Saturday, May 14, 2011

Role Call

There has been a lot of discussion in recent weeks about Stephen Harper's obsession with the Liberal Party of Canada; about his desire to see it marginalized. I think there is more to this notion than something purely adversarial.

While I agree that Mr. Harper exhibits an unhealthy obsession with his perceived enemies and strong tendency to tilt at windmills, I don't believe the destruction of the Liberals is his primary goal. From my perspective, his goal to re-cast the role of government in the eyes of Canadians.

He now has his chance.

Whether we like it or not, Canada is about the embark on a debate on the role of government. The combination of a Conservative majority and the fiscal health of the government has provided a unique platform for the Harper government to move forward on what has been the long-standing pre-occupation of the Prime Minister.

Never Let A Crisis Go To Waste

In a posting last year I wrote about how the steps the government took in 2009 at the height of the economic crisis and the ensuing fiscal challenge Canada faced would provide the Conservatives with an opportunity to get back to where they once belonged.


The deficit grew exponentially and the means/will of the government to re-establish equilibrium through the tax system was minimal. Tax increases were swiftly ruled off the table, and in fact cuts such as those to the GST had the effect of pushing the government into deficit before the economic crisis.

This left reductions in government spending as the principal means of balancing the budget. But such reductions are a delicate thing to manage when you have a minority government. Things have now changed.

There is Strength in Numbers

For all of his ideas, views and tactics, Mr. Harper never truly had the means to do what he has wanted to do. Yes, he has benefitted from a divided and weak opposition which has enabled him to reduce the GST and pass the corporate tax cuts. Consider this step one.

Thanks to the acquiescence of a weak opposition the government's ability to be activist is now more limited. It would take either a tax increase (e.g. to the GST) or a roll-back of corporate tax cuts to deliver to the government the surpluses it needs to be more active in the lives of Canadians without going into deficit.

Put another way, Mr. Harper has used tax cuts to tie his hands and those of anyone who follows him.

However, lowering taxes is one thing. The ability to reduce government spending is something altogether different. This brings us to today.

Unlike 2010, Mr. Harper now has the majority he needs (House and Senate) to get Parliamentary approval for his budgets. He is no longer dependent on the NDP, Liberals or the Bloc.

So where does that leave us?

1. The government has a deficit that the economy cannot simply grow out from.
2. The government has consciously and deliberately limited its own ability to use the tax system to raise funds.
3. The Conservatives now have comfortable majorities in the House and the Senate, with no federal election on the cards for four years.

Mr. Harper now has the means to get back to where he once belonged - to where he was when he was a Reform MP, and where he was as the President of the National Citizens' Coalition. Flowing from the points above, the only way the government can bring the books back into balance is to limit spending.

Transfers to Canadians are off the table, as are apparently transfers to provinces. What does this leave? Which government programs and activities are on the table now as possible candidates for cuts or elimination?

The Role of Government

I don't think Mr. Harper maintains a strict "wage war and sell stamps" view of the federal government. However, I don't think he is far from that view. My sense is that he is a strong believer in the division of powers, and as such favours actions which enable the provinces to be more active.

While I can understand the logic behind such a viewpoint, I struggle with the impact this could have on our sense of nation.

My personal view is that federal government has a unique and important role to play by thinking of the whole; by seeing Canada as the sum of its parts. The provinces are not burdened by this responsibility, and therefore will understandably act in their own interests.

However, the federal government needs to be more than just a side of the ledger in the division of powers; it is the Government of Canada and needs to act as such. When the current government considers its role and the role of government, my hope is that they move beyond an "us" and "them" mentality, and towards a role more rooted in partnership and co-operation.


Opportunity is a funny thing. To be truly realized, it requires not just an idea or notion, but also the means to act. Stephen Harper now has both in his possession. What will he do?

Will he be guided by ideology, or he will he be guided by a broader sense of Canada and how we work best when we leverage the sum of our parts?

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