Harper's Canadian Revolution

Aboard Stephen HARPER's chartered campaign jet over northern Ontario last week, the allotted 15 minutes for the CONSERVATIVE leader's one-on-one interview with Maclean's had expired. Communications director Kory Teneycke was gamely attempting to give the reporter the hook.

Harper's Canadian Revolution

Aboard Stephen HARPER's chartered campaign jet over northern Ontario last week, the allotted 15 minutes for the CONSERVATIVE leader's one-on-one interview with Maclean's had expired. Communications director Kory Teneycke was gamely attempting to give the reporter the hook. But Harper was in an expansive mood. He offered to take one more question. That question was about "legacy" - a word that made the Prime Minister roll his eyes and chuckle uncomfortably - and about what he has accomplished as a conservative trying to advance conservative ideas in Canada.

Like a ball player afraid of jinxing his game, Harper refused to speculate about whatever legacy he might leave behind. "Too early." But he did bite on the question about conservatism. His long answer provides a handy guide to what he is trying to accomplish at this crucial moment in what is already one of Canada's most surprising political careers.

"The thing I'm proudest of, obviously, is bringing all conservatives together under one tent," Harper said, speaking deliberately, pausing often to consider his next phrase.

"You know, conservatives have been pulled together in the past on several different occasions. But it's usually been a kind of a 'throw out the bums.' And you had a whole bunch of elements elected that ultimately blew apart - because they didn't make much of a coalition.

"I actually think this time, we pulled together a bunch of elements from different regions of the country that actually fit together pretty well. We've got some people who are a little more on the left - but they're certainly not left-wing. We've got people who are a little more on the right - but I certainly don't think they're some of the extremes you saw in the past. In Quebec we've started to build a Conservative party that actually has a federal Conservative organization, as opposed to being just borrowed parties from the provincial level, which is what we've seen in the past."

His "long-term goal," Harper said, "is to make Conservatives the natural governing party of the country. And I'm a realist. You do that two ways. Two things you have to do. One thing you do is you have to pull conservatives, to pull the party, to the centre of the political spectrum. But what you also have to do, if you're really serious about making transformation, is you have to pull the centre of the political spectrum toward conservatism.

"And whether it's an agenda that has a high emphasis on tax reduction as opposed to spending increases; an agenda that focuses on delivering benefits to people and to families instead of creating bureaucracies; whether it's restoring pride in the country - not just in things like, you know, health care or various government programs, but pride in things like our institutions, our military, our history - I think we're also doing that. We're also building the country towards a definition of itself that is more in line with conservatism. Maybe not in line with what some conservative parties thought in the past or what every conservative thinks, but it's a give and take."

All the elements of Harper's long-term plan for Canada are in that answer. 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. Ever since he returned to electoral politics in 2002 after running the National Citizens Coalition, Harper's career has been built on a few driving ideas. Consistently and with formidable discipline, he has sought to gather the diverse strains of Canadian conservatism into a single cohesive party. Western populists, Ontario and Atlantic Canadian Tories, and Quebec bleu nationalists all have to feel at home around Harper. He wants to make his party competitive with the LIBERALS, not just once or for as long as Harper is leader, but for election after election. For decades. 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.

Just about all those elements were on display within 24 hours of Harper's campaign plane landing in Toronto. Morning and the lunch hour were devoted to demonstrations of flexibility.

Harper has been famously standoffish, even hostile, toward the parliamentary press gallery. But now he invited every reporter travelling with him to an on-camera, on-the-record "breakfast" (he ate no food and drank only water).

He has been withering in his criticism of opposition parties that wanted to "cut and run" from Afghanistan. But at the breakfast, he said the end of the current parliamentary mandate for the Canadian deployment there, 2011, will mark the end of Canada's military mission in Afghanistan. "You have to put an end date on these things," he said. "We intend to end it."

Almost exactly a year earlier, in an address to the Australian parliament in Canberra, Harper had said: "I don't see the United Nations telling Canada to leave on a certain date, or the Canadian military urging me to pull out on certain date, or the military families to do that," he said. "I don't see our allies urging us to do that. In fact I see allies like Australia that are increasing their commitment."

Soon after their breakfast with Harper, campaign reporters got another surprise: Harper was dropping his opposition to GREEN PARTY Leader Elizabeth MAY's participation in the televised leaders' debates. The Conservatives, BLOC and NDP had opposed giving May a podium because they saw her as a stalking horse for the Liberals. But the Bloc equivocated, and now Layton was reversing position. "If the NDP has decided they are changing their position," Harper's spokesman Teneycke said, "we will not stand alone on that point."

In only a few hours, Harper had reminded everyone why his opponents have so much trouble pinning him down. He can be slippier than a greased pig. But the rest of the day showed that he can also be formidably methodical.

At breakfast Harper had told reporters, "I honestly think the problem we've got in Toronto, where we haven't done as well, is not that there are more Liberals but that conservatives don't vote Conservative - especially new Canadians."

Now came his first public event, a lunchtime speech to the Indo-Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Vaughan, on the northern edge of Toronto. The organization's president's warm welcome to Harper would have come as a surprise to anyone who remembers Paul Martin as the guy who was obsessed with China-and-India, or who views Harper as an insular leader who appeals to small-town, white-bread interests.

Two years ago, Harper told the crowd, he promised a closer trade relationship between Canada and India. Now he was here to say he delivered. "We have expanded operations at our trade missions in Delhi and Mumbai and announced new trade offices in Hyderabad and Calcutta. And I might mention as well that we are determined that if re-elected, we will give this country a commercial presence in the state of Gujarat."

The applause here was loud and sustained. Reporters travelling with Harper didn't take the hint. The only daily newspaper to carry the announcement the next day was the Times of India. But it drew their attention because if implemented, Harper's announcement will constitute a major policy change. Successive Canadian governments have essentially blacklisted Gujarat, a relatively prosperous province in western India, since Hindu-Muslim clashes in 2002 left 1,000 people dead. But what is most interesting to Conservative strategists is this: the Gujarati community in Toronto has tripled in size, to 145,000, in a decade. It is the fastest-growing South Asian community in Canada's largest city. And now Stephen Harper had given them a reason to notice him.

Onward to Eglinton-Lawrence, where Conservative candidate Joe Oliver hopes to pick off Liberal incumbent Joe Volpe. Harper told the crowd he found himself thinking of the 2006 summit of la Francophonie in Bucharest where he had witnessed "a case of political correctness gone mad.

"A large number of foreign leaders demanded we sign on to a statement. A statement that would have singled Israel out for condemnation, for having defended its democracy against the terrorism of Hezbollah, an organization that wants it wiped out from the face of the earth."

This madness wasn't confined to Bucharest, he said mournfully. "I remember those days well, when there were members of other parties actually going out and marching in the streets beside the flag of Hezbollah."

What had stirred this memory of anti-Israeli sentiment? Perhaps this: census figures show Eglinton-Lawrence has the fourth-highest proportion of Jewish voters of any riding in Canada. Outside the rally, some nice Jewish grandmothers were giving away "Bubbies for Harper" aprons.

Well. Between dawn and dusk in a single day, Stephen Harper had reversed a half-decade's rhetoric on Canada's most important foreign-policy commitment; folded his tents on a central tactical position for this campaign; and given Jewish and Indian voters in Canada's largest city reason to notice him. The first two gestures showed his flexibility. The latter two showed his eye for the long game.

The question, as this campaign moves out of its early phony-war phase and into the serious slugging, is how Harper will manage that eternal tension between short-term compromise and gradual transformation. Where would the long game take Canada? And what is he willing to sacrifice to get there?

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.

During Canada's 39th Parliament, the one that featured Harper as prime minister, 65 bills received royal assent and became law. None contained the seeds of hidden revolution, but taken together they moved Canada a perceptible nudge to the right.

A dozen of the new laws deal with crime and the judiciary. Bill C-9 limits the use of house arrest as a sentence for serious crimes. Other acts impose tough penalties for street racing; put up administrative barriers against money laundering; raise the age of sexual consent from 14 to 16; and give judges a pay raise. With other landmark legislation like the Accountability Act, which puts a $1,000 cap on individual political donations and imposes a five-year ban on lobbying for public servants, these laws help bolster the Conservatives' credentials as a party that is tough on crime and corruption.

Not that much of this impresses the experts. Rick Linden is a criminology professor at the University of Manitoba. He likes some of the Conservatives' crime legislation, but on the whole, "a lot of it is just optics," he says. Mandatory minimums make suspects less likely to plead guilty and prosecutors less inclined to move forward with charges if they think the outcome will be unjust, Linden says. And minimum sentences for gun crimes haven't actually changed much, he says. "I remember going to a meeting with some prosecutors and saying, 'Boy it's going to be great that we have five-year mandatory sentences for firearms crimes.' One of my friends who's a Crown looks up and says, 'The mandatory minimums are already four years, what good do you think it's going to be to change it to five?' "

In other places it's hard to find any evidence of a rightward trend at all. Take immigration. Critics who accuse the Conservatives of being anti-immigrant simply haven't been keeping up. Almost the only immigration-related bill passed by the last Parliament, Bill C-14, was designed to let Canadian parents get citizenship for their foreign-born adopted children instead of having to sponsor them first as permanent residents. The measure drew the support of opposition parties. A non-legislative measure introduced by Immigration Minister Diane Finley to make it easier for foreign students to get work visas in Canada's largest cities represented a substantial relaxation of rules put in place by her Liberal predecessor, Joe Volpe. Polish, Hungarian, Czech and other eastern European community groups are keenly aware that Harper has relaxed visa restrictions on visitors from those countries, even as the United States leaves those rules untouched.

Pro-immigration Conservatives? Oh, absolutely. Harper sees recent arrivers from other countries as, by and large, family-oriented, entrepreneurial, and potentially highly susceptible to appeals from Conservatives on matters of economic and social policy. That's why one of the three pre-campaign TV ads the Conservatives ran was on the theme of immigration. "We're going to do the things necessary to make sure that they can contribute," a sweater-vest-clad Harper says in the ad, referring to new Canadians, "and we can build this country together."

But if his record on CRIME is only moderately conservative, and his record on IMMIGRATION is surprising, there is one important and surprisingly little-noted way in which Harper has begun to change the shape of Canada profoundly. And it's little noted even though he has done it through some of the highest-profile gestures any government can make: his federal budgets and their centrepiece, a two-part, 29 per cent cut in one of Ottawa's most important revenue sources, the GST.

It's not always true, after all, that long-term change and electoral expediency are necessarily antagonistic. The GST cut is a case in point. Economists, or at least economists who aren't named Stephen Harper, hate it. As a mechanism for encouraging growth and competitiveness, cuts to consumption taxes are widely reckoned to be the least efficient policy tool. Roger Martin is the dean of the University of Toronto's blue-chip Rotman School of Management and chairman of Ontario's Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity. "Cutting the GST," Martin has said, "was a terrible idea. Terrible in every respect."

Well, all but three, from Harper's perspective. First, it won the Conservatives a lot of votes. Second, the opposition parties are terrified at the thought of reversing it, which means it's probably permanent. Third, and most important, it gets a lot of money out of Ottawa - perhaps $30 billion over the next five years.

This is why Harper's closest associates roll their eyes when commentators call their man a policy wonk. No, no, no, they say: he's a strategist. In the GST cut his economic strategy and his electoral strategy merge. The Liberals' deficit fight and the pre-election CHRÉTIEN tax cuts of 2000 had already kept taxation and spending at the federal level lower than they had been under Pierre TRUDEAU and Brian MULRONEY. Lately the Liberals had been in a mood to turn those trends around. But they lost, and Harper has put the pedal to the metal. Federal taxes as a share of GDP are now at their lowest point since the early 1960s. Federal transfer payments to the provinces are at their highest level in 30 years. The gap between federal revenues and provincial revenues has grown by $35 billion, in the provinces' favour, in seven years. Jim Flaherty's 2008 budget promises these trends will continue.

This is a massive decentralization of Canadian federalism. By constraining Ottawa's ability to pay the bills with the GST cut, and ensuring a steady and growing stream of cash from Ottawa to the provincial capitals, Harper has sharply curbed the ambition of his government and of any government that might manage to succeed it. All of this has happened under Canadians' noses, more or less unremarked by the Liberal opposition, which has preferred to decry one fleeting Conservative scandal after another rather than call Harper out on the most extravagant element of his small-government revolution.

But the effects of that revolution are now visible. Indeed they have become central to this campaign. In order to afford anti-poverty measures and other social programs on a scale commensurate with Liberal ambitions, Stéphane Dion has had to earmark billions of dollars in revenue from his Green Shift carbon tax toward spending instead of income-tax cuts. In turn, that allows Harper to say, as he did in his Maclean's interview, that the Green Shift "isn't just about bad economic policy, [it's] about getting a whole bunch of money back in Ottawa."

Harper can now depict levels of taxation that were commonplace only three years ago as an extravagance beyond Canada's ability to sustain. This is the sort of thing that becomes possible if you spend three years pulling the centre of the political spectrum toward conservatism.

So that's the goal, a smaller federal government - maybe not smaller than it is today, but certainly smaller than it would be if the Liberals had stayed in power. It is hardly a trivial point to note that, on his way to that goal, Harper has led the country on a bumpy ride. 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.

The list of Conservative U-turns and broken promises is growing longer. The fixed election-date law is only the latest. Remember income trusts? Page 32 of the 2006 Conservative platform: "Preserve income trusts by not imposing any new taxes on them." Abandoned. Treatment of resource revenues in calculating equalization payments? Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams can tell you how Harper did with that promise.

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.

Two examples from the current campaign. The first is the casual mendacity of his party's critiques of the Liberals. On a Sunday conference call with reporters, a Conservative spokesman talked of the successes of their first week. Among them: "We've put the Liberals on the defensive on issues we believe have the potential to drive votes." The strategist listed three such issues. "Hiking the GST, scrapping the $100-a-month child benefit, and the imposition of the carbon tax."

Now, you can take or leave what the Conservatives have to say about Dion's carbon tax. But there is not a word in his party's platform about increasing the GST. In a July interview with Maclean's, Dion said flatly he will not consider such a move. And far from scrapping the $100-a-month child benefit, Dion has promised to double it for low-income families.

The Conservatives are relying on two-year-old statements by Dion or other Liberals as evidence for the plans they impute to Dion today. On other issues Harper simply invents Liberal policy as he goes along. Dion calls his carbon-tax plan a Green Shift because he wants to shift taxation from income to carbon: increase carbon taxes, cut income taxes. Harper has decided Dion means only half of it.

"There aren't going to be income-tax cuts" if the Liberals are elected, Harper told startled reporters in Montreal. "If you have $60 billion of new spending" - another number the Conservatives have invented from whole cloth - "you're going to need the carbon-tax money to pay for those. You're not going to have money to do income-tax cuts or anything else. Every time a politician wants to impose a new tax, historically, they always claim it's either going to be revenue-neutral or it's going to be temporary. And neither of those is ever true."

So there you have it. What Dion is saying this week at every stop cannot be believed, because what he said two years ago must be held as gospel. This is the worst kind of cheap politics. The Liberals should know; they used to be masters at the same sort of carnival-midway trickery. Remember the secret Reform and Alliance plans to scrap medicare, the hidden Harper agenda on abortion? Harper is taking evident pleasure in serving the same medicine back to the Liberals. The only losers are Canadian voters who hoped that by changing governments they might, by some measure of political morality, be trading up.

The other example of Harper's disturbing flexibility is that policy on Afghanistan. Recall that the extension of the Canadian Forces' deployment to 2011 is the second such extension of Harper's term as prime minister. In 2006, with the Liberal leadership campaign underway, Harper called a quick vote in Parliament on an extension to 2009. It was a transparent attempt to divide Liberals on a sensitive question, and it worked a charm. Every aspiring Liberal leader with a seat in the Commons voted against the extension, with the exception of Michael Ignatieff, whose supporters provided enough votes to let the extension pass.

There followed a proposal for a second extension, also subject to the approval of the Commons, earlier this year. After considerable negotiation, Dion's Liberals supported this second extension to 2011.

At this point, logic and the record should intervene. Logic says that if an extension could be followed by another extension, then yet another extension can't be ruled out. The record is ample: Conservative cabinet ministers were disdainful of the idea that Canada should send the Taliban enemy a date on which we would send our soldiers home.

Here's Peter MacKay on April 10: "We do not talk about how we might retreat or withdraw. That is not part of the public discourse that will help our troops. That is not at all something that will further the cause of elevating the people of Afghanistan."

Except now it is! "Part of what we're trying to do in setting an end date is ensure that we are successful," Harper told campaign reporters in Montreal. "Because if we don't set end dates and we don't have targets, the mission will go on forever and we will not be successful. We will end up being responsible for the ongoing management of Afghan security. And that will not work. The Afghans themselves ultimately have to be responsible."

As often happens when Harper is throwing his gearbox into reverse, the Prime Minister grew increasingly fervent. "We've been there three years already, we've got three more years, and we are determined to make this mission successful. But making it successful means we achieve an objective within a reasonable period of time. Six years? Six years in Kandahar? We were in World War II for six years! You know, we've got to be able to get to the end point."

If the Prime Minister's words had any meaning - a big "if" by this point - he was not saying that Canadian troops must move to a less brutal assignment so another NATO member country could spell them off in Kandahar. That would be the surest route to the mission going on forever, and this month's version of Stephen Harper has decided that's a bad idea. He was saying that all outside troops must stand down so the Afghans can stand up and become "responsible." He was not merely contradicting his own record on his government's most important foreign-policy obligation. He was contradicting the U.S., NATO, and both major-party candidates for the U.S. presidency. None of them thinks the ISAF military deployment in Afghanistan should end in three years.

Stephen Harper used to believe in fixed elections, tax-free income trusts, and sticking to the last in the most important Canadian military deployment since Korea. Now it's not so clear. A vote for the Conservatives is a vote for a point on the horizon, one that transfixes the party's leader and one that will certainly be attractive to millions of voters. But the route he will choose, on any given day, to get to that point is anyone's guess.

WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW ABOUT STEPHEN HARPER

Early days

Harper was born on April 30, 1959, to an accountant and homemaker living in Toronto's Leaside neighbourhood.

School days

In high school, he was one of four students chosen to represent Richview Collegiate Institute on the television quiz show Reach for the Top (they lost). Upon graduating, he won the school's gold medal for having the highest average.

First job

In 1978, Harper got a job working in the mail room at Imperial Oil in Edmonton. Within two years, he was running the Calgary office's computer system.

Getting married

Harper first met graphic designer Laureen Teskey at a Reform Party assembly in Saskatoon in 1990. They were married in 1993.

Likes/dislikes

The PM is partial to "classic rock," and the Beatles and Blue Rodeo are a couple of his favourite bands. Top films include Lost in Translation, Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors and the Coen brothers' comedy Raising Arizona. He also loves cats. There have been numerous felines fostered at 24 Sussex.

Maclean's September 29, 2008