In a recent column by L. Ian MacDonald (Calgary Herald, Feb. 9, 2010), Stephen Harper is criticized for not doing anything big. Mac-Donald argues that “while [Harper] has done a good job of running the country, he hasn’t yet done much to change it.”
The problem with this analysis is twofold. First, it assumes that the Prime Minister wants to do something big. Second, it fails to see that not initiating huge changes is itself a major change of direction for the federal government.
Harper’s ideological bent is conservative. Conservatives are suspicious of big government projects on the grounds that they grow the state at the expense of personal freedom and tend to have all sorts of negative unintended consequences. For a true blue conservative, running the country is not about changing it, but making sure that there is “peace, order and good government.” It’s up to Canadians to change their country, not the Prime Minister.
There is little doubt that Harper has had to compromise some of his conservative beliefs to win two elections and hold onto two minority governments. I don’t even want to think about the stomach ache he probably had while overseeing the use of taxpayer dollars to bail out auto companies.
And while the idea of a secret agenda has always been nonsense, this doesn’t mean that the Prime Minister doesn’t have a different vision for the federal government than his predecessors.
Harper is a fan of small (or at least smaller) government. He used to rail against politicians who went to Ottawa to impose their big ideas while spending truckloads of tax dollars doing it. It should not, therefore, be a surprise that he has not proposed a lot of big ideas.
Harper wants to be “transformational” (to borrow MacDonald’s word), but not by leaving a legacy of major federal initiatives. He wants to transform the approach of the federal government from a “let’s create a new program” to “let’s see if we can get by without a new program, let the provinces look after their areas of jurisdiction, and generally be less, not more, present in the lives of Canadians.”
This boggles the minds of those who want, or are used to, the idea of an interventionist federal government. Harper appears to have no vision because “vision” is typically associated with more government. Harper’s vision is less government.
Whether you agree with this or not, it’s “transformational” — if it can outlast Harper. Unlike some of the accomplishments of previous PMs, Harper is not leaving behind a lot of programs that will be hard to dump when he is gone. Cracking down on crime, good relations with the United States and a predilection toward less rather than more government are simply not as durable as Medicare or the Canada Pension Plan.
There is at least one major exception to this: the GST cut. Harper and every economist worth their salt know that cutting a consumption tax is not as good in economic terms as cutting income or corporate taxes. But, as Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells has noticed, Harper’s goal was not good economics but good conservative politics. “Harper’s GST cuts were designed to deprive future governments of an income source” (Maclean’s, May 26, 2008).
The two percentage points shaved off the GST mean that every time someone spends a dollar on something, two cents less goes to Ottawa to fund more ambitious government programs.
This looks less smart in the wake of the recession and the deficits that will follow it, but it still makes a great deal of sense if your goal is to rein in government rather than unleash it. It is important to note that the federal government is not withering away under Harper’s leadership — it remains a massive operation with a huge influence on the lives of Canadians. The difference is one of degree, albeit an important degree.
It remains to be seen if Harper’s vision for the federal government can stand a third electoral test. Canadians like social programs and we are generally not shy about asking our governments to do more (even if we ask for less in the next breath). O Canada, indeed.
Posted By: Robert Roach