Harper's Next Big Five Priorities

Stephen HARPER was not supposed to be this kind of prime minister. Back when he won power on Jan. 23, 2006, two things seemed clear. First, his minority looked weak, fully 30 MPs short of a House majority, so it probably wouldn't last long.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on September 10, 2007

Stephen HARPER was not supposed to be this kind of prime minister. Back when he won power on Jan. 23, 2006, two things seemed clear. First, his minority looked weak, fully 30 MPs short of a House majority, so it probably wouldn't last long.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on September 10, 2007

Harper's Next Big Five Priorities

Stephen HARPER was not supposed to be this kind of prime minister. Back when he won power on Jan. 23, 2006, two things seemed clear. First, his minority looked weak, fully 30 MPs short of a House majority, so it probably wouldn't last long. And, second, his conviction-driven style of politics meant Harper wouldn't be inclined to make the compromises or play the angles needed to cling very long to power. But he has defied those expectations, emerging as the pilot of an improbably long-lived minority. As he hunkers down now with his close advisers to devise a strategy to carry him through what might well be many more months as Prime Minister, Harper is being re-evaluated in ways that couldn't have been predicted. "He's Chrétien-like," said one veteran Conservative organizer, who asked, for obvious reasons, not to be quoted by name.

But he didn't mean it as an insult. For Ottawa operatives of all partisan stripes, Jean CHRÉTIEN's name is usually invoked with admiration these days. It's shorthand for not promising too much, doing what's necessary, and holding together an electoral coalition broad enough to win elections. Chrétien, though, was known as a political pragmatist long before he took over the LIBERAL PARTY. Only in his staunch, sentimental brand of federalism was he admired as unbendable. Harper is having to shuck off his old tone of steely resolve as he shows his more adaptable qualities. The question is whether, in the process, he will end up looking to voters like a more mature leader, or merely another politician who is less certain about where he stands than he once led them to believe.

Since he landed in the driver's seat, Harper has repeatedly swerved. Afghanistan? Last spring he declared he'd take it to the people in an election before submitting to the opposition parties on Canada's future fighting the Taliban. By this summer, however, he had acquiesced to demands for a vote in the House before trying to extend the military mission in Kandahar beyond 2009. Taxes? Back when he merged the old CANADIAN ALLIANCE and Progressive Conservative brands, broad-based tax cuts were among the few goals laid down as bedrock policies for Harper's new CONSERVATIVES. Yet in power, he has pushed niche tax breaks, like credits for parents and transit riders, and lately stated his aim to "keep the economy strong and taxes low" - as distinct from strengthening it by cutting them. Global warming? The former climate-change skeptic now puts it near the top of his agenda. Quebec? He once rejected courting Québécois nationalists; as Prime Minister he declared the Québécois a nation.

All these adjustments came about as Harper was finding ways to survive through his first 500 days in power, up to the point where the House broke for the summer. Merely lasting, no matter how many compromises he might have to make, is a strategic necessity as Harper strives to achieve his real goal: building the Conservatives into a force capable of supplanting the Liberals as Canada's natural governing party. As University of Pennsylvannia political science professor Richard Johnston, a leading analyst of Canadian elections, said in a recent lecture at Harvard, "If they can keep the Liberals out of power in Ottawa for a stretch, the Conservatives may deprive the Liberals of their one unique claim - as the only party credibly able to balance the interests of Quebec and the rest of Canada."

Heading into the fall, Harper's challenge is to craft an agenda that's ambitious enough to give his government a sense of mission, but not so controversial that he hands the opposition parties attractive reasons to fell his minority and fight an election. It was easier back in the early months after his government took office in early 2006. At that point, few expected a prolonged stretch of minority rule, so a crisp, concise to-do list felt right. Harper's five top platform priorities - starting with a new ethics-in-government law and a percentage point sliced off the goods and services tax - did the trick. By spring, his party was cresting above 40 per cent in the polls, levels not seen by federal Tories for nearly two decades, and, more importantly, majority territory.

Since then, though, Harper has not been able to sustain a run of upbeat popularity numbers. Despite a weak start to Stéphane DION's tenure as official Opposition leader, the Liberals remain within striking distance. And Harper appears to be losing his aura of prime-ministerial resolve. A recent Decima survey found that 46 per cent of Canadians do not think his government has a clear agenda. Perhaps even more surprisingly, given Harper's old reputation as a hardline right winger, an Angus Reid poll last spring discovered that 41 per cent don't see any federal party genuinely representing Canadian conservatism.

So Harper has his work cut out for him persuading Canadians that he knows who he is and what he wants to do. Most Ottawa insiders now expect him to try in the most time-honoured way: rather than call the House back in mid-September, he'll likely announce a new session to begin in mid-October, with the symbolic fresh start of a Speech from the Throne. Speculation about the detailed content is now consuming pundits, political aides and paid lobbyists. The broad strokes, however, are clear. Harper has repeatedly listed five objectives recently, most formally when he shuffled his cabinet on Aug. 14: strengthen the federation, assert and defend Canadian sovereignty, keep the economy strong and taxes low, tackle crime, and protect the environment.

That leaves ample room for praise of motherhood and recipes for apple pie. But behind the anodyne subject headings, the outlines of real policy blueprint are just coming into focus.

If "strengthening the federation" sounds like the least controversial of projects, consider that this was also the goal of the MEECH LAKE and CHARLOTTETOWN ACCORDS. Harper has not been so reckless as to propose reopening the Constitution. Still, the long-banished "C" word is being uttered at the edges of national politics again. Harper has made no secret of his desire to limit the ability of Ottawa to muscle into jurisdictions that constitutionally belong to the provinces by spending money. Historically, it's how the federal government gained its clout in health care, by offering cash with policy strings attached. "We want to limit the federal power to spend unilaterally in provincial jurisdictions," Harper said after his MPs met in Charlottetown this summer. "We have held talks with the provinces. There are some provinces that are more interested in the idea than others, and I hope we will make progress on this objective next year."

The most interested province, not surprisingly, is Quebec. Premier Jean CHAREST recently announced that he wants bilateral talks with Ottawa to restrain federal spending. So far, however, Quebec is aiming for an administrative deal, not amending the Constitution. The big question is how the other provinces will respond. Ontario Premier Dalton MCGUINTY has already said he doesn't favour new restrictions on Ottawa. Smaller, less affluent provinces also tend to welcome federal policy leadership, and the dollars that flow with it. Social policy advocates fear changes that would preclude activist initiatives from the feds, like the last Liberal government's push for national daycare, which Harper swiftly dismantled.

Thomas Courchene, director of Queen's University's School of Policy Studies, sees Harper's aim of constraining Ottawa's spending as a bid to formalize what has already emerged in practice. In fact, unilateral federal incursions onto provincial turf of the sort Harper says he wants to outlaw are very rare. (The last notable one was Chrétien's creation of so-called Millennium Scholarships, which some viewed as an affront to the provinces' jurisdiction over education.) The health accord hammered out by former prime minister Paul MARTIN and the premiers in 2004, which allowed Quebec to opt out but still get the money, is a more substantial example of the sort of deal insiders call "asymmetrical." Older models also exist: Quebec has long had its own pension plan, running parallel to the Canada Pension Plan. "Process used to solve all this," Courchene says. "But now Quebec wants structure."

And Harper wants to offer Quebec voters reason to believe that he is the federal leader most open to their aspirations. Last year, he tabled and passed his motion recognizing the Québécois as a nation. He made good on a campaign promise to give Quebec special status on Canada's delegation to UNESCO, the UN cultural organization. All this looks like a strategy to court the soft-nationalist vote in Quebec that helped hand Brian MULRONEY two Tory majorities. It's the strain represented in Quebec City by the ACTION DÉMOCRATIQUE DU QUÉBEC party, which forged a breakthrough in last spring's provincial election, and in Ottawa by Foreign Minister Maxime Bernier and Heritage Minister Josée Verner, both promoted to their current posts in Harper's recent cabinet shuffle.

It's not clear how far Harper is willing to go in trying to shore up his support among Quebec nationalists. He once saw the strategy as a losing proposition. Back in 2002, when he was running to lead the Canadian Alliance, he warned against relying too heavily on Quebec nationalists, as Tories had done before, in a bid to compete with the Liberals. Such coalitions might briefly bring Conservatives to power, he conceded, but they ended in "disaster." Instead, he said then, a federal party of the right needed to "undertake the long-run work necessary to become a federalist option in Quebec, acceptable to a significant number of Liberal as well as anti-Liberal voters."

Coaxing away traditional Liberal voters in Quebec will be difficult these days with native-son Dion leading the party. But the ADQ's rise might offer Harper an opening to appeal to naturally conservative voters in Quebec who have usually supported the BLOC QUÉBÉCOIS in recent elections. "The ADQ breakthrough shows there is mobilizable opinion in Quebec that Stephen Harper could be comfortable with," Johnston says. "There's a substantial body of culturally and economically conservative opinion in Quebec that has nothing to do with nationalism as such." Still, the reality is that the ADQ tends to want a severely limited federal presence in Quebec, and Harper can only go so far in associating himself with that camp. "He faces the same general strategic conundrum as any Conservative leader has in the last century," Johnston adds, "which is to start out with a kind of anti-Quebec base and try to weld a kind of anti-Canada base onto that."

Afghanistan illustrates that problem. Harper's base in the West and parts of Ontario generally support the military mission there. Opposition is strongest in Quebec. For Harper, Afghanistan has been the defining element in the new face for Canada he has tried to project into the world. "Your work is about more than just defending Canada's national interests," Harper said when he made his surprise visit last year to address 1,000 troops at Kandahar Airfield. "Your work is also about demonstrating an international leadership role for our country."

But does that leadership role now carry an expiration date? "If we need further efforts or further mandate to go ahead into the future," Harper vowed last spring in a debate on Afghanistan in the House, "we will ... go to the Canadian people to get that mandate." That turned out to be bluster. He has since accepted that he can't extend the combat mission beyond 2009 without parliamentary approval, which seems all but impossible with the Liberals, Bloc and NDP all against it.

Inside the military, at least some officers fear the government is failing to use Afghanistan as the starting point for a permanent shift to a more robust role for Canada in the world. A rare glimpse into unease among top soldiers comes in an essay by Col. Craig Hilton, a Canadian army officer who has held senior positions in the NATO command structure in Afghanistan, in an essay called "Shaping Commitment: Resolving Canada's Strategy Gap in Afghanistan and Beyond," published recently by the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute. Hilton writes that at the outset, Canada went into Afghanistan in a "strategy vacuum," but he suggests the Tories, since taking power, have failed to fill it. "It remains," Hilton writes, "a critical deficiency that, if left unchecked, will continue to threaten the strategic coherence and operational success of Canada's present undertaking, and those that undoubtedly lie ahead."

Harper might yet decide to re-emphasize Afghanistan. But his zeal for making Canada's main contribution to the so-called war on terror the centrepiece of his foreign policy appears to be waning. Instead, Harper has lately turned to emphasizing shoring up Canada's Arctic sovereignty - a distant echo, perhaps, of John DIEFENBAKER's almost forgotten rhetoric about developing the North. Talking up new icebreakers is far less politically risky than explaining to Canadians how their future in the world somehow hinges on what happens in a central Asian hotspot. As well, Harper used his summer tour of Latin America to launch a new emphasis on the western hemisphere, again shifting the focus off global Islamist militancy. An early signal of how Harper might recast his message for the world stage could come in a speech to the Australian parliament on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

When it comes to Canada's international reputation, Harper's biggest problem could turn out to be climate change policy. His first environment minister, Rona Ambrose, delivered a disastrously unconvincing plan for curbing greenhouse gas emissions last year, and was shuffled out of the job in early 2007. Her replacement, John Baird, unveiled a revised policy package last April, a mixture of tough targets and imprecise measures to attain them. Initially, Baird's solution looked like a saleable compromise, but by June even the business-friendly C.D. Howe Institute was putting him on the defensive, publishing a detailed, and sharply critical, assessment of his plan. The report was hard to dismiss, since it accepts the key Tory contention that it's far too late for Canada to meet the 2008-2012 Kyoto targets. As well, one of the report's main authors, Nic Rivers of Simon Fraser University's Energy and Materials Research Group, says the government's alternative benchmarks - cut emissions 20 per cent below current levels by 2020 and up to 65 per cent by 2050 - put Canada squarely in the mainstream among countries that accept the need to fight global warming. "But to reach those kind of goals," he adds, "they are going to need massive, aggressive policies."

So far, the Tories haven't come close to showing how they can achieve their targets, Rivers argues, given Canada's relatively fast population and economic growth, and Alberta's oil sands boom. "The policies they've articulated are nowhere near strong enough to even stabilize emissions at today's levels." Can the Tories regain credibility on the file? Their first chance may come in late September at an international summit on what to do after the UN-sponsored Kyoto Protocol runs out in 2012, a meeting convened by another political leader struggling to find a defensible position on the issue, U.S. President George W. Bush.

If global warming and Afghanistan are files Harper can only hope to neutralize, he can afford to be more optimistic on two other priorities: fighting crime and strengthening the economy. Justice Minister Rob Nicholson told Maclean's he is considering new legislation to send a message of "deterrence and denunciation" through tougher sentencing for youth offenders. He's also working with other departments, including Health, on a national anti-drug campaign expected to be rolled out with some fanfare this fall. As well, Nicholson continues to hammer home the message that Liberals have delayed or watered down Tory bills on subjects from imposing mandatory jail time for gun crime to making it harder for criminals who use guns to get bail.

Like law and order, economic issues tend to play to traditional Tory strengths. But exactly how Harper plans to exploit that potential advantage is far from clear. Any presumption that his government would favour aggressive tax cuts and tight-fisted budgeting has evaporated. Federal program spending climbed nearly eight per cent in 2006-07, and is slated to swell by another six per cent in 2007-08. Instead of broad-based tax cuts, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's last budget targeted relief at groups like parents with children and companies writing off equipment. Harper declared in Charlottetown that he would "love a big tax cut," but he hardly promised one. "I will just say, and constantly remind my MPs," he said, "that every MP who asks for a tax cut almost inevitably also asks for some spending for their particular riding or their particular constituency of interest as well, so we'll obviously have to balance those things as we approach the next federal budget."

Lectures about balancing policies don't make for blazing election rhetoric. But then, Harper isn't in campaign mode. With none of the opposition parties looking primed for a vote, he is concentrating on governing, not running. He has lowered his government's metabolism. Last spring he introduced legislation to fixing federal election dates every four years, with the next one slated for Oct. 19, 2009 - if his minority survives that long. At the time, that prospect seemed far-fetched. It's still a long shot, but nobody's laughing anymore.

Maclean's September 10, 2007