Stephen vs. Stephane

It is federal-provincial relations and foreign affairs that are likely to define and differentiate Harper and Dion

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The Gazette, Thursday, December 28, 2006

The two main Canadian political stories of the year were the rise of Stephen Harper and Stephane Dion, both as a result of the fall of Paul Martin's Liberals.

Both leaders are public intellectuals with unexpected strengths as rassembleurs. And both have benefited greatly from being underestimated.

Like John Diefenbaker in 1957 and Brian Mulroney in 1984, Harper made history simply by winning, and ending a Liberal dynasty. Like Dief and Mulroney, he united the normally fractious Conservative movement, ran a disciplined and competent campaign, and restored political alternation to Canadian democracy.

The essential precondition for alternation was fulfilled by Harper and Peter MacKay when they merged the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties in 2003. The re-emergence of the Conservatives as the alternative national brand to the Liberals made the 2004 election competitive. The mainstream message and competence of the Conservative campaign made them an acceptable alternative to the Liberals in 2006.

Even so, the result underlined the difficulty of electing a Conservative government in this country, and the residual strength of the Liberal brand. With all the Liberals had going against them - from the sponsorship scandal to the tipping point of the "RCMP criminal probe" headline a year ago today - they still won 102 seats.

As weary as Canadians were of the Liberals, many were also wary of Harper and a hidden Conservative agenda. With all he had going for him, he still won only 124 seats, and it was his unexpected breakthrough of 10 seats in Quebec that gave him a decent lead over the Liberals.

While Harper leads a minority government in an inherently unstable House, he is, nevertheless, bidding to become a transformational prime minister with an agenda far more ambitious than his five priorities.

But it is federal-provincial relations and foreign affairs - the top two files on any prime minister's desk - that are likely to define and differentiate Harper and Dion.

Harper's idea of the federation begins from the constitutional division of powers between Ottawa and the provinces, and his campaign pledge not to use the federal spending in areas of provincial jurisdiction without the support of a majority of provinces.

This is classical federalism, in a line going back to Sir John A. Macdonald, and it firmly aligns Harper with Jean Charest, as a proponent of asymmetrical federalism. But it raises hackles among Liberals, who see themselves as the party of strong central government, while ignoring that all the initiatives of the Martin period - on health care, daycare and cities - were clearly in provincial jurisdiction.

Where Dion is likely to part company with Harper is on the vertical fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces. Dion has strenuously denied its existence. If he holds to this position he will create problems for himself in his efforts to rebuild the Liberal Party in Quebec, especially if Harper and Charest reach agreement on the issue.

Foreign policy wasn't discussed once during eight hours of leaders' debates in the last election, but it could define, or defeat, Harper's government on two issues, Afghanistan and climate change.

Harper inherited the redeployment of the Canadian mission from Kabul to Kandahar, but he took ownership of it when the House narrowly voted last May to extend our stay from 2007 to 2009. And Dion, having voted in favour of the mission while a member of the Martin cabinet in 2005, turned around and voted against extending it in 2006. But he equally wants no part of promised Bloc Quebecois motion to censure the Conservatives unless they change the emphasis of the mission from security to institution building, as if somehow we could magically provide one without the other.

So, now that Dion is Liberal leader and not just a contender for the role, his position on Afghanistan is important. Equally on the Middle East, particularly on the conflict between Hezbollah and the Israelis in southern Lebanon. Harper's leadership positions on these issues are contentious, but there is a certain moral clarity about them. Dion must find a tenable middle ground on both Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Dion made climate change the defining issue of his leadership campaign. His problem is the Liberals' dismal record, and his own as environment minister, in achieving Kyoto targets on emissions reduction.

Harper needs to do much better on this file in 2007 than he did in 2006, when his government bungled the rollout of the Clean Air Act. Jack Layton has given him the chance to do just that in the special committee struck to review it. If the Conservatives and NDP can agree to near-term as well as long-term targets for emissions reduction, as well as for funding in the budget, Dion could find himself sidelined on his No. 1 issue, one on which the Tories will not fail to remind Canadians of a Liberal legacy of failure.

Harper vs. Dion. Not the most charismatic match-up for 2007, but a fascinating one in terms of their ideas of the country, and its role in the world.

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