Being there


Harper has no plan – Coyne

Harper has a plan – Wells

And what is more — they’re both right!

How’s that again? Read the choicer cuts from Wells’s incisive piece. The plan is to have no plan:

From day to day the Prime Minister can be so full of surprises, so confounding to his opponents and even to some of his supporters, that it almost always helps to take the long view when trying to figure him out…

There is a constant tension in his politics between a short-term impulse to hug the centre and a long-term determination to move it — to transform Canadian society. Harper captures that tension when he calls himself a realist. It’s the label a man gives himself when he is willing to take many detours on his way to his destination. When he is so intent on his long-term goal that he will not let mere principle get in the way of reaching that goal…

All the evidence of his 31 months in power suggests the changes Harper has in store for the basic architecture of Canadian federalism are profound. And all the evidence of the campaign suggests he is just about ready to twist himself into logical and moral pretzels on the way….

To hug the centre, he will indulge in the most blatant contradictions and occasional incoherence. To keep the Liberals out, he will frequently play with his elbows way up….

Taken together, these actions give the image, not so much of a strategic genius as of a man who will throw anything and anyone overboard if it threatens his ability to hang onto power. For Harper this must be entirely justifiable. His plan for change is written across a generation. It is nothing like what Brian Mulroney did, two tumultuous mandates that left the party broken and radioactive for a decade. Harper needs longevity. It is starting to look like he will do anything to get it.

So he has a vision of where he wants to take the country in the long run. And to get to that destination he will as often as not move in precisely the opposite direction. Is this as nonsensical as it sounds? Can you add up an endless series of backflips into a great leap forward? Is long-term vision no more than compounded short-term expediency? Is the road to that horizon a load of compromisin’?

Maybe. Here’s what I think is going on in Harper’s brain. Most voters, he has reasoned, are not ideological or even political. They barely pay attention, even when there’s an election on. You can’t reason with them, can’t persuade them, can’t change their minds. All you can do is win.

The closest thing to a political philosophy in most voters’ minds is whatever they are familiar with. That is, other things being equal, they tend to prefer the status quo, whatever it is, to the unknown. This confers a huge advantage on incumbency. It’s why conservative radicals like Milton Friedman used to rail against the “tyranny of the status quo.” Once a system, ideology or institution is entrenched, however moribund and corrupt, it’s all but impossible to shift it.

Harper isn’t interested in persuading the public to come round to his point of view, or in behaving in a principled or ideologically consistent fashion. All he wants to do is win. (The Coyne thesis.) How does he reconcile that with his long-run ideological ambition (the Wells version)? Because as long as he goes on winning, by whatever means, he becomes the status quo. So whatever he does imprints itself upon the public’s reptilian brain as the natural order of things. He doesn’t win by persuading. He persuades people by winning.

As long as on balance he’s making progress — even if it’s two steps forward, one step back — then he achieves his goal. Not by convincing the public it’s the right thing to do. Not by changing minds. Just by being there.


Being there

  1. The impression I get is the public doesn’t care about tax cuts for the rich when credit is bountiful and unemployment isn’t high. Flaherty’s tax cuts were in fact meant to be announced in the middle of a boom, not the tail end. I didn’t expect the USA derivatives to deteriorate the economy until USA started balancing budget, maybe in 2009. Now that we are in a position where unemployment threatens; Liberals have employment friendly platforms (daycare, home retrofits, wind turbines). What are the Conservatives doing to change their tax-cut mantra, engineered assuming USA consumer spending?? Too much to ask more than an attack ad soundbite as a response?

  2. I think you’ve basically hit the nail on the head here.

  3. The ironic thing is that corruption in government, and playing up that meme that the institutions are inherently corrupt, encourages voter apathy. That combined with the odd bone (waving the few bucks in the face of the public) and makes it more likely that the status quo is preserved.

    And as long as you have your base that will unfailingly get out to vote, then that majority becomes ever so closer…

    The question is, how long can one maintain this kind of soporific without pissing off the voters that held their noses as well as those who are “undecided/apathetic”?

    God forbid that the CPC continue to get away with this garbage…


  4. But win what, Andrew.

    We sure knew what was on Harper’s brain when he prez’d the National Citizen’s Coalition for 5 years. It was getting rid of any protection of Canada’s economic sectors by any means necessary.

    – Decentralization of federal powers
    – loosen all election laws, i.e. gag laws, campaign advertizing limits, let money, regardless of which empire it comes from, decide the outcome of Canada’s democracy
    – elected senate (lets weaken MP powers, create gridlock and get those senators elected! (far fewer to bribe than 308 MP’s, don’t cha know)
    – end medicare
    – privatize all federal crowns and destroy the Canadian Wheat board.
    – get some immigration policies that get rid of those “undesirables”.
    – create east/west tension in an effort to balkanize Canada (its easier for foreign corps to pick off the pieces). Ummm… lets start with English language rights in Quebec!
    – deregulate the banking industry. (sure worked for Bush!)
    – Spend more on the military!!!! (yep, I’m sure Harper can’t wait for the war on Iran to start so Canadians can get in on that war based on lies for oil. Iran could have WMD’s some day? What a reason to bomb them now!!! Increase defense spending, but just make sure those contracts are given to the pro’s south of the line… they are much better at paying off corrupt politicians without getting caught down there)

    When one thinks hard about what public spending amounts to, it means the privatization of our penal system, our judicial systems for that matter, the RCMP, everything that government services currently provide including public education. But there’s only one problem with this. It won’t be Canadian corporations that move in to provide ESSENTIAL SERVICES to Canadians. It will be foreign ones.

    This means massive Canadian job losses and massive shrinkage to Canada’s tax base no matter how one looks at it.

    I’m sorry to those who like to get drunk on blue koolaid, but Harper never gave up his old job being a U.S. corporate lobbyist. If anyone ever thought he did… they’d best think again and if anyone ever thought what was in the best interests of U.S. corporations is in the best interest of Canadians, they’d best think harder still.

    Whats on Harper’s brain? Same old same “o”. Don’t cha think?

  5. Go to National Newswatch,

    Look at the headlines.

    Then scroll through this blog.

    The Liberal media is in overdrive trying to make this race closer.

    We in the heartland who’ve recognized this for some time, do appreciate that at least you’ve dropped the pretense of objectivity.

  6. In Canada, a Conservative Party leader can be only marginally more fastidious about sound policy or principled politics than his Liberal opponent, or he ends up like Robert Stanfield (wage and price controls) or Joe Clark (18 cents a gallon). To be sure, many Canadians–including many pundits–cheered the outcome of these confrontations. However, Harper may have learned something about Canadian politics from these examples, or from watching Jean Chretien’s ‘flexibility’ on free trade and the GST, which would explain his statement on Afghanistan, for example.

  7. To Normans point – I would boil it down to this…

    Harper has concluded that there needs to be some “flexibility” if you want to govern Canada. What we have mostly experienced in the past is the Chretien form of flexibility. The will to win and nothing else. At least with Harper we have the will to win coupled with some element of higher purpose. Which is better? (setting aside personal views on the Harper agenda).

  8. Mike – good point.

  9. I should also add that it seems to me that political parties need to renew themselves periodically.

    That is difficult to do when you are in power which is where the Liberal Party usually is – it seems to me that it is a fair question to ask whether the Liberal Party of Canada has truly renewed itself since Jean Chretien left office.

    It didn’t with Paul Martin. It had a golden opportunity to do so with the 2006 leadership race but I don’t think it did. The party seemed as much as anything in a hurry to get back to power. That’s why it looked around for a political saviour in Michael Ignatieff or Bob Rae. The party failed to coalesce around either of one these two saviours and out popped Stephane from the rubble.

    Is Stephane Dion the face of renewal of the Liberal party? I don’t think so. One of the reasons I don’t is that he lacks the pragmatism and the flexibility that has been almost dogma in that party since its inception. That is why I think Layton said back in 2006 that the Liberals would never choose Dion as leader because he had principles. I think Layton understated that a little.

    Dion is a principled thinker and is blessed or cursed, depending on how you see it, with an utter reliance on cartesian logic. To the extent that he has renewed the Liberal Party of Canada it has been to take it further to the left at any time in its history, at least if one beleives Stephane’s rhetoric. Even Pierre Trudeau never thought his mandate was to save the planet.

  10. That’s an ingenius analysis. The Wells version especially. Who knew Paul was such a deep thinker?

  11. Harper is a career politician. He acts like a career politician. There is really no other analysis required.

  12. Deep.

  13. The thing is, the status quo pretty much lends itself to the small-government project by default.

    – Tax cuts are more popular than spending increases.
    – Deficits are political death.

    The simple arithmetic of those two mean that the size of government – relative to GDP or some such – will fall. Even if – especially if – the only thing Harper does is follow public opinion.

  14. Conservative governments aren’t supposed to have a ‘vision’ for the nation, they are supposed to leave us alone and let us have our own individual ‘visions’.

    I am frustrated with Conservatives/Harper because they are not doing enough to bring the centre to them and are doing entirely too much moving to the centre. People have to get used to hearing conservative ideas and the battles have to fought out in the open, not by stealth.

    I understand the need to be in the centre but Cons aren’t doing enough to bring the masses to them nor are they presenting conservative ideas. It seems misguided to me for Harper to want the us to get used to Cons behaving like Libs. If I want Libs in, I will vote Lib, not Lib-Lite.

  15. So, basically, he’s an unprincipled cad who thinks very little of the Canadian people.

    And because of that, he’s hoping to sneak a new status quo in under their nose and tell them that “they’ve always been at war with Eastasia”- trusting that they’ll be too distracted by playing with their Tivos and Wiis to notice their country is now being run by Republicans-with-longer-vowel-sounds.

    Cripes. I don’t know if Coyne is right or not, but the man pictured here is kind of making Bush look attractive.

  16. “The plan boss, the plan!”

    Fantasy Island

  17. Oh, and Stephen, spending cuts aren’t terribly popular either; and while the chattering classes may think that a deficit is the worst thing imaginable, the Republicans seem to have weathered it without too much trouble. I suspect if the choice is between health care/social services and maintaining a surplus during a deep recession, the latter will not win.

    (Nor should it. Obsessing over a deficit during a serious economic crisis is economically ridiculous, a relic of a mode of thinking that fell with hard monetarism. Temporary deficit spending on important investments like health, education or infrastructure is not a bad thing, despite what CNBC would like you to believe.)

  18. -Tax cuts are more popular than spending increases.

    Um, Stephen Gordon, that actually isn’t true. Not in this country anyway.

    I am frustrated with Conservatives/Harper because they are not doing enough to bring the centre to them and are doing entirely too much moving to the centre. People have to get used to hearing conservative ideas and the battles have to fought out in the open, not by stealth.

    That I agree with in full. Voters wouldnt’ be so frightened of conservatism if Conservatives didn’t spend so much time disavowing it and running away from it.

  19. Nothing about Harper or what he is trying to achieve is “sneaky”. Quite the opposite. It’s all right there in plain sight. He may not spell out the detail, but it doesn’t mean he’s running a stealth operation.

  20. The Coyne thesis: survival at all costs and the public be dammed.

    The Wells version: the end justifies the means.

  21. We’re actually working on turning it into a musical. Like Kander and Ebb, with Laffer curves.

  22. I don’t see why Coyne has such a problem with this. Harper both likes and wants power for its own sake AND has some long-term goals which he uses to justify some of his methods for obtaining and retaining power.

    He is realistic enough to know that he can only move towards his goals and not necessarily achieve them, but that does not prevent him for holding to them, while making whatever compromises with political reality that he can live with.

  23. “I don’t see why Coyne has such a problem with this.”

    Because it’s supposed to be about bettering the nation – for today and for future generations. Not some bizarre combination of power and self-expression.

  24. For weeks I’ve been trying to figure out what attracts people to the Conservatives. Most of the talk around this election is keying in on economics, yet when I try to find out how the Conservatives are doing on this issue, I mostly find articles that aren’t too kind to the Conservatives. Maybe the media is biased and the general public sees through this, but I don’t think that is it.

    I think Coyne has really highlighted to me the appeal of the Conservatives. Harper has been able to pick and choose conservative mantras that people like to hear. End of story. Solid examples include:
    – GST cut (economists hate it)
    – tough on crime (criminologists point out that – crime is down since the 90’s and tougher sentencing is ineffective)
    – honest government (no more so than previous gov’ts)

    People have grabbed at these positions and it looks like they will stick with them for a while. It’s just like how we hear the mantras that helped remove the Liberals from power: they are still stuck with those albatross.

  25. Marthe

    Actually, Andrew Coyne and Paul Wells are fundamentally in agreement. Neither has a problem identifying a number of hills on which Mr. Harper should be prepared to have his Conservative government die.

  26. This has been another exciting episode of Lessons in Redding Comprension from Victoria.

  27. Sean S,
    It’s politics, Sean, and it works on a “bizarre combination of power and self-expression” and getting elected…

    And Harper, just like Dion etc., really does believe that he is “bettering the nation”, whatever we may feel about the results.

  28. I have never had a problem comprehending “Redding” (Helen or Otis) so I don’t why you bring that up Paul.

  29. The big question is RE: your earlier post, Andrew. Why isn’t Harper bringing up a massive new government policy – a free-trade deal with the EU – as a campaign promise?

    You have millions of people in Canada with European passports and who speak European languages. We’re a nation of Euro-philes. This is a major plus for them – and these are city voters, people Harper is trying to hard to get onto his side.

    As a trio of developed entities who overindulge their farmers (U.S., Canada, EU) this could work, given that farm subsidies were THE major stumbling block to the WTO talks.

    I mean, I’ve always disliked Harper for his lack of international vision. That was one of my major “minus” points against him. Embarassments like McKay and Fortier only solidified this. This could be a vote-getter for me, I’m thinking about voting for him again. Maybe.

    Last election during a CBC segment with viewers asking questions, Harper was asked about foreign affairs and he did not impress. He said something like “we’re not a great country and we never will be”. And he lost my vote right there.

    And here is the beginnings of a vision of Canada as a bridge between Europe and the United States. And he’s hiding it.

    I don’t get it. Is he not announcing this to avoid comparisons to Mulroney? (RE: FTA, natch) Is that it?

  30. “For weeks I’ve been trying to figure out what attracts people to the Conservatives…”

    IMHO it has everything to do with the Liberals accelerating drift leftward ruling them out of contention.

    The Conservatives will keep winning elections so long as they hold the political centre Martin’s weak-kneed bumbling ceded them, and Dion isn’t even trying to win back.

  31. Agreed 100% about the Harper government’s complete and total dis-interest in foreign affairs. I can accept the fact that Harper himself doesn’t have a feel or vision for foreign policy, but that seemingly NOBODY in his government has either is pretty incredible. For someone who wants to stick to the federal govenrment’s knitting, he’s neglecting a large part of that.

    How I would love for Iggy to bail on the sinking Liberal ship and become Harper’s foreign minister.

  32. In the previous election I was almost coming around to believing Stephen Harper. This was huge deal on the self-realization front since I had been so appalled by the Reform party and the various bastardizations that it morphed into. As a Liberal at heart I had grown weary of Chretien’s beligerant way of governing and Paul Martin had proven to be a remarkable disappointment.

    So Harper’s intent to govern differently seemed like just the ticket and I was ready to believe he meant it. In my mind a minority government was the perfect way to “test drive” the new Conservatives without just giving them the keys to the Bricklin.

    And what has he done since? Basically governed just like Chretien. Business as usual. In fact, with Chretien I never expected much honesty but like I said I actually had started to believe Harper.

    So in my mind, now, either he has completely sold out his ideals and is no different than every government before. Or he really does have a dogmatic agenda once he gets his majority. Neither case seems overly appealing to me and neither says much about Harper’s integrity.

    Which brings me to the Conservative cheerleaders on here. Either you really do hope Harper has a hidden agenda, which makes you’re continual whining about Liberals saying as much quite humourous. Or you’re content with Liberal style governing which makes one wonder what was wrong with the Liberals in the first place?!

  33. Shorter Coyne: Harper should have a radical agenda and start a big fight over it. The coal miners must be confronted and broken! There can be no compromise!

    “We’re actually working on turning it into a musical. Like Kander and Ebb, with Laffer curves.”

    I hope it’s one of those musicals on ice…Laffer curves in sequins! What could be better?

  34. Hazzard: I was in the same boat as you (appalled by Reform, content with the Liberals until Martin went totally off the rails)… but I think you give Harper too little credit.

    For me, the two most important things Harper has done – and done right – is settle the ‘fiscal imbalance’* and bring equality to equalization**. Putting an end to (substantive) federal-provincial and inter-regional tensions is a major accomplishment; particularly without bankrupting the fed’ and/or devolving more power.

    *i.e. get rid of the mounting federal surpluses (through increased provincial transfers and tax cuts), thereby bringing peace to provincial-federal relations (the provinces can’t bitch for more money when there is no more!)

    **i.e. scrap the Liberals side-deals with certain (resource-rich) provinces, which would unavoidably damage provincial-provincial relations and endanger the whole notion of equalization and ultimately the country

  35. stewacide, do you think that most of the people that actually vote do so on ideological grounds? I think this plays a part. I really wish people would vote according to things that are happening, as opposed to labels (conservatism, liberalism, socialism, etc) and mantras (tough on crime!). When it comes to federal politics, it’s good to let facts get in the way.

    One other point I’d like to make is that “green” and environmentalism seem to have a leftist perception. To me this is absolute craziness. Conservatives need to be just as concerned about these issues as leftists, but I don’t think that is happening.

  36. The Coyne/Wells thesis blended together: you can’t score a goal if you don’t have the puck.

  37. “Because as long as he goes on winning, by whatever means, he becomes the status quo. So whatever he does imprints itself upon the public’s reptilian brain as the natural order of things. He doesn’t win by persuading. He persuades people by winning.”

    Harper has openly expressed this ambition. From Wells 12Feb08: “You know, the longer I’m Prime Minister… the longer I’m Prime Minister.”

  38. I want to thank you, Mr.Coyne, for trying to put the Ritz ‘gaffe’ into perspective.


    “Harper has no plan/ Harper has plan”

    Certainly interesting take on the subject. We’ll see how it plays out.

    But a short note on inconsistency here: I have noticed that some in the media seem to insert the importance and/or irrelevance of past and present in at will. Sometimes the past counts, sometimes it doesn’t. Which is it?

    Trying to be objective here. If the past is fair game to bring out an example for one leader then it should be fair game to bring out the past for all leaders.

  39. Which brings me to the Conservative cheerleaders on here. Either you really do hope Harper has a hidden agenda, which makes you’re continual whining about Liberals saying as much quite humourous. Or you’re content with Liberal style governing which makes one wonder what was wrong with the Liberals in the first place?!

    Yeah, you’ve got a point there. I’ll have to think about that one.

  40. “…what was wrong with the Liberals in the first place?!”

    When Martin and then Dion transformed the Liberals into the NDP part deux.

  41. Yeah, damn them Liberals and their balanced budgets for the last 8 years. How can we survive with fiscal actions like that? Good grief, and there wasn’t even a major outbreak of disease caused by cutbacks to government agency. What kind of third-rate country do those Liberals think we want to be?

  42. Or you’re content with Liberal style governing which makes one wonder what was wrong with the Liberals in the first place?!

    Hmm … that scheme that basically stole from the National Treasury to puff up their party’s electoral warchest, that gave them an unfair advantage in ’97 and ’00, might have had something to do with it? Just perhaps.

    T. Thwim, give it up. That listeriosis outbreak would’ve happened had there been 100x the normal complement of inspectors. They only found the cause a month later, after cleaning the whole place top to bottom a few times!

    Just like Walkerton was all down to cuts at the MoE, and nothing at all to do with the moronic PUC boys the Koebels, eh? Nevermind that it was the private labs that initially caught the problem. Myths take on a life of their own …

  43. Coyne, you are something.

    Trudeau says one thing and does another. Coyne Onanizes himself to the point of risking injury.

    Harper says one thing and does another. Coyne rends garments, ululates and bemoans the country.

    At least your cousin was honest about her Trudeau lust, go see Justin and get rid of that tension.

  44. KRB: AH. Good to know we have an expert here who obviously knows more than the board of the CMAJ. Tell me, KRB.. how much do you get paid for your food industry expertise?

  45. “Once a system, ideology or institution is entrenched, however moribund and corrupt, it’s all but impossible to shift it.

    Harper isn’t interested in persuading the public to come round to his point of view, or in behaving in a principled or ideologically consistent fashion. All he wants to do is win. (The Coyne thesis.)”

    You’ve nailed modern politics, and Harper quite well.

  46. This isn’t rocket science…in fact people have known this game for a long time:

    “It isn’t that he has suddenly been transformed into a moderate, in the mold of the party’s hapless past leaders, but he has been converted to incrementalism.

    Whatever his ideological objectives, Mr. Harper has as his first goal to make his party into a permanent contender for power: to end one-and-a-half party rule, forever. That is a matter not only of building a lasting electoral coalition, but given Canada’s peculiar political history, of reforming its institutions. Conservative predecessors had won smashing victories, only to be overwhelmed in office by the vested interests of Liberaldom.

    Previous Conservative prime ministers aspired only to run the Liberal machine for themselves, leaving the motor running for the Liberals when they returned. Mr. Harper wants to dismantle it, piece by piece.”

    And who wrote that? Well…it was a certain Andrew Coyne. So why are you so surprised that your 2006 predictions have come true?


  47. Or to put it another way Andrew, why the faux outrage when Harper does exactly what you thought he would do?

  48. Conservative predecessors had won smashing victories, only to be overwhelmed in office by the vested interests of Liberaldom.

    How absurd. People vote Liberal, don’t forget.

  49. Andrew,
    Canadians voters are not ideological.
    Are you serious?
    This is a country with a near-universal consensus on universal health care – a policy so hostile to the private sector that most provinces ban private clinics outright.
    Anyone who thinks that ideology – ideas, norms, values – doesn’t drive voting behavior should try running for public office pledging to make even the slightest modifications to this sacred cow.

  50. Did Dictator Harper have his RCMP goons deny the media the right to speak to protesters again–this time in Quebec?

  51. Craig, the reason for that is it avoids expensive pitfalls. In MB there are people who need a quick cataracts surgery (or something like that), who go over to ND and pay $35 instead of waiting in line for the public surgery that costs the healthcare system $185. At the same time in the USA they pay almost twice as much as we do on healthcare because private clinics overdiagnose, and because uninsured people don’t get treatment for minor ailments until it becomes an emergency room concern, still ours is better.
    A privatize suggestion I’ve seen is to let surgeons perform 15% of their surgeries in private clinics during their public clinic downtime. Recent research I’ve seen tentatively suggests extra marginal hours of a surgeon’s shift deliver inferior performance. Getting the cataracts surgery private is more efficient but not worth the slippery slope risk unless cannabalization of the *cheaper* public system at large can be avoided. I’ve never seen one person pro-privatization who has suggested specific reforms that take slippery slope into account; the rhetoric is usually lets make it European, or let’s make it American. Okay. How?

  52. basically, in a nutshell:
    -Liberals campaign on the left, govern on the right. (93,97,00) no principles there.
    -governments defeat themselves, the opposition just has to stay out of the way (80,84, 93 for successful versions, 04 and 06 and 79 for versions where opposition blew it, or nearly did) hence, no incentive do present policy, ideas or concrete initiatives.

    -conversely, oppositions defeat themselves on their platforms and leaders, while incumbents say or do little, campaign in a bubble (think Stanfield versus Trudeau or Trudeau versus Clark 80) (or McGuinty versus Tory 07)

    -the “nice honest guy” politician gets his ass handed to him by the Machiavellian politician every time. Chretien did it to all comers. Kinsella has founded a reputation on it. Reform tried to do things differently, and never progressed beyond Western Canada. The Conservatives and Harper have now copied the Liberal playbook note and verse.

    -I think it was Wells who said that if you were expecting a different, more principled government with the Conservatives, you were out of luck. Agreed. The nature of politics is spiralling downward as a result: blame both parties. Watch the Greens profit by it a the new fresh alternative. It won’t all be left of centre voters casting ballots for them.

  53. Harper is the only leader that knows that Canada is like a garden. In the garden, growth has it seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.

  54. Great analysis Coyne. I think you have nailed this one.
    I am, however, surpirsed that nobody has mentioned the remarkable similarity between your thesis and the ideas of one Niccolo Machiavelli. For example you mention that Harper is

    “so intent on his long-term goal that he will not let mere principle get in the way of reaching that goal…”

    That is Machiavelli in a nutshell. Long term vision takes complete priority and short term actions are not bound by any ethics or ideology so long as they lead to long term goals. Consequently you seem to be suggesting that Harper is “Machiavellian” in the truest sense of the word. What concerns me is that I happen to hate both his short term AND long term goals!

  55. Excellent discussion here. Have nothing to add except to agree that Harper is a cold, calculating political animal, in this for the long game….and so disdainful of the Canadian everyman that he runs his entire campaign with patronizing sound bytes.

    The troubling part is that, apparently, he’s pegged the Canadian everyman correctly….I am astounded that more of us aren’t absolutely insulted by his presumption that we can all be compartmentalized and massaged by targeted marketing.

  56. I agree with your view of the electorate (sadly). I suspect you give Stephen a little too much credit, although I agree with your envisioned outcome. I believe you also need to factor in the lack of responsibility demonstrated by the general media as they distract the electorate with such things as “death by a thousand cold cuts.” I would like to see investments made on improving voter turn out by the media, if they have nothing better than leaked (for a purpose) private, poor taste comments to print.

  57. Mr. Coyne/Mr. Wells:

    No need to debate or analyze what PM Harper’s plan is – he takes his script from chapter 9 of “Harper’s Team” by Tom Flanagan. You and Mr. Wells hit the nail on the head in saying he has a long term goal and the way to achieve the goal is by winning elections – even if it means sacrificing true conservative doctrine in the short term to achieve that (remember the first principle of politics is to get elected). As you say, Mr. Coyne, PM Harper wants to be around long enough to become the status quo, then he can implement his vision as described by Mr. Wells. Tom Flanagan wrote all this down in 2007 in his book. PM Harper’s behaviour in the past Parliament and this election campaign is word for word out of that book. I just finished the book this morning and then reread your posts. Deja vu all over again as they say. Perhaps Feschuk has an explanation on how Tom Flanagan wired his plan directly to your brains. :)


  58. “Watch the Greens profit by it as the fresh new alternative. It won’t be all left of center voters voting for them.”

    Finally the sea of ignorance is starting to abate. Ordinary people fought back to include Elizabeth May in the debates. The Greens’ numbers are steadily improving. People are tired of being manipulated and lied to. Those politicians and journalists whose fortunes depend on public support better watch out because the slumbering giant of public wrath is starting to stir thanks to alternative media on the internet. The cynical calculations of politicians like Stephen Harper and the political pundits who cheer them on will be punished. Witness the popularity of Obama south of the border.

  59. Philip –
    My main point was that a commitment to public healthcare is an ideology just as much as a belief in laissez-faire. And the position that most Canadians take on this issue is in fact very extreme compared to even social democratic western European government who do allow parallel public/private systems.

    As for the efficacy of markets versus governments – would you want the state running, say, all of the grocery stores or the whole food distribution system? Would we have the range of high quality reasonably priced food we enjoy today if there was ‘foodcare’ instead of ‘medicare’? I don’t think so.

  60. “The Greens’ numbers are steadily improving. People are tired of being manipulated and lied to.”


  61. Andrew et al,

    The point is that Mr. Harper does have principles. He just realizes that perhaps the best way to implement them is to first become the natural governing party. I don’t think that many Canadians of the day knew how far to the left Mr. Pearson and Mr. Trudeau would take this country.

    I also think that the single Canadian leader who had the most influence on Harper was Mr. Chretien – the master of winning with no real vision. He embodied the status quo and pragmatism. But it worked. The difference here is that Mr. Harper has a bigger dream for changing this country than did Mr. Chretien.

  62. Craig: Groceries and medical services are entirely different things. The first is essentially a commodity. In a pinch, most people would be able to grow their own food

    Few people can be their own heart surgeon.

    The problem with completely market based medical services is that medical services do not adhere to the standard supply and demand curve. No matter how good the sale is, you’re not going to get a heart transplant if you don’t need one, and if you do need one, it doesn’t matter what the price is, you’ll find a way to pay it — or die. In addition, the supply of doctors is extremely limited. The competition in heart surgeons really isn’t there, and because it’s a profession which takes several years to build up the skillset required, it’s not going to suddenly appear just because the market demands it.

    Combine these two factors and wholly private medical service is simply a recipe for rich people to receive service, and poor people not to. Yet even if you’re a full on objectivist who thinks that poor people deserve what they get (the lazy bums) this isn’t an ideal state of affairs, because people who are sick can infect you. Thus it’s in your own interest to ensure that people get adequate medical treatment as early as possible.

    I’ve personally grown to like the public-payer, private-provider type of system for medical services, where the payer, with access to various statistics, can assign payment appropriately for specific areas of medical service based on overall demand, rather than the individual trying to decide based on their immediate demand.

  63. Plans are usually molds shaped and based on past successes. However, since Harper still intends to rework politics, and not the constitution, so as to conservatize the country, there really is no way of benchmarking his future plans, is there?

    So, in essence, you’re both wrong.

  64. Andrew:

    Are you happy that John Maccallum is using your name (and John Williamson) to support their claims that they are prudent managers of the economy?

    Listen to the tapes:


  65. In addition to demand for healthcare not responding to normal market incentives, the other huge problem with non-universal healthcare systems is the paradox of private health insurance.

    While many people seem to ‘expect’ private health insurance to function like other forms of private insurance (fire insurance, theft insurance, etc.) insofar as it’s a mechanism for distributing risk/cost, allowing everyone to have coverage for catastrophic events at an affordable price, in reality it does quite the opposite. While fire, theft, etc. are random events, a person’s health is overwhelmingly non-random. Some people will use a lot of healthcare, some very little, and by profiling people (looking at their age, lifestyle, socio-economic factors, family history, DNA, etc.) insurance providers can do an ever-improving job of determining the expected ‘cost’ of an insured individual. So the paradox is that the smarter the insurance industry gets, the more insurance premiums converge on costs for individuals, and anyone who’s likely to need health insurance gets priced out of the market (and anyone who can afford insurance probably doesn’t need it). The market is going what it’s supposed to (price insurance correctly)… it’s just not what we want it to do.

    Private insurance only worked in the US in the past due to irreversible historical circumstances. Primarily, companies purchased bulk insurance for their employees, so each worker paid in essence the average cost of everyone at their job. As increasingly individuals have to buy their own insurance, and the insurance industry (with the help of computer technology especially) has become so good at data collection and processing, anyone in need of health insurance can no longer afford it.

    I’m very much laissez faire oriented, but I would consider Canada’s single payer model the IDEAL from an efficiency standpoint. It rations healthcare (helthcare must be rationed to not eat up all out GDP) in the most rational way (by need) with the least overhead while keeping inflation in check. Other countries would love to have our system but can’t because it’s so politically difficult (it’s a wonder it was ever adopted).

    Anyone supporting fully private healthcare is a market ideologue not an economist. I love laissez faire economics 80% of the time, but healthcare is one of those places where it just comes apart.

  66. Stewacide:

    I’m not sure why the healthcare debate gets narrowly divided into public-only or private-only models. A number of European countries have a mixture and seem to be providing better care at lower costs, according the OECD.

    I support public health care but there is something wrong with a system when my pets can recieve better healthcare (including MRIs, surgeries) than we can provide ourselves.

  67. Who actually DELIVERS healthcare is a totally different issue. I’m all for private/for-profit delivery, and agree the ideological opposition to it in this country is groundless.

    Private PURCHASE (as I explained above) is a whole other can of worms however.

    Re: a ‘mixed’ system, layering a system of private purchase on top of the public system simply leads to damaging inflation and over-consumption.

    In particular, queues are a necessary and desirably part of the current healthcare system: we would never want no lines! (since we’d end up treating people it isn’t cost-effective to treat). Allowing people to avoid those queues (which serve to prioritize rationing) through private purchasing would not only lead to general healthcare inflation, but it would cause healthcare to consume more of the national product than deemed desirable, since individuals simply don’t make rational decisions about their own healthcare consumption.

    I’ve not said whether I support universal healthcare on ‘moralistic’ grounds or not… to be honest I’m not sure (depends what mood you catch me in). But that it’s the clear winner in terms of objective efficiency according to very orthodox economics I have no doubt, for more reasons than I could think to list at once.

  68. Is there any speculation that Harper might not ‘Be There’ after the next party convention? Is there a successor in the wings? When movie stars come out and say how great their marriage is you invariably hear about the divorce the next year. I think Harper’s “I’m the Great Leader” campaign is his announcement that the reins of power are handing on sometime soonish.

  69. Andrew

    Just finished your How Journalists Get In The Way … column and I thought it was excellent. Many of your points were spot on, as far as I am concerned. Nice to read something in the msm that points out some of our reporters are a bit ridiculous and do far too much navel gazing.

  70. “I’m very much laissez faire oriented, but I would consider Canada’s single payer model the IDEAL from an efficiency standpoint. It rations healthcare (helthcare must be rationed to not eat up all out GDP) in the most rational way (by need) with the least overhead while keeping inflation in check.”

    In those few sentences lie the entire problem with single-payer medicine.

    First, nowhere does healthcare eat the entire GDP, that’s ridiculous. It eats anywhere from 6-17%, with most on the lower half of the scale, no matter what the system. And to suggest that a single-payer model “rations in the most rational way (by need)” is completely indefensible. How can any system so large, complex – but most importantly, centrally controlled – optimize anything, much less by ‘need’? Unless ‘need’ is defined as institutional need, rather than, say, health outcomes.

    Our health system IS far more allocation efficient than the US system, but it also aims low, and it sucks compared to many others in the first world. To keep ours hobbling along, we depend greatly upon the US as an escape valve when our system fails. Others manage by ‘knowing someone’ in our system.

    Each of the four adult members of my family have faced severe life-theatening medical problems within the past decade. Unfortunately, our top-down single-payer ‘needs-optimizing’ system didn’t deem *any* of us worthy of timely attention.

    The fix in each case – sometimes after months or years of agony, income loss and emotional distress – was inexpensive treatment at private facilities in the US or Quebec. Usually far less expensive, by the way, than the income lost while waiting for your ‘efficient’ single-payer model.

    Why? It’s not for lack of money spent on our system – any comparative analysis will show you that. It’s because any such rigid system is bound to fail to allocate well. Failure in this case means unnecessary human deaths. How anyone can describe this as moral or efficient or even remotely IDEAL is incomprehensible to me.

    I will not die for your utopia.

  71. What specifically does “going European” imply? Of course we want European health care if it is better. How?
    There are 5 or 6 emergency rooms in the City of Winnipeg. My suggestion is for Universal Health care to cover cab rides between each emergency room for low-priority patients. Have the computers network the cue lists and transport patients to where the wait is low.

  72. The difference in healthcare as a component of GDP is FAR from insignificant between first-world countries.

    Canada clearly places a low importance on healthcare and consequently it consumes a relatively small fraction of GDP (compared to most European countries, as well as the US for mostly different reasons). This is a political choice. If you believe you/your family should have received prompter care then what you’d want is more spending allocated to health (or perhaps a different prioritization scheme), but this of course comes at the expense of everything else we consume.

    In essence, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Whether healthcare is consumed inside or outside of the public system it has an equivalent societal cost. Since we can always have better healthcare by spending more a line has to be drawn somewhere, and in Canada that line is drawn in the political arena.

  73. A bit off topic, but next time the temptation to cover puffin poop comes up in the heart of a journalist, they could suppress the urge by investigating and covering one of the other 12 registered parties that are running in the election.

    It will have the twofold effect of being one less instance of talking about poop, and one more instance of educating a journalist and the public about another viewpoint in the country.


  74. I don’t disagree with either thesis, but I think more has to be said about federalisme d’ouverture and Harper’s goal of re-assembling the blue-bleu coalition that existed under Sir John A MacDonald in order to found the nation of Canada in the first place, and which died in the 1917 Conscription Crisis.

    Stephen Harper and 51 other Reform MPs were elected in 1993; that same election saw Lucien Bouchard and 53 MPs elected for the Bloc Quebecois. Since then federal politics has suffered an unprecedented distortion. The sovereignist/federalist dichotomy in francophone Quebec masked the latent pool of conservative bleus for whom a conservative mantra would have appeal. The Meech Lake crisis which exploded to destroy PC support, smash the taditionally dominant Liberal party and raise up the Bloc in Quebec from nothing almost smothered the conservative voice in francophone Quebec – Harper, against great odds and to the derision and ridicule of many (including many who participate in this Blog – recall the reaction to Harper’s “Belgium” speech where he rolled out federalisme d’ouverture) began to listen and speak to that conservative voice – faint and weak to begin with, but later more forceful and confident.

    I have always contended that the Liberals were not Harper’s prime target – it is the Bloc. He has benefited from an unexpected but very lucky development – Paul Martin resigned on Election Night 2006 (Martin was still popular in Quebec and his organization was still formidable). Martin in opposition would have attracted support for the Liberals as the Bloc support decayed. But he left the scene and into the void came a new Liberal leader with near-zero appeal in Quebec (esp among francophones)and zero organization in that province. So nothing stood in Harper’s may as he appealed to traditional bleus to abandon the Bloc and come home to the Conservative party.

    Gilles Duceppe’s shrieks to stop the Conservative wave by voting Bloc shows he knows what is happening. What happens next in Quebec will be the most interesting thing about this election as it was the last one, except this one will be interesting as well as we witness the final collapse of the Liberals as a pan-national party.

    Harper’s recent comments about arts cuts in Quebec are interesting. By pointing out the absurdity of the separatist-leaning artistic/cultural elites whining for federal subsidies he is speaking to the larger majority of francophone Quebeckers who already feel partonized by the Montreal intellectual elite and who are struggling with real-life problems such as jobs and crime. Hopefully during the debates he will remind Duceppe that if Quebec was independent there would be no federal subsidies, for the arts or for anything else for that matter. Many heads will nod “c’est vrai” in Quebec.

    Speaking of the debates, I will definitely watch the French debate on Oct 1. I want to watch the Duceppe versus Harper match-up. Should be good. I have no interest in what will be a dull English debate on Oct 2 because so little is at stake. Instead I will watch the Palin-Biden debate.

    On a totally unrelated matter, I agree with the poster above who said after Oct 14 Ignatieff might pull an Emerson and become Foreign Minister in the Harper cabinet. Ignatieff has been very, very quiet in this campaign especially after Rae took centre stage. Maybe there are already feelers out?

  75. orval: “On a totally unrelated matter, I agree with the poster above who said after Oct 14 Ignatieff might pull an Emerson and become Foreign Minister in the Harper cabinet.”

    While I never say anything is impossible, it would seem to me that Ignatieff would have to believe that he would be a shoe-in for the Liberal leadership, especially after seeing how the Conservatives unleashed on Bob Rae when he had the unmitigated gall to pronounce on the state of the economy, after what he did to Ontario in the early 90’s.

    Emerson was never a partisan Liberal; he was/is just a competent guy who wanted to serve his country in government, so he initially picked the Liberals as the best vehicle for him to achieve that. When the Liberals lost, he continued on with the Conservatives.

    The Liberals might be in bad shape after Oct. 14th, but their brand is still strong. I’m sure Ignatieff could resurrect their brand quite easily. He wouldn’t get spanked in a campaign, that’s for sure. His first election might be a close-run thing, but I’m sure if he didn’t win, he’d live to fight another day, and would likely win on the second try.

  76. Hi KRB you might well be right, if there is enough of the Liberal party left to rapidly resurrect after Oct 14.

    Ignatieff was a shoe-in in 2006, but he still lost. It was obvious that a large part of the Liberal party (the anti-Americans) were allergic to Ignatieff. In 2006 Ignatieff had the largest support from Quebec Liberals – the LPC is Quebec is now in ruins. The party itself has gone more to his rival Bob Rae’s way of thinking, rather than his way.

    Reading Ignatieff’s foreign policy books (Virtual War, The Warrior’s Code, Blood and Belonging, etc) I was always mystified as to why Ignatieff would be attracted to the pacifist, protectionist, anti-American, socialist Liberal party. It sems to me it is a nostalgic attraction – he longs for the Liberal party of Pearson (his fathers’ boss), not for the party of Chretien, Martin and now Dion.

    The people who will be left in the rubble of the Liberal party are not Ignatieff’s kind of people. So, unless he returns to academia, I wouldn’t be surprised if he takes on Foreign Affairs under Harper, or takes up the PM’s offer of a senior diplomatic posting like Ambassador to the UN. Any of those would be terrific uses of his talents and intellect IMHO.

  77. “The difference in healthcare as a component of GDP is FAR from insignificant between first-world countries.”

    You are woefully ill-informed.

    Except for the US as the major outlier, almost all large first-word countries spend between 8% and 11% of GDP on health.

    “Canada clearly places a low importance on healthcare and consequently it consumes a relatively small fraction of GDP (compared to most European countries, as well as the US for mostly different reasons). ”

    Wrong again. Canada spends comparatively more than most, so if that’s your metric, Canada places a high importance on healthcare, not low. However, it places importance on maintaining the incumbent system at any cost, not actual health outcomes.

    Health Spending, Portion of GDP, 2007:
    Canada – 10.6%
    OECD average – 9.4%
    Source: WHO

    And we’re rising faster than the OECD too. In fact, we’re swiftly returning to the point we were at 10 years ago: spending more than anyone else (except the US), with mediocre results to show for it.

    “This is a political choice. If you believe you/your family should have received prompter care then what you’d want is more spending allocated to health (or perhaps a different prioritization scheme),”

    Wrong again. Returning to OECD comparisons, more spending at the macro level by itself does not equal better health outcomes. Those countries spending 8% have the same (or better) outcomes as those paying 11%.

    What DOES make a difference is the structure of health care spending and delivery – and our system scrapes the bottom of the barrel. Spending more on a centrally-planned bad system just leads to a more expensive system, not a better one.

    In each of my family’s cases, it would have cost markedly less to provide swifter care. Spending more on health care was not the issue – it is management, incentive, and actors. In our system, patients are treated as invisible non-actors, which is utterly obtuse.

    It is ridiculous that if my cat and I require medical attention, I can pay to save my cat, but it’s ILLEGAL to do so to save my own life.

    Until that is remedied, we cannot call our system moral, much less ideal.

  78. Exactly. In Canada there is only the center.

    Over time he can marry fiscal conservatism and social tolerance into a kind of libertarianism of convenience, or those that believe opportunity and choice are the precursors to a vibrant dynamic society and government can play a moderating role. At present it would contrast him to a spectrum to the left (all 4) all the way to the antique relic in the NDP.

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