Harper’s legacy

Harper’s legacy
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I wrote the following article for the Huffington Post, but figured it would work just as well as an accompaniment to this this toon.

The 2012 federal budget was the last silky adornment to be peeled off in Stephen Harper’s long dance of seven veils with Canadian Conservatives. Turns out there’s not much underneath.

For the last six years, anyone who’s turned to the Conservative Party for a coherent agenda of smaller government, lower spending, substantially reformed taxation, and a fundamental reexamination of the cause and purpose of all three, has been forced to nurse on a series of defensive excuses.

First it was all about making conservatism “electable” in Canada. This entailed merging the Canadian Alliance with the Progressive Conservatives — a party that had long since abandoned any pretence of being on the right — and Harper’s subsequent Orwellian obsession with keeping all candidates of his new big-tent as muzzled and ideologically neutered as possible. There’ll be plenty of time to be feisty and right-wing once the Conservatives actually took power, they were told, but in the meantime, for heaven’s sake, don’t frighten the poor voters!

Then the Conservatives actually did take power, but only under the embarrassing circumstances of a minority parliament. You can’t honestly expect genuinely conservative government when the House is dominated by three leftist parties, the new narrative went. Just stay quiet and hug the centre a little longer. Before you know it we’ll have a majority and then the real fun can begin.

The whole totemic notion of a Conservative “hidden agenda” was thus always as much a covert promise to the right as it was a fearful conspiracy theory of the left, but with the big budget reveal Thursday — the first in Year Zero of the Harper majority — it seems the whole thing truly was just a big lefty lie.

Five billion in surgical spending cuts (over the course of three years) for a government with revenues totalling over $250 billion is neither radical, nor particularly right-wing (the Martin-Chretien years, as the budget itself notes, were harsher), nor is the elimination of 19,200 bureaucrats (largely through attrition) in a country that employs over 250,000, nor is a 10 per cent cut to the billion-dollar-a-year CBC.  What it is, as John Ivision quickly noted, is “a grand vision of still-big government.”

There are no more excuses left. The world must now make peace with the fact that middling moderation is not merely a Harper “tactic,” but rather an end unto itself. We’ve wasted a lot of time assuming otherwise, so a rhetorical update is long overdue.

You can’t blame the man too much. Moderation and piecemeal reform does “work” to an extent, at least in the sense that one of the easiest ways for a government to remain in power is to govern as blandly and offensively as possible, though this is rarely the stuff from which memorable legacies are made. In botching his last opportunity to introduce an identifiably unique vision for Canadian governance, Harper has unambiguously stated that greatness is not within his grasp.

In his epic 2002 survey on political leadership, King of the Mountain, Arnold Ludwig concluded that the success rates of world leaders is ultimately determined just as much by bravery and risk-taking as any actual policy outcome. This is why, for instance, public polls routinely rank Pierre Trudeau and Ronald Reagan as among the greatest leaders of their respective countries.

Both men were obviously flawed, relatively ineffective, and (to a point) hypocrites, with wide gaps between promise and delivery, but also marvellous visionaries and storytellers capable of tapping into some powerful instinct of hope and ambition deep within the hearts of those they ruled. There was, in short, a core of principled authenticity in these leaders — in Reagan’s case, a love of individualism, in Trudeau’s, a deep passion for national unity — which either tempered, softened, or otherwise made palatable their unimpressive chore of managing the federal government.

No one has ever offered such a defence of Harper, and I very much doubt anyone ever will.  He has no story to tell, and his leadership has mostly highlighted, rather than hid, the ugly pettiness, vanity, arrogance, and authoritarianism that motivates the majority of democratic politicians who are too untalented to try harder.

The Prime Minister is an intelligent man, and in terms of his own ideological development, chronicled in books like William Johnson’s heroic biography, he may still be one of the most brilliant men to ever run the nation, at least insofar that his depth of understanding of Canada and the greater “Canadian system” of interlocking relationships between government, business, interest groups, bureaucracy, media, and conventional wisdom is far more well-rounded and critical than any of those who have come before him.

Harper was well-equipped to be a Canadian Reagan, but his legacy will be that of a Bush. It may be a very long time indeed before the leadership of Canada is entrusted to another man capable of conjuring up an inspiring and engaging conservative path for Canada distinct from the over-governed, special interest marbled morass that this unspectacular budget seems so eager to preserve.


  1. ThePsudo

    I really like that drawing of Trudeau, perched vampire-like, all suspicion and cunning. Also, is that a laser light show behind Harper?

  2. jeremyturcotte

    I believe the Trudeau painting is based on his official portrait in the Parliament (http://www.parl.gc.ca/About/House/Collections/fine_arts/prime_ministers/15261-xl-e.htm). The Harper thing looks like a cheap mid-'90s school photo backdrop.

  3. jeremyturcotte

    http://www.parl.gc.ca/About/House/Collections/fine_arts/... works better, sorry.

  4. ThePsudo

    JJ's caricature altered the mood of the portrait.

  5. Niilo

    Trudeau is more beavery than vampirey – and the picture is based on his official portrait in Parliament.

  6. Cinematic

    Laser light show must be when he played the piano live

  7. drs

    Getting less than 40% of the vote is not exactly a stunning mandate for reworking the Canadian system or even eliminating the CBC. And 10% cuts are pretty substantial; please contemplate a 10% cut to your salary.

    If Canada’s budget is anything like the US, much of the budget is probably basically untouchable, stuff like Medicare and pensions, meaning that what seem like mild overall cut actually fall rather heavily on the smaller proportion of discretionary spending, e.g how 2% “surgical” cuts turn into 10% for the CBC.

  8. ThePsudo

    Forgive my American ignorance, but is this 10% a cut relative to earlier projections of spending, or did government expenditures actually reduce 10% from some previous year's expenditure level? If it's the former, it's insignificant. If it's the latter, it's epic.

  9. Yannick

    I am pretty sure it is the latter. Available funds decrease by 10%, so must spending. CBC already has cut and cut and cut in the past decade, we can't keep doing it and retain it.

    The same happened to the Canadian Space Agency, they have to deal with a 10% cut too. It's harsh. And I don't think it's going on the right path.

  10. nickswift

    Man, the comments you get on Huffpo are so predictable. Every time you write something, Liberals rush out to remind us why they think Harper is going to eat our children.

  11. GKEF

    Heh ya, I personally do not like Harper at all and have been described as a Red Tory, Libertarian, and anything else that can apply to someone who believes in small government and balanced budget yet have the social tendancies of a leftie, but I specifically avoid Huffpo for this reason. I don't care if someone is agreeing with me, if you use bad, or at times just flat out offensive, rhetoric you are just going to piss me off.

  12. GKEF

    Grrrr "yet has" not "yet have" though I assume you all realized that.

  13. @Fortran

    Okay, folks, help a poor USAian out here. I recognize Trudeau both from the caricature and the legend. And the second one looks like Mackenzie King and I always think of him when I think of Canada and WWII. But the first one…is that John Macdonald? I think of railway scandal when I think of him…did he also build them?

  14. Thorfinnsson

    Why are you calling yourself a USian and not an American? This is an incredibly irritating thing Hispanics do. Are you not proud of your country or something?

  15. Yannick

    He did build the railway. He got caught in a scandal, which led to him not being Prime Minister for a term, but then Canadians decided to bring him again for 2 more terms, in which he finished (or was just about to) the transcontinental railway to BC.

  16. Virgil

    I'm no Canadian but it appears to me that part of the verdict may be premature. Ignoring the baggage of the man, let me suggest that in a sense Harper aspires to be a Nixon in terms of attempting to transform a center-left country into a center-right one. For that he needs to effectively kill the Liberal party or ensure that its centrist voters make the Conservative party their new home. Despite their poor showing in the latest election he may not be convinced that the party is dead just yet. Therefore he governs like a Liberal economically.

    It also goes to election results. Reagan and Thatcher had clear mandates to turn things around. The message from Canada seems to have been "we entrust you to keep things on an even keel." The majority government seems to have been a surprise to many people. Consequently Harper would seem to be bound to the contract he offered the voters.

    All that said, little cuts add up over a long period of time. As an American I can't help but note that your government seems to be on a far surer economic footing already. Slow and steady may not be so bad after all.

  17. Internationalist

    You might want to remember, J.J., that Thatcher could have been seen as little more than a roadbump in history if the Falklands never happened, or if at the very least she lost her first reelection campaign. Let history write his obit before his first Majority is up.

  18. JonasB

    Is it necessarily a bad thing that Harper isn't being as Conservative as some would like? My understanding of Canadian politics is that the centre of the right/left spectrum is a good place to be. Speaking personally, I'd rather have a bland government that functions rather than a right or left one that is highly contentious.

  19. Juan Tolentino

    I agree with Virgil. Harper's governance does not rely on big projects or obsession with establishing a "legacy" or other such shibboleths. He is also not amenable to the idea that we can radically shift the way politics in Canada within less than a decade. He seems to prefer a slow and cautious approach (maybe too cautious, but that's another story), or if you prefer to boil the toad slowly. Paul Wells (who seems to have figured out Harper far ahead of most other journalists) has a pretty good assessment at http://www2.macleans.ca/2012/03/29/harpers-very-p

    @Fortran: Macdonald did 'build' the railway in the sense that his government was responsible for getting the contract through (although it turns out it was due to bribery).

  20. ThePsudo

    Merriam-Webster tweeted about "shibboleths" recently; coincidence?

  21. @Kisai

    Anytime bureaucrats are eliminated, nothing but good can come of that. I'm not personally a fan of outsourcing (I've worked for outsourced places, they're soul-destroying) but there are things that the government is doing at ten times the cost in-house where either it shouldn't be the government doing it, or the government is over-reaching into things they should not have a mandate to interfere with (like censoring the mail or refusing delivery of "obscenity", why in this day and age should CBSA give a care about preventing "obscene" physical goods, when it will just be downloaded over the internet anyway?)

  22. ThePsudo

    You ask "Why should they care about obscenity?" The easy comeback is "Why not?" Obscenity has been censored by societal forces since roughly forever.

    That said, there's a fundamental expectation of privacy inherent to the mail system that makes it a little creepy that they can tell what is and what is not obscene inside a sealed package. Are they reading your credit card bills, too?

  23. Guest

    "Anytime bureaucrats are eliminated, nothing but good can come of that"
    Well, if you're going to use the word bureaucrat, aren't you begging the question?

    Seriously, though, the thing about outsourcing is that you need people to negotiate with suppliers, agree the contract, and manage the relationship. You also have to indirectly pay for the people on the supplier's side who do the same thing (as well as the time they spend failing to court other business). These are expensive people (and incidentally might uncharitably call them bureaucrats). You create two extra layers of management even before you get to savings, and what you don't do is explain what the mysterious magic by which outsourced work is more effective and which couldn't possibly be performed in the inert corridors of a government building. Yes, sometimes there are genuine cases where it works but too often the driving force is so that managers/politicians have someone else to blame.

  24. Wilson

    Jeff Jedras has a different take on it here.

    Some highlights:

    He does share the goal of his fellow right-wing travellers for smaller government (his high spending budgets notwithstanding). His most substantial move in this regard was cutting the GST by two per cent a few years ago, which deprives his (and future) government of billions in revenue, tax increases now being largely politically toxic. He wants a smaller role for government too, he just parts ways with some of the right on the timeline.

    He took an incremental approach in the minority era because he didn't want his government to fall. With a majority he now has a blank cheque, and majority tradition is to do all the unpopular stuff in year one and then spend the next three trying to win the people back for re-election. If he implemented the kind of massive sweeping and transformative change that some wanted though, even with three years to soften the blow re-election would be a real challenge.

    But if you look closely, the road to smaller government, less checks and balances to his executive power, and progress on Conservative pet peeves is definitely there, from cuts that will force a radical transformation of the CBC (once it loses Hockey Night in Canada and a big chunk of its ad revenue) to a gutting of environmental review regulations and reductions to funding for Elections Canada, which has sparred with the Conservatives over their violations of election law. Reduced funding to Parliament will also make it harder for MPs to do their basic duty of scrutinizing government legislation.

  25. J.J. McCullough

    Those are some good points, but one question I think often is begged by such analysis is "what does the left want?"

    I think the Chretien years, and even Obama in the States to some degree, proves that the allowable room for liberal parties to do actively leftist things is actually quite small these days. To laud stuff like low taxes or smarter, leaner spending as victories for right-wing ideology I think fundamentally ignores the significant realignment of modern liberal parties towards those goals as well.

  26. Guest

    Harper has no credible opposition to the right, so perhaps he veers left to keep Liberal voters on board. Chretien, well, ok initially, had no credible opposition except in the Cabinet itself, but when Harper did begin to gather his forces, Chretien and Martin you could argue veered right.

    As you note, it's the Liberals who have moved the most economically, and part of that is to do with the power of nation states acting alone, threat of capital strike or flight, bond markets, etc. But I don't see why Harper's policies aren't victories for the right – they would be victories for the right if Ignatieff were implementing them.

    Also, just measuring government spending in terms of GDP (or using raw figures as you do in the article) and comparing with prior proportions is not entirely fair, due to Baumol's cost disease. Government often does work that is hard to innovate in, like teaching or social care where you can't replace staff with machines. (if it were easy to innovate in, there would be profit opportunities and no market failure, right?). Therefore over time, as human hours going into manufacturing etc. decreases but human hours in government remains constant, government will cost more, relatively speaking, to do the same thing. Put another way, as productivity increases generally, we can afford to spend more time looking after each other. So in that sense, keeping government spending static is actually a substantial right-wing programme of cuts.

  27. Virgil

    If I may answer with a question, and I ask having not a clue as to the answer, what would be different if the NDP got a majority government? Would there then be a significant economic shift?

  28. PTBO

    Another poor uninspired budget that fails to invest in Canadians. Direct job losses will be over 19,000. With losses of indirect employment in the private sector- between 50,000- 60,000 Canadian will lose their jobs, increasing unemployment during the recession.

    Conservatives can always say what they are against, what they want to tear down but have little to say about building this country and growing our economy in a responsible matter. The CPC's blind eye to predatory foriegn investment (CAT, Rio Tinto), ramping up of the tar sands to the detriment of the entire nation, massive austerity when stimulus is required, and total apathey to the existential threat of climate change, proves that this government ignores reality at the peril of Canadian's well-being.

    Its almost sad that conservatives are not happy with this budget- I dont think they will be happy until Canadians are turned into a 19th century dytopian serfdom with any remaining public wealth turned over into private hands.

  29. @tominkorea

    I'm curious, is the history and role of King taught in Canada to in a similar manner as FDR is taught about in the US (ie Indispensable leader who led the nation and played a highly pivotal role in WWII international relations)?

  30. David

    Perhaps, I don't remember much of what I learned about WLMK in school. Just the part about him consulting the spirit of his dead mother before making important decisions. Time and again, the "quirky" facts of history get remembered over the "important" facts.

    William Lyon Mackenzie King
    Sat in the middle and he played with string
    And he loved his mother like anything
    Poor William Lyon Mackenzie King

    (A Dennis Lee poem I also remember reading as a kid, the only other thing I remember about WLMK.)

  31. Hentgen

    I remember listening to an interview of Mike Harris not too long after he retired from being Premier of Ontario. His main regret? Not moving more quickly to reduce the size of government.

    Like I'm sure Harper believes, Harris thought at first, that things would go smoother if the government shrank at a moderate pace, that there was still years in his mandate to do what he set out to do and didn't foresee the things that will get in the way of his agenda in the future. Harris believed that the cost of moving quickly to reform the government bureaucracy would have been worth the extra costs involved in doing so. It's a shame this lesson was not passed on over to Mr. Harper.

    It is far too early to write off Harper. If Mike Harris, who led an office deeply inspired by the examples of Thatcher and Reagan, erred on the side of moderation, it should surprise no one that Harper has done the same. The fact still remains that Harper has already done something that will limit the size of the Canadian government for the foreseeable future: lower the GST.

    Those two percentage points add up to billions and billions of dollars of revenue the government cannot recover without paying a political cost so high it is hard to think any politician would be willing to do it.

    Eventually, the budget will have to balance. And without those extra 2%, what the Federal government can do will be constrained. Maybe Harper isn't moving fast enough, and maybe he'll pay for it later. But fans of smaller government should still tip their hats to what he has already accomplished.

  32. Yannick

    You talk about a constrained government like it's a good thing.

  33. Hentgen

    Of course it is. It is an invariable law of the universe that if a government has money to spend, it will spend it without any guarantee of spending it well.

  34. Pasang Cctv Di Solo

    Yes, I think so with you all