Here’s something at least 60% of Canadians seem to agree on. Harper is the worst PM in Canada’s history and he’s single handedly destroyed our country. Everything bad today can be laid at his feet and once he’s gone the good times will undoubtedly return.
How easy is to just blindly accept such non-thinking answers. After all, putting all the blame into one person means we don’t have to examine policy, or the role played by other parties in creating our current mess, or the responsibility ordinary citizens and voters bear for our problems. Anytime someone criticizes government, you’ve got to remember, more people voted for them than anyone else. Remember when Jim Prentice told Albertans to look in the mirror for the explanation for Alberta’s economic mess? Well, he was right. His remedies were wrong, but he had it right. It was Alberta voters that kept electing his stupid party, believing the oil money would always come in, they could have low taxes and services.
The blame given to Harper really should be put into three different categories to make it easier to answer just how much blame he deserves. I suggest that it’s worth looking at the effects of Harper on our democracy, on social/environmental policies, and on the economy.
Critics often blame Harper for an erosion of our democracy, citing prorogation, omnibus bills, muzzling of scientists and watchdogs, excessive partisanship, standoffishness with the media and above all, an obsession with centralizing all power in his own hands. Many of these are true but need some context and comparison to understand better.
Its true no other PM in recent history has used prorogation for such blatantly partisan purposes, or rammed through so much legislation in omnibus bills, or sought to silence all criticism. But its also true that for the first five years it was in power as a minority government with no real allies. Majority governments under Chretien and Mulroney never used such tactics because they didn’t have to. They had a majority of seats and thanks to party discipline, could pass whatever they wanted without resorting to tricks. I’m not saying these tricks are ok, they’re not. I’m just saying that other governments never had to use them.
As for excessive partisanship or concentrating all power in the party leader/PM, these are nothing new to Canadian politics. In fact, Harper’s political success has led the other parties to imitate his methods in an effort to win like he has. They too have increased their partisanship, and have also concentrated all power in their parties in the hands of their leaders and their inner circles. Under Jean Chretien Canada was referred to as a ‘friendly dictatorship’, while Pierre Trudeau also had a reputation for tight control of all aspects of government.
However, I think there is a strong case that Harper made a lot of these problems worse. Previous governments and parties seemed content to win by the rules, whereas Harper seems determined to win at any cost. I’ll cede the point that Harper has had his own distinctive, negative impact on our democracy.
On Social Issues and the Environment
Well, he definitely hates feminism and multiculturalism and the environment. There’s no mistake about that. But he’s also too much of a pragmatist to open various debates that social conservatives favour such as abortion or the death penalty. I think he’s relished the opportunity to attack select targets when he feels he can get away with it, such as closing the Status of Women offices or cutting funding to social justice groups.
But lets consider the ways in which governments support social justice, women’s rights, multiculturalism or the environment. Sometimes their support is symbolic, but usually it involves spending money. Governments can support such causes by refraining from harming them, such as granting the right for gay and lesbian couples to marry by striking down restrictions on marriage. But more often than not the way that government seeks to fix inequalities in our society involves spending money. It means funding programs or organizations that fight inequality or protect the environment. And in this way, the Harper government’s attacks on social policy and the environment are connected to the ongoing fiscal crisis of the state.
Lets go back to feminism and the closure of those Status of Women Canada offices. There actually used to be a pretty great organization for women’s rights in Canada called the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, or NAC for short. It was created in 1971 and for years received government funding to fight gender inequality. But as government debt mounted, it saw its funding cut again and again, first by the Mulroney Tories, but then also by the Chretien Liberals, until it basically folded due to staff layoffs, shrinking capacity and mounting debt.
As our tax base shrinks due to the lack of good jobs, lower consumption, and difficulty of taxing corporations (affecting income, sales and corporate taxes, respectively, the three main sources of government revenue), programs aimed at fostering equality or protecting the environment get sacrificed by the left and the right. I don’t doubt that Harper enjoyed closing those Status of Women offices, but my point is that funding for women’s groups and other progressive causes was already being cut long before Harper came into power.
Which Brings us to the Economy
On the economic side, it is tempting to throw the accusation that all this poverty and inequality we have in Canada is also Harper’s fault. After all, it was largely during the Recession that we noticed these problems and Harper was PM then.
This ignores that things were already getting bad long before Harper was even party leader. Homelessness, poverty, inequality and declining quality of jobs were all on the rise in the 90s and early 2000s under the Chretien Liberals. They were the natural outcome of Free Trade/Globalization, begun under Mulroney and continued under Chretien. Canada lost jobs to the US after the 1989 Canada-US Free Trade Agreement, then to Mexico after the 1995 North American Free Trade Agreement, and then it really lost jobs (over half a million manufacturing alone between 2000 and 2007) when China entered the WTO.
Certainly Harper has pushed oil and natural resources as the sole objective of government jobs and economic policy, giving subsidies and tax breaks to tar sands companies. But the idea that this killed our manufacturing and led to a loss of jobs is silly. The ‘Dutch disease’ argument put forward by Thomas Mulcair a few years ago no longer holds. The dollar fell and manufacturing (what little is left) continues to fly out of Canada. Simply put, “It’s the wages, stupid.”
Once you open the doors of your economy and say any company can sell us anything from anywhere without any requirement to employ a single Canadian, jobs are going to fly overseas where wages and other production costs are lower. With information technology and rising third world education levels, now services jobs are being offshored too, especially to India. When those jobs go all we have left are natural resources. So much like with social and environmental policies, while I think Harper is biased towards oil, I hardly think he single-handedly transformed Canada’s previously balanced economy into one all about oil.
In short, much of the negative trends people associate with Harper are far longer-term than his own time in office. He hasn’t even been PM for a decade, and over half of that was under a minority, when his freedom was constrained (or should have been). Chretien had three majorities and Mulroney two, and it was these PMs that laid the groundwork for much of our current problems.
Finally, placing all the blame on Harper also gives the opposition parties a free ride. How are they different? Is it because they are proposing different policies from Harper? Or is it simply because they aren’t Harper? There’s a fair bit that is different, but when it comes to the economy, they’re largely the same, particularly when it comes to Free Trade, the single biggest cause of government debt, the decline of the middle class, unemployment, etc. And if you accept my argument that government revenues have been undermined by Free Trade, then much of the social and environmental policy cuts made by Harper will largely be the same under other governments. Maybe not as bad, but as government revenue dries up as globalization sucks wealth out of the country, these programs are getting cut one way or another.
There’s too much personalization of politics. Too much leadership cult. “Harper is bad and everything bad is his fault, but our saviour (Trudeau or Mulcair) is good and all we need to do is elect him and everything will be better.” But hey, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe as soon as either Trudeau or Mulcair form government this fall things will immediately get better, right? Cuz if its all Harper’s fault, we just have to get rid of him, right? Right?