By Ryan McGreal
Published September 09, 2008
this blog entry has been updated
Two and a half years ago, just after the 2006 federal election, I wrote:
Now it remains to be seen whether the Conservative minority government makes the effort to understand what urban voters value and want from government.
I think it's safe to conclude that despite their recent paroxysm of pre-election spending - almost $9 billion in announced projects since June - the Conservatives never did manage to connect with those voters.
The federal infrastructure capital they announced in July - including $6.2 billion for Ontario - is a welcome development, but it still doesn't clear out the bad taste from when Finance Minister Jim Flaherty scoffed that the federal government is not in the business of filling potholes.
The awkward fact is that after running the government for two and a half years with effectively no opposition, the Conservatives are polling exactly where they were in January 2006 (within the statistical margin for error). They simply have not managed to convince voters that a majority Harper government would be good for the country.
If anything, Harper may come out of this campaign worse off after the other three parties have had a solid month to hammer him on his dubious record.
He's banking on the fact that the widespread opposition to his party is split among three centre/left parties.
Back in 1997, a younger, cockier, less encumbered Stephen Harper delivered an enlightening lecture to the US Council for National Policy. After describing Canada as "a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term, and very proud of it", Harper decried Canada's "socialist" tendencies, the centralized power of the Prime Minister's Office, the predictability of voting under a Parliamentary majority, and what he called "government intrusion in the economy".
At the time he was closely associated with the Reform Party, which was based in the West and largely cut off from the centre of political power in Canada.
In 2004, the Reform Party (then called the Canadian Reform Alliance Party - yes, CRAP) merged with the tattered remnants of the Progressive Conservative Party to form the Conservative Party of Canada, thus fulfilling the ultimatum of big business interests to merge in exchange for financial support.
The Conservative Party won a minority in 2006 largely because the Liberal Party was embroiled in a $100 million scandal around giving no-bid contracts to Liberal-friendly marketing companies, which carried Liberal party members on their payroll and funneled a lot of the money back into the party in donations.
Of the votes the party received, a big proportion were voters who were disgusted with AdScam and a generalized sense that the Liberals had become arrogant and unaccountable after more than a decade in power. They were essentially protest votes.
Yet once the Conservatives gained power, they could resist the temptations of power no more than the Liberals they defeated.
Harper rode to power on his promise to do things differently from the corrupt, sleazy Liberals. Once he was in power, he immediately came around on running his party autocratically through a highly centralized PMO, cynically buying votes with sprinklings and dollops of public money, stonewalling committee investigations into his activities, violating campaign finance rules, and calling a snap election when the numbers look good - after passing a law to prevent this kind of opportunism.
Harper argues that the fixed election date legislation only applies when the governing party has a majority in parliament. Missing from this caveat is the underlying point that Harper passed the law ostensibly to increase accountability and transparency by preventing the government from timing elections to benefit their interests.
If parliament were truly "dysfunctional" as Harper complains, the Conservatives could table a confidence motion and the opposition would defeat it. That's the litmus test of a "dysfunctional" parliament.
This game he's playing is no better than the games of the formerly incumbent Liberals, the games he railed against when he was the opposition.
Combined with their orgy of last-minute spending, it looks like the Conservatives have completed their transformation from morally outraged contender to cushy, self-serving incumbent.
Over their two and a half year term, the Conservatives have engaged extensively in cronyism and patronage, amid reports of lavish expense budgets and shell games on the use of government assets for party activities by scheduling official trips to coincide with party fundraisers.
For a party that campaigned on openness and transparency, the Conservative communications policy is extremely autocratic and centralized under the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), including a cat-and-mouse game with the newsmedia. Party strategists keep MPs on an extremely short leash to ensure they never go 'off message'.
The Federal Accountability Act the government passed was considerably watered down from the robust legislation they proposed while in opposition. Justice John Gomery, who investigated the Liberal sponsorship scandal, complained that the Act omitted most of his recommendations.
From issuing a non-refundable transit tax credit to replacing the office of the national science advisor (who made some warning noises about climate change) with a "Science, Technology and Innovation Council" that includes corporate executives to transparency legislation that makes the government's operations less transparent, the Harper government has consistently put politics ahead of policy.
Harper spent two and a half years in power critizing the former Liberal government for not doing enough about climate change, yet has done even less while the evidence for climate change has grown more dire. The lukewarm policy his government finally rolled out actually allows the oil industry to increase its greenhouse gas emissions.
More recently, as Harper disavowed any federal culpability in the recent listeriosis outbreak, we learned that his government advocated eliminating the federal food label approvals process in favour of industry self-regulation. Even the processed food industry considers this plan dangerous because it "create[s] confusion" and reduces consumer confidence in the food supply.
Worse, it turns out that the government fired a Canadian Food Inspection Agency staffer after he leaked a government document that advocates shifting food inspection from the government to the food industry. So much for whistleblower protection in the Federal Accountability Act.
After Harper accused the opposition parties of causing Parliament to become "dysfunctional", a leaked 200 page document revealed that the Conservative Party has a detailed strategy to obstruct the parliamentary process, stack committees with obedient members and friendly witnesses, and shut down committees that become unmanageable.
Their strategy was on full display as they stalled and stonewalled their way through the ethics committee trying to investigate alleged fundraising violations from the 2006 election campaign, in which the party is accused of
So why is Harper calling an election now? I suspect several reasons.
Economy - so far, Canada has resisted sliding into recession, buoyed mainly by tremendous growth in the Alberta oil industry, but unemployment is rising and the US economy - the destination for 80 percent of Canadian exports - is sinking deeper into its own recession. Economists suspect the Canadian economy will continue to deteriorate over the next year, and this may be the last chance for the Conservatives to face the electorate before the recession really hits.
Scandals - He may want to shut Parliament down before the ethics committee has time to unravel his party's alleged campaign finance violations from 2006.
By-Elections - this election call supercedes three planned by-elections, which seemed likely to oust the Conservative incumbents.
Favourability - While the Conservative Party is still stuck in the 35 percent range of support, Harper personally enjoys the highest approval rate among the party leaders.
Strong Leadership - He's positioned himself as a Strong, Decisive Leader in contrast to the Liberals, who decried Harper's policies but failed to pull the plug on his government.
In these cases, even another minority mandate is preferable to letting the current mandate run out. If Dion, who is widely perceived to be an ineffectual leader, fails to improve the Liberals' electoral fortunes, pressure inside the party will build to replace him.
That will mean at least another year during which the Liberals will be in no position to bring down a new Harper government.
Of course, the mere fact that his opposition is split among three centre/left parties means that he could end up winning a majority without significantly increasing his party's share of the public vote.
All in all, Harper has demonstrated shrewd timing and performance in his election call. He has dodged a few bullets, jumped the queue on the recession, and made a show of being the only party leader with the strength and gumption to dissolve his minority Parliament.
It's Parliamentary skullduggery that would make the Liberal Machine proud - but of course that's the problem, since Harper promised to run things differently than the corrupt, discredited Grits.
Update: this blog entry originally (and erroneously) stated that the federal government recently gave $48 million in infrastructure money to Hamilton; an alert RTH reader pointed out that this money came from the provincial government surplus. RTH regrets the error.