Item: Plans to launch a Canadian/European Space Agency Mars Rover are scuttled because Industry Minister Maxime Bernier delays making a commitment to the project, even though it could be funded by reallocating funds from other programs in the CSA’s budget.
Item: Agriculture Minister Chuck Strahl confirms that Canadian Wheat Board president Adrian Measner has been fired, so that the Conservative government can install an official that favours ending the Wheat Board’s monopoly on grain and barley exports.
Item: Government delays in confirming funding for such active programs as the seven-year-old Supporting Communities Partnership Initiative have resulted in the layoffs of counsellors at Youthlink, a highly successful project to help homeless youth in Toronto.
The common element here is that many of these programs and others aren’t being cut outright. The government has not had to bring these changes to a vote in the House of Commons because they remain on the books as active services that the government provides. Instead, the Conservatives appear to be trying to starve these agencies of funding, or stack those agencies with its own enemies, so that while the mandate remains, their ability to fulfil that mandate does not.
The Conservatives must be frustrated by the election results in January 2006. While enough Canadians trusted them with their votes to call themselves the government of Canada, Canadians also reminded the Conservatives that their previous policies have been to the right of what the majority of Canadians want. So while the Conservatives have been elected to govern, they face a critical problem: many of their members, and perhaps Harper himself, simply do not believe in the services Canadians elected them to maintain. If left to their natural inclinations, these programs would be cut outright, but they can’t afford to do that because of the political cost.
The Conservatives face some difficult electoral math. They currently hold 124 seats in the House of Commons and they require 31 new seats in order to win a razor thin majority. Now consider where they have to get those seats from:
There isn’t much room for growth in the prairie provinces. The new battlegrounds for the Conservatives would appear to be in Ontario and Quebec and, despite the remarkable campaign which netted them an unexpected ten seats in la belle province, current polls suggest that the Conservatives haven’t been able to hold onto that support. A number of the Conservative’s stated policies, including on Afghanistan and on the environment, have alienated Quebec voters, and a program of cuts could alienate Ontario voters. Losses anywhere on the map means more seats they have to make up elsewhere.
That leaves them to hold their breath and not make bold moves that could cost them support anywhere. As they do not believe in these services that Canadians support, they see no merit in allowing these services to function well. And nowhere is this more clear than in their handling of the Canadian Wheat Board.
I should note that I have no interest in protecting the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly over wheat and barley sales and exports. I think many Canadians east of the Manitoba border hadn’t even heard of the Canadian Wheat Board before these past few weeks. Personally, it makes no sense to me why farmers in western Canada should be denied the right to sell their wheat and barley on the open market. Certainly, it makes less sense that the restriction applies to western Canada and not eastern Canada. But the fact remains that the Canadian Wheat Board holds elections, and that any farmer who grows wheat and barley in western Canada votes in those elections, and those elections have consistently returned Wheat Board members that favour retaining the board’s monopoly. The Wheat Board maintains the support of the provincial governments of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and it appears to be popular with a fair number of western farmers.
If the Conservatives led with the confidence of their convictions, they would introduce a bill tomorrow dismantling the Canadian Wheat Board outright. They could point to their campaign promise to do this, their pro-market philosophy, and the fact that they won a majority of seats in western Canada. They wouldn’t lose a single vote east of the Manitoba border. If the Liberals, the NDP and the Bloc tried to block the Conservatives on this, the Conservatives would be handed a gift of opposition obstructionism.
Indeed, if the Conservatives had the courage to do this, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post. Whatever proclamations of doom supporters of the Wheat Board might bring forward would have no weight with me, since the Conservatives would appear to have a mandate and, more importantly, they were following the proper procedure to exercise their mandate.
But they haven’t taken this approach. The Conservatives, clearly, are afraid of losing support in Western Canada.
Conservative voters in Saskatchewan are already angry over Harper’s failure to address that province’s equalization concerns and some are wondering whether it was worth sending 12 out of the province’s 14 MPs to the government side of the house. Losses in the west would be a disastrous setback in the Conservatives’ drive to find 31 new seats to give them a free hand in this country. Actively dismantling the Wheat Board could energize the opposition that exists in those provinces.
And yet the Conservatives simply do not believe in the Wheat Board. So rather than govern honestly, they try to achieve their aims by stealth.
And this is for a program the Conservatives actively campaigned to dismantle. On the other issues, the Conservatives said nothing. There was no talk about cutting the Canadian Space Agency or halting programs to help the homeless in Toronto. They did not talk about these things because that would have cost them votes in Ontario, but now that they’re in charge, they are looking for ways to shake off the responsibilities that they have taken on.
There’s a word for such action: dishonesty. And it was a word that plagued the Liberal government before it. But while the Liberals would take heat for saying they would do things and then not do them (see Child Care, repealing the GST, a New Deal for Cities), the Conservatives are taking heat for promising that they wouldn’t do things, and then doing them anyway.
Harper won the last election because he bucked the extremist label and ran to the centre; he showed he was not the scary monster the Liberals painted him to be. The written and unwritten message of his campaign was: “I know I am further to the right than most Canadians, but Canadians deserve good government and they’re not getting it from the Liberals. Vote for me, and I will be a good steward of the programs that most Canadians hold dear.” And we rewarded him. To his credit, he has tried, on a number of issues (accountability, maintaining the surplus, respecting many of the funding commitments of the final Liberal budget), to maintain a moderate focus, but the above incidents represent disturbing cracks in his veneer.
Harper promised Canadians that he would be no Mike Harris and no Gordon Campbell and that there would be calm, centre-right governing and no slash-happy revolution. Did he really mean this? Some Conservative supporters have as much as said that acting moderate is just a tactic to try and soothe the electorate enough to win themselves a majority so they can get a free hand to remodel Canada as they see fit. But if Harper takes this route, it puts him several levels below Mike Harris and Gordon Campbell in terms of respecting the voters. At least Mike Harris and Gordon Campbell looked voters in the eye and promised them a revolution.
When Paul Martin promised things and failed to deliver, his tactics resulted in him receiving the nickname Mr. Dithers. If Harper continues down this path, he may end up rechristened Mr. Sneak. If Harper wants to dramatically cut government services, he should campaign on that basis, and allow the voters to give him a proper mandate. He should not starve programs of their funds, rot agencies from the inside out and kill projects by inept delays. The hints that he wants to change the country by stealth, in the face of an electorate that does not want to go in that direction, is reason to deny Harper his majority in the next election.
Mr. Sneaky Harper. Has a sort of a ring to it, doesn’t it?