Harper has been competent, but he lacks the vision thing

Four years after his first election, the Conservatives still seek majority

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The Gazette, Saturday, February 6, 2010

Four years ago today, a Conservative government was sworn in at Rideau Hall, ending 12 years, and four consecutive terms, of Liberal rule. As Stephen Harper begins his fifth year in office, there is every chance he will surpass Lester Pearson's tenure of five years and two terms as the longest-serving minority prime minister in modern times.

Two terms, two minorities, five years.

But in terms of substantial accomplishments, comparisons end there. For all the turmoil of the 1963-68 Pearson government, it left a unique legacy of achievement.

Consider: the Maple Leaf flag, the landmark Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, the Auto Pact, the Canada and Quebec Pension Plans, and Medicare. All of which was achieved by a minority government dogged by a series of petty scandals, with Pearson tormented nearly every step of the way by Progressive Conservative leader John Diefenbaker, the greatest parliamentarian of his time.

Pearson also left another significant legacy, one that is seldom appreciated, other than by students of governance: In terms of succession, Pearson set a standard of excellence that is unlikely to be surpassed. He had an unrivalled gift for appointing talented people to cabinet- three of his ministers, Pierre Trudeau, John Turner and Jean Chrétien, would succeed him, and lead the Liberal Party for 35 years after he retired in 1968.

So Pearson was, in every sense, a transformational prime minister. And while the Harper premiership is obviously a work in progress, it can be classified as transactional in terms of government, but historical in terms of electoral politics.

Harper's leadership is already historic in the sense that for every Conservative leader with the exception of Sir John A. Macdonald, just winning an election has been half the battle. Harper has already won two, and while he's been in minority territory, only Brian Mulroney, since Macdonald, has won consecutive majorities as a Conservative leader. But Harper's unique achievement in terms of party politics is that he united the right, with the merger of the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties in 2003, and recreated the Conservative brand equity that enabled their victory, as a viable alternative to the Liberals, in 2006.

But Harper's leadership has been transactional in the sense that while he has done a good job of running the country, he hasn't yet done much to change it. He hasn't done anything big. This is about what the first George Bush famously called "the vision thing."

Harper assumed office four years ago with an agenda of five priorities - accountability in government, reducing the GST from 7 to 5 per cent, a waiting times guarantee in health care, child-care payments to parents, and a crack-down on crime.

That's not a vision, it's a checklist. And when it was more or less checked off, that's when Harper got in trouble in the 2008 election, when he called an election without an agenda going forward.

And this, in essence, brings us to where we've been ever since - a government on the doorstep of a majority, but one whose designs have been thwarted not only by its minority status, but by its own tactical blunders.

Harper is the smartest guy in the room, and sometimes he outsmarts himself. Sometimes he is all about tactics, and that's when he gets in trouble. Or when he lacks a narrative to support what he's doing. This happened in the 2008 election, when he got whipsawed in Quebec by modest cuts to cultural funding. And again in the parliamentary crisis in the fall of 2008, when his proposed cuts to public financing of political parties united the opposition in an attempted coup. And again over the holidays when he prorogued the House without a credible storyline to back it up.

Every government decision should have a communications plan to reinforce it, and this one didn't, allowing the Liberals to make it not about prorogation, but about Harper, Mr. Hidden Agenda, and his supposed contempt for democracy. His pivot last week, cancelling the spring break in March and prolonging the session over Easter, is just one more example of his fascination with tactics. It has nothing to do with policy or a legislative agenda.

Yet when Harper has been tested, he has generally delivered. He has brought the country through the worst economic storm in six decades in better shape than any other G7 country, and the supporting narrative there is impressive. The GM bailout was a complex Canada-U.S. file, a major league operation, proof that our most important relationship is in good hands. The government's response to the Haitian disaster has been seamless across the board. Harper is criticized for his command-and-control style of management, but no one outside the Ottawa cares about that, they only care if the country is being well run.

Competence is the core test of government, and so far this government meets that test. But so far, it's all transactional, and not transformative.

But here's one thing on which Harper measures up to Pearson - prorogation. In his first minority term, Pearson prorogued the House twice, and then dissolved it, in a failed attempted to obtain a majority. No one refers to that, because apparently no one remembers it, there being no institutional memory in Ottawa anymore.

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