. But if Duffy doesn’t sink his old boss, then Harper still has an election to win. He will seek to do it the same way he won the last three: an inch at a time.

Let us consider the telescope. It’s very large, with a 30-m mirror array, and it is being built in Hawaii. Its builders, who include governments and universities in the U.S., China, Japan and India, have named it the Thirty Metre Telescope. (Having apparently run out of Greek and Roman gods, astronomers are no longer gifted with the poet’s touch when it comes to naming things. The Thirty Metre Telescope’s extremely large European competition is called, and I am not making this up, the European Extremely Large Telescope.) Using technology very close to magic, these new instruments correct for the blurring effect of the Earth’s atmosphere. They’ll produce images more brilliant and detailed than those from the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope.

The $243 million in federal funding Harper announced, over 10 years, will ensure Canada builds the magical optics that allow the telescope to see through air. It’s good science.

Here is where students of Harper say, “Ah. Swords and shields.” Conservative party strategists like to divide topics for political debate into “sword issues” and “shield issues.” Sword issues are topics Conservatives can normally win on, which makes them issues Conservatives are eager to talk about. These include crime, terrorism, jobs and the economy.

Shield issues are the ones the Conservatives would rather not discuss if they could avoid them: the environment, health care, First Nations. Normally voters who cherish these issues vote for other parties. But sometimes Conservatives have to show just enough credibility on a shield issue that they can hope to blunt an opponent’s attack. After Stéphane Dion became Liberal leader in 2006, Harper treated global warming as a shield issue by naming John Baird as his environment minister. Baird spent 2007 and 2008 talking as one might if one planned to do something about climate change. Once Harper had beaten Dion, Baird was reassigned. Nobody ever mentioned the environment again.

The Conservatives do not have a sterling reputation on science policy. They’ve forced government scientists to get clearance before speaking in public, they’ve shut down a string of projects and agencies, and Nanaimo MP James Lunney just left the government caucus, after nine years, because he’s pretty sure there’s no such thing as evolution. But now Harper has earmarked $243 million for a telescope, and it’ll be a little harder to pin the other stuff on him.

One can imagine Harper wielding other shields before an October election. Perhaps he’ll meet all the premiers at once, as he hasn’t done since 2009, so his opponents won’t be able to say he never does that. Perhaps he will be suddenly nice to the Assembly of First Nations, or an artist somewhere, or Barack Obama. He wore sweater vests for five weeks in 2008. You can’t count anything out.

On one of the biggest issues any modern government faces, Harper doesn’t have to make a shield because the provinces are making one for him. The issue is funding for health care. In every election since 2004, under three different leaders, the Liberals have ended their campaigns by warning that Harper will wreck health care. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has said he’ll make health funding a centrepiece of the 2015 NDP campaign. Under the terms of a deal Paul Martin made with the premiers in 2005, the Conservatives have kept transfers to the provinces growing at six per cent a year for as long as they’ve been in office. But after 2017, that rate of growth will fall to somewhere between three per cent and six per cent, depending on how fast the general economy grows. Mulcair says he’ll keep the transfers growing at six per cent no matter what, even if it means spending $36 billion more than the Conservatives would.

But something odd has happened. Growth in health spending has slowed right down, as provinces with very different governments decided, all by themselves, to curb this runaway budget line. In 2011-12, health spending grew by 6.2 per cent in British Columbia, six per cent in Alberta and 4.4 per cent in Ontario. This year it will grow by 2.9 per cent in B.C. and 1.8 per cent in Ontario. Alberta will cut health spending every year for the next three, then let it grow again at less than three per cent per year.

The independent Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) says that health spending as a fraction of GDP has fallen in this decade, not only in Canada but in most OECD countries. This is such a surprising development that you still hear respected commentators insist health costs are racing out of control. They simply aren’t. Is an aging population driving up costs? Not a lot, says CIHI.

None of this is Harper’s doing, though I can’t help wondering whether his refusal to meet with the premiers has helped them concentrate on solutions closer to home. It’s legitimate to believe the federal contribution to health funding should be higher. But Harper, whose luck has been shaky this year, is turning out lucky on health care.


Wells: Of shields and swords and elections

  1. Liberal Fear Mongering;
    Can any of you conservative hissy fit hating eager “believers” prove that science “believes” as much as you do? Or do you fear mongers actually tell your kids the truth; that it’s been 34 years of climate action failure for a crisis that science had been 97% certain of?
    *Occupywallstreet now does not even mention CO2 in its list of demands because of the bank-funded and corporate run carbon trading stock markets ruled by politicians.

  2. This isn’t entirely surprising, considering the Premier of Manitoba is still claiming that the federal government has cut healthcare transfers, even when confronted with concrete evidence that the statement simply wasn’t true. The left are trying to sell Canadians on “facts” that go against all the evidence. It ain’t gonna work.

    • Of course I accept your assertion as fact, “. . . the Premier of Manitoba is still claiming that the federal government has cut healthcare transfers, even when confronted with concrete evidence that the statement simply wasn’t true.”

      However; a citation, quotation or reference would certainly go a long way to convincing those who may not consider your statements as rock solid as James Lunney’s statements regarding evolution.

  3. The Ottawa pundits have such glowing admiration for the sleazy little tactical deceits of the Conservative Party.
    The Dion destruction aided by Duffy of course. The personal,attacks even on innocents like PBO, Linda Kean etc etc. The distortions, distractions crude characterizations. The budgets balance etc misquote over and over, still a lie but never called such.
    Basking in the glow of puff piece handouts from PMO, it’s more than cap I’m hand it’s almost idolatry we’re seeing now.
    No one reports the Harper machine with such a glow of admiration as Wells does.

  4. Wells remains one of very few gifted and perceptive writers plying the trade in Canada…and…love this, ‘know thine enemy, Canada”, article.

  5. This election, as with the last one, will have little to do with health care, the economy or anything else. It’s an election between the farm people, who if you painted a telephone pole Tory blue, they’d vote for it, and the rest of us.

    • A little over 80% of the Canadian population lives in cities.

      Please explain how the ‘farm people’ can elect a Conservative government on their own.

      btw, do you grow your own food or hypocritically sneer at the people who supply the food you eat?

  6. The shield issues noted are nonsense. First, health care. As Wells points out Harper has not reduced transfers at all. And it would appear to be a wise move for the provinces to get their health care waste under control as they appear to be doing. The reduction Harper’s government has announced for 2017 has been the kind of inspiration the provinces needed. Second, the environment (AKA global warming for context here). There have been warming and cooling cycles forever with most occurring long before man discovered fire. They’re called ice ages and there have been five of them. We are entering the next cooling cycle which is why the earth’s temperature has not risen in the last 17 years. So Harper’s actions here are what is warranted-let the free market drive energy efficiency. Finally, Native Canadians. The system is clearly broken. Rather than pouring more dollars into reserves where there is no possibility of local employment, if the government paid everything associated (new homes, moving expenses, job training, plus $100,000 per family) for all on the reserves to move to areas where they can be employed, the total cost would be equivalent to 1.5 years of current reservation funding. I can picture the ranting of the Liberals and NDP if the Conservative ever offered this. Imagining ruining a life style where the idle nature of those with it results in high incidence of addiction, crime and abuse!! OMG.

    • I would dispute several of your claims, but for the sake of time & space I’ll just address one: Your nonsense on the environment.

      There’s a lot more to the environment than global warming. Yes, that gets the most press. But even if we ignore that potentially contentious topic, there’s all those other environmental issues on which Harper has scored so poorly – like environmental protections of our waterways, etc that Harper has stripped away. Potential damage from leaking pipelines, or inadequate rail safety. Allowing the continued mining and export of asbestos – a known health risk banned from use here – to countries with poorer health safety laws than ours. The list goes on and on… and on every front Harper has either done nothing or made it easier to pollute and rape our environment.

      None of the items I listed above have anything to do with global warming… yet they are all serious environmental issues. Issues that concern many Canadians.

      Nice try, though, Jerome.

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