How to Keep the Scary Suit Off Stephen Harper

In the interests of fairness, I should give credit to Stephen Harper for recent moves he’s made toward the centre. Andrew Spicer has more details about this when he talks about Stephen Harper’s conversation with Diane Francis. Assuming that Harper honestly follows through on his proposals (and, frankly, there is no reason to suggest that he is being dishonest), the results won’t be bad for Canada. Consider:

  • An elected Senate (Although Andrew notes that, unless Harper wins a constitutional amendment, the best he can do is hold elections for senate seats as they come up, which has the potential of pleasing absolutely nobody. Harper should take a look at my own series on the Canadian senate. This Ontarian is not afraid of the Triple-E model, regardless if that third “E” is equal or equitable).
  • Reworking the House seats to be truly rep-by-pop (which would increase Ontario and urban Canada’s influence in politics. This I support, and I will hold Harper to his promise, and any deviation from it will be shouted at long and loud)
  • Support for public health care and the Canada Health Act.

Jack Layton is completely within his rights to question Harper’s commitments to these policies, especially considering Harper’s profound conversion on the Canada Health Act. But whether or not Harper believes personally in public healthcare, if he shows himself to be enough of a democrat to support a program that most Canadians want, and to operate it at the best of his government’s ability, there is no reason to believe that he would run medicare poorly, or privatize the lot as soon as he got the keys to 24 Sussex Drive.

The Liberal party may have engaged in desperate hyperbole in the last election trying to paint Harper’s Conservatives as “scary”, but the fact remains that some conservative values don’t mesh with the values of centrists in this country. And while the overwhelming majority of Canadians are eager to replace a tired, corrupt government, many Canadians are not interested in trashing the policies that this government espoused.

So, given that Conservatives do not have the influence in Canada that they have in the United States, and while social conservatives may be ticked at Harper’s move to the centre, Harper is simply admitting that, to defeat the Liberals, he’ll need the centrists’ help. And if he is as committed as he claims to be in bringing about the changes that most Canadians want, this means compromising aspects of his party’s competing social conservative and libertarian agendas with moderate policies maintaining the better aspects of the status quo.

This is what Harper’s comments suggest to me and, as a centrist, I appreciate the moves he is making and thank him for it. It may not be enough to fully blunt the Liberals’ likely line of attack in the next election (“that Harper guy is soooooooo scary!”), but it helps. And if the Conservatives want to shake off the suspicion that they are too eager for power (unfortunately reinforced these past two weeks), they need to do more in this vein.

Contrary to what my readers might think, I don’t believe this means a further move towards the centre. The Conservatives have shifted considerably in that regard already, and we centrists can’t expect to get everything we want if we partner up with the libertarians of the Conservative party. No. The B-movie truism is, that which is unseen is often more scary than that which is seen. The Conservatives need to turn this on their head: that which is known is often less scary than that which is unknown.

There can be no remaining unknowns about what a Conservative government means to the people of Canada. Harper needs to go beyond his current statements and the results of the Conservative policy convention. The Conservatives need to release a Blue Book detailing exactly their agenda over the four years of a Conservative government.

And when I say detailed, I mean overwhelming detail. How much will you reduce taxes? How much will you pay down the debt, year over year? How much money will you transfer to national defence? Will you pursue a new deal with the cities or will you just try to address the fiscal imbalance? What programs will you cut? What legislation will you introduce? What is the exact wording of that legislation?

And be absolutely clear as to your base assumptions. When the Liberals accused the Conservatives of having a hidden agenda during the last election, they were right, though not in the areas they were highlighting. The Conservative promises for tax cuts, balanced budgets and no significant program cuts was predicated on numbers which were $50 billion more optimistic than the NDP. This time, the Conservatives need to show a range of numbers. If the economy grows by 1% less than what they’ve predicted, how will this affect government revenues and how will a Conservative government respond? Will tax cuts be lessened, will more programs be cut, or will this country go back into deficit? Cover all the bases. Leave no opening for your opposition to poke at you.

So, you say you’re not going to pursue legislation against abortions? Get that in writing. So you say that you are going to introduce legislation granting gays the right to civil unions but leaving the term “marriage” to just heterosexual couples? Put the wording of that legislation down now and let the lawyers work out whether or not this requires you to use the notwithstanding clause. Would you try to revoke Ontario’s law codifying same sex marriage? Would you try to annul the marriages that have already taken place? If not, then say so clearly and say it loud.

Some may argue that getting down and detailed this early may put the Conservatives at a disadvantage; that by highlighting which programs would be cut would invite various special interest groups to scream. This is probably true, but it’s a minor problem compared to what the Liberals were able to hit the Conservatives with last time around. Only by being ruthlessly transparent can the Conservatives avoid accusations of hidden agenda.

…by which we define as not allowing Canadians to know the full effects of having a Conservative government in Ottawa.

One of the things Canadians most dislike about Paul Martin is his complete lack of vision of where to take this country. Many Canadians will respond favourably if the Conservative Party puts forward a clear and detailed vision as an alternative. Most of all, Conservatives have to articulate their vision in a calm and rational way, piling on the arguments, and responding to reasoned challenges with counter-arguments, or corrections. Don’t dismiss your detractors by saying they’re just speaking for “special interest groups”. Every single Canadian is a special interest group.

By showing that you are thinking through the consequences of your vision with an open mind, you send a signal to Canadians that you’re willing to engage in an open and respectful debate in the future of this country. And I believe that many Canadians will respond favourably to that.

Over the next few days, I’ll be highlighting a number of issues that face this country on the eve of a possible election. I’ll critique the Conservative position on those issues, suggest the areas where their policies work and suggest areas for improvement.

Reaching out to the centre is a good first step in building a coalition that will move this country forward from a tired, old regime, but it’s only a first step. And while some centrists are going to have to compromise themselves to bring about a government that shakes out the cobwebs in Parliament Hill, democracy is not a quick and easy process. There’s a lot of discussion that’s going to have to go on. Harper gave some hints that he’s willing to listen. Let’s hope that continues.

blog comments powered by Disqus