Harper’s new tack: change you can’t believe in

Here’s one way to have your foreign policy be ‘noticed.’ Babble incoherently on Afghanistan.


change you can’t believe in

The damage caused by this current global economic unpleasantness is incalculable, but we can report this much, at least: somewhere in all the excitement Stephen Harper broke his crystal ball.

Remember Master Strategist Guy who won because he could see further down the field than anyone else? Yeah, not so much. During the Unfixed Election-Date Campaign of ’08, he toured the nation reminding everyone he is an economist—he’s been slow to deliver on promises of credentials recognition, but by God, he recognizes his own. He said, “My own belief is that if we were going to have some sort of big crash or recession, we probably would have had it by now.” He said, “We’ll never go back into deficit!” He made fun of Stéphane Dion for promising to address the crisis by holding a first ministers’ meeting and preparing a fiscal update. “Panic,” Harper called that plan.

On the day after the election Harper called for a first ministers’ meeting and a fiscal update. Two weeks later he began calling for deficit spending. Was anything missing in this Olympics of flip-flopping? Yes: some sort of big crash or recession. Well, fear not, he said the other day in Peru. It’s on the way.

The PM’s sudden blindness does not afflict him only when he is peering at the economy. Two years ago he showed his strategic prowess in Quebec by throwing his party’s lot in with Mario Dumont’s Action démocratique. An economist, if Harper knew any, would have recognized that as a clear case of buying at the top of a market. On Afghanistan, Harper and Peter MacKay are now no more reliable in their forecasts for Canada’s military commitment than they used to be when they expounded on the durability of the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives.

I need to hammer this last point home because, all kidding aside, I cannot express how appalling it is. Our Prime Minister and his war minister are now saying random things about a shooting war. “Afghanistan remains NATO’s number one priority,” MacKay said last week. “This is not an operation of choice, it is one of necessity. We are in Afghanistan for the long term under a United Nations mandate for as long as we are needed and welcomed by the Afghan people.”

Which is great, except Harper spent the election campaign saying, not only that our troops must come home in 2011, but that our NATO allies’ troops should do the same. I asked a senior diplomat from one of Canada’s most important allies about these pronouncements. The reply: “We just decided it couldn’t be taken at face value.”

Well, that’s just great. Harper promised a foreign policy that would “actually be noticed,” and he has delivered. Ah, yes, Harper. He’s the Canadian who babbles incoherently about Afghanistan. We’ve noticed.

None of this is meant to condemn the choice Canadians made when a plurality of voters elected Harper’s Conservatives in October. After two years of Stéphane Dion, it’s hard to call the electorate’s choice a mistake. But the result is a freshly re-elected Prime Minister whose political instincts, by all the evidence, are shot.

In this environment expect confusion and cue-taking. Harper will continue to contradict himself while letting the rest of the world decide his next steps. That last bit should come as a relief. In private, Harper shows skill as an impressionist. He is said to do a killer John McCallum. Lately he has begun letting this side of his personality shine in public. At the APEC summit in Peru, for instance, his speech sounded like Bush’s. At the next global confab he will sound oddly like Barack Obama. Speaking as a genuine economist—and has he mentioned he’s an economist yet?—he is a late-breaking convert to the virtues of Keynesianism and multilateralism. Leaders everywhere else are applying a fiscal stimulus, so Harper will stimulate his fisc too. The scale of his stimulus will match the size of theirs. Obama is hinting at between $500 billion and $700 billion in assorted actions over two years. Gordon Brown brought in about $37 billion in stimulus for the current year. That suggests the Conservatives will deliver a proportionate $20 billion to $25 billion in stimulus at their next budget.

So the Liberal opposition is on the wrong track when they warn about “ideologically driven spending cuts.” There is spending on the way, not cuts. It will indeed be ideologically driven, but only at the margin. Given a choice, Harper will avoid spending on things that work or last, because we might conclude that’s what government is for. There will, it is true, probably be roads, because roads have an agreeably mid-20th-century feel to them. You can trust roads. Roads don’t attend rich galas. Beyond that, Harper will look for ways to get money to where it can be spent by individuals as quickly as possible. Cheques, tax credits, vouchers, that sort of thing. You should not be astonished if he cuts the GST by another point.

In every case he will wait for Canada’s neighbours, especially the Americans, to move first. He has been rattled by recent events. On Oct. 30 he appointed Lawrence Cannon as minister of foreign affairs and Stockwell Day as trade minister. Five days later the country Harper has always viewed as a model rejected cronyism for meritocracy. It’s the kind of thing that shakes a guy’s faith in himself.


Harper’s new tack: change you can’t believe in

  1. Could you have picked a more flattering picture of the Leader of our Country? What’s your problem? Nobody predicted the ferocity of this downturn; nobody. PM Harper did have his eye on the ball and did move towards tax cuts for individuals and Companies, as well as cuts to the GST. The UK is now cutting their sales tax; we have already done so! Yes, PMSH is an economist and he is letting people know; it shows. What also shows is that the media doesn’t understand a lot of things that he tries to make very clear; either the reporters are too busy “pre-writing” their own opinions or they are daft. I heard PMSH’s speeches in Peru and I listened to and read the commentary afterwards, and there is a great loss in the translation; or media filter was too dense for any truth to get thru,… Afghanistan’s Karzai has stated that he wants to talk peace with the more moderate factions of the Taliban and he wants NATO bombing to stop; KazaiAfghanistan is pulling back and will be responsible for their own future, for good or evil; so once again it DOES show that PMSH is two steps ahead!!! Your dislike of him warps your “reporting”; oh yeah, it’s your blogopinion. You’re entitled to your opinion, I just don’t know why MacLeans promotes your site?

  2. Gosh Paul, where was all this rhetoric during the election when it might have made a difference?

  3. Five days later the country Harper has always viewed as a model rejected cronyism for meritocracy. It’s the kind of thing that shakes a guy’s faith in himself.

    As opinions go this one is like so many other orifices. I guess I just expected more from a seasoned journalist, something more than an anti-Harper, Harper-is-bad-and-stupid-too polemic. To be charitable, given Paul’s recent items, his pissing match with Coyne over Georgia, and general crankiness, maybe he’s just projecting some other pain into his writing.

  4. When looking back upon 2008 15 or 20 years from now, two words will trigger gales of laughter: “Fiscal stimulus.” When Lord Khrist Keynes was alive, government spending as a percentage of GDP was tiny. It is now huge. Making it a little bit huger won’t stimulate anything, other than the imaginations of the politicians spending it.

  5. Fair enough Paul, but one issue – Harper’s ‘foreign policy’ on Oct. 1 – would not persuade as many readers as your item today which is a wake-up call about how things are going so quickly from bad to worse right here at home.

    BTW, I do try to keep up, but it’s not easy with so much stuff hitting the fan every day. Isn’t there a curse about living in interesting times?

  6. Darryl try not to get any tears on the Stephen Harper poster hanging above your bed.

  7. Wow, what happened to ‘Sweater Vest’ Harper? Where did he go? How about ”Can’t we all get along ” in the house of commons Harper. (Canada’s version of Rodney King) Another version of Harper that bit the dust.

  8. I think Paul needs more fibre in his diet. This is just not up to par Paul what’s the matter are you not feeling well. Generally at least you might have a quirky put down or on occasion a clever repartee but this – for lack of a better term crap – doesn’t say anything you may as well have copy pasted some of the anti-harpercrite ranters post from the forum here and used it as a headline.

  9. When looking back upon 2008 15 or 20 years from now, two words will trigger gales of laughter:

    Yeah, fiscal conservative.

  10. Quotes then and now: Harper, Flaherty

    The Conservatives are lost in all this.

    The latest gambit: Hide in the Tory Bunker until spring, hope it all goes away and monitor the American strategy so it can be copied, embraced and called Harper Conservative strategy.

    That in a nutshell is what is happening.

    Good picture BTW. It fits his personality. Angry, middle aged, plagiarizer..

  11. Wrong Transcanada. It would appear that the latest gambit is to provoke an election to mask the fact that this government doesn’t have a clue as to what to do about this economic crisis.

  12. Where to start…

    “None of this is meant to condemn the choice Canadians made when a plurality of voters elected Harper’s Conservatives in October. After two years of Stéphane Dion, it’s hard to call the electorate’s choice a mistake.”

    So, let me get this straight. The guy who actually proposed an economic plan to deal with the downturn during the election campaign (that Harper is partially now following) still would have been a bad choice, and thus the media pile-on on Dion during the campaign was justified? Now that Dion has turned out to be right but is out of the picture, editorialists/columnists can now feel free to dump on the mistakes made by the guy in charge and not feel culpable regarding their election coverage. Good work if you can get it.

    And it strikes me that Harper claiming he is an “economist” is as credible as him claiming during the campaign that he had ran a small business (that would be the National Citizen’s Coalition). The media has certainly help peddle this fallacy that he is an economist. Judging from his response to the current crisis, even if he was/is one, he clearly isn’t a good or smart economist.

    Finally, re:
    “You should not be astonished if he cuts the GST by another point.”

    Yeah, because that worked out so well the first time…. sheesh.

  13. Why does everyone call the PM an “economist” Was he ever paid to be an economist?
    If I studied journalism at school but worked as a chef does that make me a “journalist.”
    I studied economics at university but that doesn’t make me an economist.

    As far as I can tell, Mr. Harper was a lobbyist and political staffer.

  14. Fear not, Darryl, the calendar with a new photo of Leader Steve and the Steve Admiring Images of Himself Chrismas card are on the way. I hope he’ll look better than here. My tax money is not well-spent on his psychic/dresser/make-up woman. Are we still paying for her?

  15. Has it ever occured to anyone, on any node along the political spectrum, that there is not a bloody thing anybody can do to change what’s going on? An economy cannot grow, grow, grow forever any more than a body can run, run, run forever. Eventually the body needs a rest, and if the running was prolonged and enhanced by steroids (easy credit) and a downhill path (lack of regulation) that rest may be in a hospital. Just let it crash already and start picking up the pieces and changing our ways. Trying to stimulate things one….more…..time…..will only result in even more pain down the road.

  16. Darryl @ Nov 27, 2008 12:19:
    You are adorable.
    But remember to take small sips on that Blue Kool-Aid, buddy. If you chug it all at once you’ll get a headache.

  17. Interesting pattern you inspire, Paul.
    First up, whining, belligerent Harperoids with their backs up trying to knock you off that ‘Harper isn’t all he says he is’ pedestal. Then, comes a wave of progressive/centre-lefters (myself a minor player) with our nodding and poking at the bitter CONtrollers and their leader.
    Thanks for writing this. Unfortunately, it’s getting clearer and clearer that no other editors among Canada’s news media will allow their journalists the freedom to come to the same conclusions…

  18. Nobody predicted the ferocity of this downturn; nobody.

    I’m sorry but WHAT? We’re not talking about stuff Harper said in 2006, we’re talking about stuff he said in October.


    I knew it was hitting the fan in October. A month after John McCain suspended his campaign to rush back to Washington to try to do something about the collapsing economy you’re telling me no one knew things were going to get bad??? Mort Zuckerman was talking about the Great Depression this past SUMMER for Pete’s sake. Right there on my T.V. No, this argument doesn’t pass the sniff test.

    Unless one is saying that our Prime Minister, an ECONOMIST and LEADER OF OUR COUNTRY is less informed about global economics then I am. I mean, I believe it, but damn. It’s scary. (Oh, and calling Harper an “economist” because he studied economics is like calling someone a “poet” because the studied English Lit. Harper is a life long politician and lobbyist, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I wish people wouldn’t call a guy who was never an economist an economist).

    Harper said on Election Day (October 14th) that we’d never go back into deficit. That was 44 days ago, not during the Jurassic Period. I knew we were going to go back into deficit 44 days ago, and I’m just some guy.

    So are we saying that the Prime Minister is an idiot, or was he just lying to us?

    I don’t expect my PM to have magical predictive powers, but I do expect him to have at least as good a grasp on the situation as I do. I don’t expect him to have known things were going to get this bad the whole time he was pissing away a $12 billion surplus, but the stuff he’s said in the last 3-4 months has just been delusional. We’re not going to go into deficit? We’re not going to need a stimulus package. We’re not going to give any money to the auto industry? I’m sorry, but these statements weren’t credible WHILE HE WAS MAKING THEM.

    Though, at least he has the good sense to do the exact opposite of what he said now that he’s back in charge. That’s something I suppose. I just wonder if he always planned to flip flop and it was all just crass politicking, or if he really had no idea what the Hell was going on when he made those kinds of statements.

    And I don’t know which is scarier.

    And don’t even get me started on Afghanistan. I’ve ceased even listening to our PM and MoD on that file, as not a thing that comes out of their mouths is credible any more. And it seesm as though our allies have stopped listening too.

  19. Gee, you’ve made some people unhappy. They’re usually just angry and nasty … but in a happy kind of way.

    I can understand Our Leader waiting to see if anything settles out in the USA. Aside from being our dominating trading customer we are largely a corporate branch plant of the US economy. They act. We react. They’ve poured liquidity into the banks but very little of it is coming out the other side. Enough of that.

    But there is no reason not to goose along the infrastructure spending already designated. That will be necessary no matter what conditions develop…. unless they’re waiting for their chums to line up for the P3 trough.

    And this silly throwing of political chaff is just disgusting.

  20. Geez Paul – I guess you can’t win for losing. It’s like being between a rock and a hard place it seems. I’ve always thought you favoured Harper too much and now you voice an opinion on the current events and the right wing can’t take it.


  21. You call Harper’s change on outlook on a deficit a “flip-flop”. Din you happen to look at the financial news in the intervening weeks? Do you think it at all possible that the circumstance have changed in a relevant way?

  22. Pete: It changed back! Fall update projects five years of surpluses. Do you figure the wheel has stopped spinning yet?…

  23. Two things that are not arguments:

    1. “Gee Paul Wells is angry”

    2. Harperbots oh no!

    One thing that is, presumably…

    Paul Wells,

    You are correct on substance: Stephen Harper’s statements are generally inconsistent. I think that must be particularly frustrating for a journalist – you can’t comment on substantive matters if, frankly, you aren’t entirely sure what the government is going to do.

    I think you are missing the bigger picture though. Politicians avoid clear pronouncements for a reason – because it is easier to survive on “zap, you’re frozen” or “conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription” than clear pronouncements. That is especially true in a crisis where the solutions are uncertain.

    Canada’s best course of action at this juncture is probably the “do nothing” course that Harper implicitly supports. Unemployment projections have unemployment increasing to about 6.9% and then ebbing slowly after that. Those are still historically low numbers. They may be lower once Canada benefits from every OTHER country turning on their fiscal stimulus pumps (increasing consumer demand for goods, foreign and domestic). By contrast, Canada doing the same will be less effective because Canadians buy many goods from the US. The risk of foreign stimulus packages is that they may be sector-specific, putting Canadian industries at a competitive disadvantage. Blowing your load early by hitching up to infrastructure spending is a bad idea if it turns out the Americans are going to bail out their auto industry. That is on top of the fact that FISCAL (but not monetary) stimuli are typically not that effective. It is worth adding that the Bank of Canada has more room than the US fed, so unlike the Americans (with extremely low interest rates), Canada can use monetary expansion if necessary.

    Unfortunately nobody will accept “do nothing” as an option, just as nobody would accept conscription or price and wage controls (which Trudeau and King thought were the best course of action).*

    *If you want some more contemporary examples – Obama won as an agent of change, but has appointed a cabinet full of Clinton retreads; Chretien campaigned in 1993 saying “the deficit she take care of ‘erself”; and Harper campaigned in 2006 as an accountable/honest government guy but has outdone the Liberals in parliamentary brutality. Politicians lie, but you know, I’m glad Obama is appointing people with experience, I’m glad Chretien slayed the deficit, and I’m glad Harper didn’t govern like Martin.

  24. Hoser, who projects the unemployment rate peaking at 6.9%? The private sector is much more pessimistic, with estimates of peaks upward of 9%.

  25. Darryl
    Nov 27, 2008 12:19

    Sorry Darryl, Garth Turner predicted this a couple of years ago…. and mentioned it many times on his web site…. check it out for yourself….. His next book will be out soon with all the facts and hints of how to protect you and your family, like him or not the facts speak for themselves. There will be copies at your local library so you need not spend any money. Also several journalist wrote about sub prime loans and 40 year mortgages and the spending of the $13 billion surplus and $3 billion reserve funds and the GST cut well heck any fool knew that would kill government coppers. Afghanistan and Iraq at $14 billion plus per month with no end in sight ….. hello the world knew that…. Sorry Darryl … that is just for starters. ….. now I am going to move on to Afghanistan suicides and PTSD and the destruction of our Navy and Air Force and failed lock step recruiting! Sad Darryl…. real Sad!

  26. No wonder Harper will not take question from the MSM Dare any journalist remind the PM of his own words…. from the net:

    September 9, 2004 Her Excellency the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson,C.C., C.M.M., C.O.M., C.D.Governor GeneralRideau Hall1 Sussex DriveOttawa, Ontario K1A 0A1

    Excellency, As leaders of the opposition parties, we are well aware that, given the Liberal minority government, you could be asked by the Prime Minister to dissolve the 38th Parliament at any time should the House of Commons fail to support some part of the government’s program. We respectfully point out that the opposition parties, who together constitute a majority in the House, have been in close consultation. We believe that, should a request for dissolution arise this should give you cause, as constitutional practice has determined, to consult the opposition leaders and consider all of your options before exercising your constitutional authority. Your attention to this matter is appreciated. Sincerely, Hon. Stephen Harper, P.C., M.P.Leader of the OppositionLeader of the Conservative Party of Canada Gilles Duceppe, M.P.Leader of the Bloc Quebecois Jack Layton, M.P.Leader of the New Democratic Party

  27. Where was everyone when Harper was spending the surplus like a drunken sailor, buying votes and pandering to Quebec? Harper has blown the fiscal load left behind by the careful stewardship of Chretien-Martin, and run us into a deficit. No one ever hired Harper to work as an economist because the guy is an incompetent as an economist and has only ever done one thing his whole life, being in politics, either as a backroom boy or a lobbyist or a politician. In short, he has never done an honest day’s work in his life. What he knows about economics would not fill a thimble! Time to boot him to the Opposition bench and get experienced managers back in the saddle to guide Canada through this mammoth recession!

  28. Harper seems like Richard Nixon, instead of doing his job he is worried about his false pride, hurt by his failure to win a majority; he is throwing political hand grenades, plotting destruction of the opposition when his minority position dictates that work with the opposition now that the election is over. He knows he has no hope of winning a majority especially when Liberals replace their most inept leader Dion, who is so pathetic that he worries me. I had voted for Harper hoping he will provide more acceptable government. In fact his ministers are not so bad, except he won’t allow them to speak. He threatens and fires anyone who he does not like. Last few days have shown that he invents one lie after another, accusing Liberals of tactics that he has used in the past.
    There are now only two options, one for some mature Conservatives and elder statesmen insist that he resign, and ensure that new leader is one capable of accepting the minority position and work with the other parties. The other option is for him to be defeated and coalition to take power. If that does not happen this week, it will simply add another misery to upcoming Christmas. The propaganda war Harper is contemplating is simply an option. Harper has already damaged Conservative parties, but political leaders come and go, no one should be allowed to damaged Canada, not now, not ever.

    • It’s time to send this guy packing one way or another. We need a leader that speaks for “we the people” as opposed to “we the government”

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