Last week in Ottawa, Maclean’s and CPAC hosted a round-table discussion on the subject: “Stephen Harper’s Canada. How do you like it so far?” Maclean’s columnists Paul Wells and Andrew Coyne were joined on stage by Jack Granatstein, senior research fellow with the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, NDP finance critic Peggy Nash, Montreal Liberal MP and House Leader Marc Garneau and Jason Kenney, the Conservative government’s minister of citizenship and immigration. CPAC’s Peter Van Dusen moderated the event. The following is an edited excerpt.
Peter Van Dusen: The majority Conservative government has been in office for six months now, and it’s wasting no time. Anti-crime legislation, eliminating public subsidies to political parties, scrapping the wheat board monopoly, getting rid of the long gun registry, rebalancing the seats in the House of Commons. And they are still promising to cut government spending and government jobs, but have left the door open if there is another global recession. Harper’s Canada: how do you like it so far? Andrew?
Andrew Coyne: Well, it’s been more or less as advertised. They seem to be quite determined to make it clear they’re now advancing on the agenda that they were elected on. But there are questions that I truthfully can’t answer with anything definitive. Is Stephen Harper going to relax his grip a little bit on Parliament? You would say on the early track record, no. They’ve been invoking closure or time allocation pretty regularly. On the other hand, they’ve been bringing forward Supreme Court appointments and having people interview them, they’ve had the consultation on Libya. Are we are going to see the great return to fiscal conservatism after so many years of rapid spending growth? Well, we’ve had the strategic operating review to start off, but you’re not entirely sure how serious they are about fiscal responsibility when they start talking about putting off the deficit targets further. On Quebec they’ve run this very carefully calibrated thing where they’ll take away a shipbuilding contract on the one hand, and on the other they’ll give them extra seats in Parliament. Again, not exactly clear whether they are stiff-arming Quebec or the full pander is still on.
Paul Wells: I think I should point out that just about every party represented here has something to be grateful for from the results of May 2, even the Liberals. They finally get a couple of years of peace to decide what kind of party they want to be. The NDP are remarkably stable in the polls across the country, and have demonstrated that they can be an effective opposition even in a majority government. The Conservatives get power and they’re using it. But by some time in the new year, they will have gotten rid of most of the easy-to-check-off elements from the campaign platform. I’m curious to see what they’re going to do for an encore.
Jack Granatstein: The areas that interest me most are defence and foreign policy, and I give the government pretty good grades there. The people I talk to abroad, the people in NATO, in London and Copenhagen and in Washington, they all think Canada is back as a responsible partner. The role in Libya certainly reinforced that.
PD: Jason Kenney, I suppose we should restate the question for you—what should the rest of us like so far?
Jason Kenney: I think Canadians, essentially, see a competent government that’s getting things right on the big issues like job creation, prosperity and economic growth. We have the best fiscal position, the strongest financial sector of the major developed countries in the world. As a former president of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the number one achievement for me is $190 billion in tax relief, bringing the federal tax-to-GDP ratio down to its lowest level since 1964, taking a million Canadians off the tax rolls, benefiting the average family by about $3,000 a year, a very ambitious trade promotion agenda, nine FTAs signed in five years, another 50 under negotiation, including with the European Union and India.
Peggy Nash: It won’t surprise you to hear we feel that, on what Canadians say are their priorities—jobs, the economy, securing their retirement income, and making life more affordable—the Conservatives have not delivered. And in the areas where they have spent billions of dollars, whether it’s continuing to give very large corporate tax cuts, billions spent on mega-prisons, and increasingly shutting down debate on important issues, I think a lot of people feel this government is increasingly divorced from the concerns of the average person.
Marc Garneau: It may surprise you, Peter, but I’ll start off by complimenting the government on a couple of very good moves. One is the shipbuilding contract. By all accounts it seems to have been done very fairly and impartially. It stands out in contrast, on the other hand, with the F-35, which I think has been a fiasco up until now. Secondly, I think the government has handled the military intervention in Libya as well as could be expected. On the other hand, I do have concerns about a government that says that it has a very strong mandate from Canadians—that mandate is somewhat less than 40 per cent—to forge ahead with a whole bunch of things, and sometimes ignoring scientific evidence. They’re bringing in the omnibus bill on crime, which will not lower the crime rate, will not do anything for victims, and is totally ignoring the evidence with respect to crime rates going down and the lessons learned—which our American neighbours are passing on to us—that that’s a deeply flawed policy approach. They are castrating the Canadian wheat board. They are getting rid of the long gun registry, but they’re also going to destroy all the data. And the majority of victims’ organizations have said, “Keep that data,” the majority of police organizations have said, “Keep that data.”
JK: Let me respond to Marc’s notion that this is somehow a less than a governing majority mandate. I mean, we received the same percentage of the popular vote as the average of the three Chrétien majorities. We [won] the plurality of seats and votes in seven of the 10 provinces, so it’s regionally diverse. We have the most demographically diverse governing caucus in parliamentary history. In terms of the criminal justice agenda, first of all, the majority of crimes in Canada go unreported. Secondly, there are various forms of crime, including various forms of violent crime that have actually increased in recent years. But the reason why most Canadians support our agenda—including our omnibus crime legislation—is because it reflects their sense of what I’ll just call natural justice. They think it’s fundamentally wrong that someone who’s a repeat offender or a violent offender should not end up with a custodial sentence.
JG: What bothers me about the government in the last six months, primarily, are the inexplicable acts that it sometimes put into place, the renaming of the navy and the air force, putting the “royal” back in, flying in the face of a hundred years of national advance. Done out of the blue, done on a whim. Saying they will destroy the gun registry files. What’s the point of destroying them when they may be of use, when they’ve been collected, as the Conservatives have always said, at vast expense?
PW: This government has been operating as not a particularly less-moderate government with a majority than it was with a minority. For instance, it’s going to build a nice bridge for the people of Montreal, who didn’t vote for them. They swallowed themselves whole to pony up three new seats for Quebec against the demographic trends. That’s what a government that is not writing off Quebec does— it pays attention to files that are important to Quebecers. One thing this government thinks about all the time is making sure its actions are irrevocable. The reason they cut the GST is because it’s going to be real hard for any future government to raise the GST again. You want to make sure that having nudged the country to the right, it doesn’t nudge back, and blowing up the data on the long gun registry is going to make it awful hard for a future government to reinstate the long gun registry.
JK: Well, I don’t want future governments to raise taxes. I’ll admit it. I’ll go out there on a limb and say I’m glad any future government will have a hard time explaining to Canadians if they want to raise the GST, absolutely. We can’t bind what future Parliaments do, but we can protect the privacy rights of Canadians, and there are hundreds of thousands of law-abiding Canadians who are legitimate firearms owners who believe that database undermines their privacy rights, and our commitment was, for that reason, to get rid of that data.
PN: What I’m concerned about is that in the last Parliament we put forward some ideas that would take the long gun registry and amend some of the challenges that so many rural Canadians had with this registry. But rather than amending it, finding a better way, they’re just chopping it.
PD: What do we think the next four years might hold?
PW: It’s a strange new world out there; the traditional Conservative alliance in foreign policy with the anglosphere—Britain and the United States and Australia, and special guest star Israel—is a little problematic. The United States has a President who doesn’t line up with this government on much, and it’s in enormous economic doo-doo. I expect they will, broadly speaking, continue to try and nudge public opinion to the right through largely symbolic measures, while trying to run an essentially competitive economy so that we avoid the kind of economic chaos that kills any government.
AC: We have an enormous long-term challenge in terms of raising the productivity of the country in order to be able to pay, frankly, my health care and pension when I’m old, because right now the demographic challenges in front of us are enormous. So the optimistic scenario would be they pursue this trade agenda that they’ve started, but they pursue it to its conclusion. We’ve got the European trade talks that are reaching a crunch point, we’ve got a trans-Pacific initiative that we’re locked out of because we don’t do anything about our supply management, we’ve got the WTO talks that are moribund, again partly because of agriculture, so the business community is certainly gearing up to say we not let the supply management tail wag the entire dog of the economy. We’ve got to be prepared to deal with this. Similarly, they’ve had oceans of advice about opening up foreign investment in sectors that we still keep closed unnecessarily and harmfully to the country. We’re going to need foreign capital and foreign investment if we’re going to get productivity up.
PN: We’re still missing a quarter of a million jobs in this country since the last recession, and we have double-digit unemployment for young people. Rather than focusing on the jobs deficit, or the infrastructure deficit, they’re focused on a fiscal deficit, which in fact could slow our economy even further. So I think we’re going see inequality continue to grow. I think we’ll have more of what I call precarious jobs where people can’t find good quality jobs.
MG: One final thing I think is important—in 2014 the transfer payments have to be renegotiated. A huge part of that is health. That is something that can keep the government very, very busy until 2014, hopefully to end up with something that will not be as insane as the course that we’re on at the moment of, essentially, breaking the federal piggy bank if we keep going this way.
JK: If you want to know what to expect, read our platform. Obviously we are living through a period of real global uncertainty at the economic level, and we will have to respond as events develop. I think we’re going to see an emerging role of global economic leadership for Canada as we, in many senses, actually set the pace, and that, I think, is a nexus between our growth-focused economic policies and our more assertive foreign policy.