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.

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