The first 100 days: Harper hit the ground running during his first months in office,giving Canadians a good picture of where he wants to take Canada

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The Gazette, Monday, May 22, 2006

The benchmarking of a government's first 100 days began with Franklin Roosevelt taking office in the midst of the Great Depression in 1933. He called Congress into a special session which, within 100 days, passed a record number of bills that put the United States on the road to economic recovery.

Roosevelt's first 100 days included a new bank act that stopped a panic, the creation of an emergency-relief authority, a civilian conservation corps, a reconstruction finance corporation, the Tennessee Valley Authority and an end to Prohibition that saw the opening of a thousand beer plants and the creation of half a million jobs in the brewing industry.

When John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, he declared in his famous "ask not" inaugural address: "All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin."

Bill Clinton's first 100 days was such a shambles that at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 1993, he hilariously compared himself to a predecessor who caught a cold at his inauguration and died a month later. "I think I'm doing OK." Clinton said, "At this point in his presidency, William Henry Harrison had been dead for 68 days."

In Canada, Lester B. Pearson tried to avoid 100-day appraisals by promising 60 Days of Decision, and then blew it when Walter Gordon bungled the minority Liberal government's first budget in 1963. Yet Pearson went on, over two minority governments, to build the foundations of the modern welfare state, sign the auto pact with the U.S., recapture Canada's leadership role in the world, and adopt the maple leaf flag that is a universal symbol of Canadian unity. All this with John Diefenbaker tormenting him every step of the way.

Stephen Harper reached his 100-day milestone last Wednesday, and the reviews have been generally good. There is general agreement that he is in command, that he knows who he is and what he wants to do.

The difference between this prime minister and his predecessor is plain to all. It's the difference between aspiring to the job, as Martin did, and thinking about what you'd do if you got there, as Harper has.

For someone who has never run anything in his life except an opposition leader's office, Harper seems to be surprisingly at ease running the country. Equally surprising, for the leader of a minority government, he is bidding to become a transformational prime minister.

This has nothing to do with Harper's top five priorities. That's all transactional stuff, a platform for re-election in which the PM can say he delivered on his campaign promises. In fact, two of the top five, the GST cut and child-care payments, have already been adopted in the budget, an event that successfully came and went within three days. The Accountability Act and the crime package are in the pipeline and could be law by next month's summer recess. Only the health-care guarantee on waiting times needs to be negotiated with the provinces in the fall.

While the top five might help Harper graduate to a majority, a check list won't define his place in history. But the way he sees the federation, and Quebec's role in it, will. So will the manner in which he conducts relations with the U.S., the file by which our influence is measured in the rest of the world.

Harper came to office vowing to respect the division of powers in the Constitution, with Ottawa's powers in Section 91 and provincial jurisdictions in Section 92 of the British North America Act. Nor is he troubled by the asymmetrical features of Canadian federalism, as in Sections 93 and 133 of the BNA Act on confessional schools as they were then, and the role of French and English as languages of the courts and legislature in Quebec. Without these provisions, there wouldn't have been a deal called Confederation.

The Liberals have never been troubled by using the federal spending power in areas of provincial jurisdictions. Martin's entire domestic program was in provincial jurisdiction.

Harper is concentrating on strengthening Ottawa's role in areas of its own authority - foreign affairs, defence, international trade and the Canadian economic union. He might also surprise environmentalists on climate change. Most of these files require full engagement with the U.S. So, from the Mideast to Afghanistan, Canada is staking out a leadership role again, as it hasn't since the Mulroney and Pearson years.

One hundred days doesn't make history, but they have given us a good sense of where this guy is going. And in quite a hurry.

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