What Did Stephen Harper Actually Win?

There has been a lot of noise about the victory of Stephen Harper, leader of Canada’s new Conservative party, but just what did he win?

Votes in the recent election for progressive parties–Liberals, New Democrats, and Bloc Quebecois (quite progressive on social issues)–went from 64.8% in the 2004 election to 58.2% in 2006, a handsome majority that would be rated a landslide in an American presidential election.

Harper’s minority-government party went from 29.6% of the vote in 2004 to 36.3% in 2006, hardly a mandate for change, and certainly not revolutionary change. Even Conservative diehards, while blowing about victory, were perceptibly disappointed: you could almost hear the breath whistling through their teeth. The new Conservatives remain decidedly a minority party.

When we consider that the Liberals were divided by their change in leadership, plagued by scandals and rumors of scandals, and ran an unappealing campaign, the still-small vote for Conservatives gains is telling.

Stephen Harper’s muzzling of the Conservatives’ Social-Neanderthal Wing, largely resident in Alberta, during the 2006 campaign also must be taken into account. In 2004, several of Harper’s religious-right throwbacks made embarrassing public statements about social policy, reminding Canadians voters that they might just be letting a gang of Jehovah’s Witnesses into their living rooms. Harper silenced these people in 2006.

Harper himself spoke more calmly than he did in 2004, when he sometimes resembled a flat-footed, angry kid, and I truly believe Canadians, determined to punish the Liberals, with their usual sensible and practical approach to politics, realized that a minority Harper government represents little threat.

Harper simply will not be in a position to change any of the major social policies most hated in heavily American-influenced Alberta. Even if Harper were in a better position to try, Canada’s enlightened courts stand ready to strike down any poorly-conceived legislation. In some cases, notably that of gay marriage, it was the courts themselves that brought important human-rights issues to the point where legislation was required.

Harper has already spoken of the courts. I don’t know why it is, but right-wingers always castigate courts for doing their jobs. Thomas Jefferson, the intellectual godfather of the American extreme right, absolutely hated federal courts, and it had nothing to do with democracy because Jefferson didn’t believe in democracy, and his Virginia was a place were a tiny portion of the population white, male owners of substantial property (roughly one percent of the population, even after the Revolution)–got to vote.

Jefferson was ready to have Virginia separate, more than half a century before the Civil War, over the issue of the Supreme Court’s interpreting the Bill of Rights. Jefferson thought the words were just fine as advertising, but any attempt at their enforcement threatened his comfortable world as slaveholder, local aristocrat, and narrow-minded states-righter. His view reflected his own life in which he wrote many high-sounding phrases as a false legacy while living off the avails of slavery and believing blacks and women and others were not suited to play a role in government. A toned-down version of this nasty American intellectual heritage crops up in Alberta frequently, and Harper sometimes mimics it, though admittedly with a less hateful tone than that of its chief American exponent, ex-cockroach exterminator and big-time political money-launderer, Tom Delay of Texas.

The new Conservatives did pick up their first seats in Quebec, but despite Quebec’s reputation as a progressive society, we should not forget that it was not all that long ago a base for social credit, that strange amalgam of conservatism, rural values, and financial mysticism. The Bloc Quebecois stretched hard to sweep the province over Liberal scandal but only succeeded in sounding tired as well as highlighting its disingenuousness over the connection between it and separatism. Who else was there to turn to? The NDP is viewed as a boring troop of Anglo Boy Scouts in Quebec.

So long as Harper sticks to reforms like sensible new rules for government accountability, no one can object. Other relatively minor changes, likely to be supported by one or another party, will do no harm.

There is one change that will be regrettable if Harper can get support from another party in parliament for it. The Liberals did a lot of work at building a genuine national day-care system, an important concept in a society where more than three-quarters of women work.

In places like the violence-plagued Jamaican areas of Toronto, real day-care is badly needed and the city has planned, based on agreements with the Liberals, to create many new sites. But Harper’s campaign promise is instead for a monthly cheque, kind of a super baby-bonus, although not large enough to buy day-care for anyone. A cheque will be welcomed by anyone getting it, and will be especially so by Harper’s stay-at-home, mothers-in-apron crowd, but will it do anything to create good day-care where it is most needed? Does any honest person believe that a cheque will do what a well-organized, easily-accessed system would do, especially where serious problems already involve poor parenting?

The greatest threat Harper’s minority represents is agreement with the Bloc Quebecois to de-centralizing programs with cash flowing to the provinces. The reason for the Bloc’s support of such programs is obvious.

I do not oppose specific new agreements where old ones are out of date, as for example involving disproportionate impacts of immigration on a city like Toronto. But wholesale changes are fraught with difficulties. You only have to look at Bush’s colossal blunders in reordering American taxes, depleting the American treasury while rewarding segments of society with windfall wealth, and yet spending like a drunken sailor on the things he thinks important. Gigantic tax cuts like Bush’s have huge long-term implications for a society, many of them unpleasant or destructive.

Just one example of such destructive tax changes, perhaps many Canadians do not appreciate, is the tremendous burden that has fallen on American local governments, many of which are poor because they are home mainly to poor people. Property taxes on homes in many U.S. cities have reached extortionate levels, further driving people to distant suburbs and encouraging mindless sprawl and the choking off of healthy cities. Another example is multilevel income taxes in the U.S. with individual states generally having their own separate systems, rules, and forms–this even involves some people filing and paying income taxes to more than one state. Many American cities, too, now levy taxes we do not associate with urban jurisdiction.

Canada already is a more de-centralized society, dangerously so in some aspects. The informal coalition of a Quebec separatist party and the implicitly separatist sentiments of Harper’s Alberta crowd is a risky combination for the nation’s future health and stability. This is exactly the path by which Quebec separatism is truly dangerous: federal politicians making gradual cozy arrangements which weaken the bonds of national identity. Any referendum on separation with a clear question, under prevailing arrangements in Canada, cannot produce a majority in Quebec, much less a convincing majority. The Bloc’s behavior and results in this election, even at a time of heightened resentment over past federal Liberal behavior, demonstrates this forcefully, as do endless polls over many years, and as does the last referendum with its impossibly-ambiguous and complex question. Even were it possible to imagine a referendum producing a yes, the years of detailed negotiation over assets and liabilities required to sort out a fair divorce would soon exhaust the momentum for change.

In Alberta, we already have a government that doesn’t know what to do with its new-found wealth. What on earth would it do with more? It’s all code for a form of separatism, a severe weakening of the national government. If you listen to some Alberta voices, you hear silly things like you might expect from a pimply teenage rock star that has overnight become a multimillionaire. Alberta has simply lucked out in the tarsands with world oil prices exploding. None of the province’s new affluence is due to the wisdom of its premier, Ralph Klein, or to the philosophy of Harper’s crowd. Klein balanced the budget with an unanticipated flood of cash, something with which any premier could balance a budget. Were world oil prices to collapse, all of the braggadocio over right-wing intellectual nonsense like “not being afraid of excellence in Alberta” would dry up like prairie grass in a drought.

Important social programs that almost define the character of Canada need to apply, with accommodating variations, coast to coast, and they need the resources from wealthier parts of the country to assist the poorer parts. When we seriously depart from this principle, Canada will have become the United States North.

I hope the Liberals take their rebuke by the electorate seriously, making it abundantly clear before the next election that the party is thoroughly clean and repentant. That and a sympathetic new leader, perhaps an altogether fresh voice, are the sine qua non of coming back before the Conservative-separatist axis inflicts too much damage on the country.

Harper’s almost wet-eyed puppy attitude towards the United States is dangerous over any extended period, especially at a time of American unapologetic imperial hubris, the kind of thing that makes the ongoing, pointless destruction in Iraq possible. If the Liberals do things right, Harper will not have the time.

We can expect, in the not-too-distant future, American-led action against Iran. With America’s over-stretched military forces, the bad taste in many Congressmen’s mouths of a unbelievably costly, failed policy in Iraq, plus new lows in Bush’s popularity, actual invasion seems unlikely. However, severe sanctions and bombing or missile attacks seem likely. The price of oil will soar yet again since Iran is one of the world’s great crude oil reservoirs, sending a great, unpleasant shock through the economies of Western nations. Islamic countries will yet again feel insultingly stung by the unbalanced justice of American policy. Will Prime Minister Harper embrace such a de-stabilizing policy that is not in Canada’s long-term interest but is solely guided by America’s will to re-order the planet?

JOHN CHUCKMAN lives in Ontario.


John Chuckman lives in Canada.