POLITICS

Stephen Harper 2011: Majority Conservative Locomotive Runs Down Opponents, Barrels Into 2012

12/24/2011 04:30 EST | Updated 02/22/2012 05:12 EST
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OTTAWA - No simpler summary of Stephen Harper's style as majority prime minister was offered in 2011.

"It's time for the wheat board and others who have been standing in the way to realize that this train is barrelling down a Prairie track," Harper warned during an October stop in Regina.

"You're much better to get on it than to lie on the tracks, because this is going ahead."

The Canadian Wheat Board's seven-decade monopoly was indeed steamrolled, leaving behind a cloud of chaff and a spray of court challenges.

But the prime minister's locomotive imagery applied straight across his majority government's agenda. It was also an apt description for his Conservative party's persona.

Whether it was limiting debate on bills it had no risk of losing, refusing to allow the Green Party and Bloc Quebecois to pay tribute to military veterans in the Commons, staging a never-before-seen exhibition of military air power over Parliament Hill, pushing committee work behind closed doors, or hiring a marketing firm to spread false rumours about a respected Liberal MP, Harper's Tories exhibited unabashed aggression.

Polls suggested Canadian voters were not perturbed by this pugnacious partisanship. But at least one lifelong Conservative who had been part of Harper's inner circle appeared taken aback.

"The Conservatives haven't yet figured out that a majority government doesn't need to be constantly on the attack," Keith Beardsley, a former senior Harper advisor, wrote on his blog in November.

"It's time for them to take a deep breath, pause, shift gears and be the best majority government they can be."

Where those train tracks lead in 2012 — and who might be caught in the headlights — shouldn't be that difficult to divine. Just look where the track has run.

It was the year of the Arab Spring and civil unrest in Europe, yet Canada's federal political scene was won by a sustained pitch for strength and stability.

Harper, in a speech to party faithful last June, spoke of painting Canada "the deep blue of … a strong, stable, national majority, Conservative government."

On May 2, his Conservatives had won their long-sought solid parliamentary majority by claiming 166 of Parliament's 308 seats. They did it with 39.6 per cent of the popular vote, adding 626,201 additional ballots to their previous 2009 vote count.

And they managed the feat in the face of sustained attacks from the Liberals and NDP over an unprecedented contempt of parliament ruling, G8-related Conservative pork-barrelling in the riding of cabinet minister Tony Clement, RCMP investigations against two staffers and an ongoing 2006 campaign financing scandal that finally ended with the party pleading guilty to Elections Act charges in November.

Michael Ignatieff, the Liberal leader who was soon to lose his own seat, pronounced last March in the Commons that "a government that breaks the rules and conceals facts from the Canadian people does not deserve to remain in office."

Canadian voters didn't buy it.

The Jack Layton-led New Democrats surged to official Opposition status but the orange wave merely distracted from the real story.

Not only did the Conservatives take their majority win as a mandate to implement their platform promises, but they also appear to have interpreted the result as evidence that bullying behaviour is just so much white noise that carries no cost.

Peter Van Loan, Harper's combative choice to lead his MPs in the Commons, turned critiques such as Beardley's on their ear at year-end by repeatedly stressing that Conservative tactics are a sign of strength, and a welcome counterpoint to political events seen in the United States and Greece.

"Anybody who suggests that we shouldn't be making decisions is really inviting the kind of political gridlock that you've seen elsewhere and is so harmful economically," Van Loan told The Canadian Press in a year-end interview.

Gridlock certainly did not describe Canada's parliamentary process.

Nine separate pieces of criminal justice legislation — covering everything from the pardons system to terrorism, child sexual exploitation and marijuana growing — were bundled together and trundled off to the Senate with such haste that the government now concedes flaws in the bill will have to be fixed by the unelected upper chamber.

Parliament will grow by 30 MPs in the next federal election after the Conservatives rammed through a bill adding more electoral representation to fast-growing Alberta, B.C., and Ontario.

Two budget implementation bills were pushed through the Commons with limited debate and even less media scrutiny.

The bills include several boutique tax credits, plus the phase-out of the public per-vote subsidy for federal political parties — an issue that caused a parliamentary crisis and almost derailed the Conservatives when Harper first sprung it two years ago. This fall, the $30-million annual subsidy fell under the government's wheels without a whimper.

The end of the per-vote subsidy will force all parties to match the superb Conservative fundraising machine or perish, a development that may have a profound impact on Canada's political discourse.

Conservatives clucked in December when former Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien issued an over-the-top fundraising appeal that darkly forewarned that abortion, gay marriage and capital punishment may all be on the Conservative radar.

"And one by one, the values we cherish as Canadians will be gone," Chretien lamented.

His lurid language simply matches the Conservative Fund Canada template that's been used so effectively for years.

About this time last year, Senator Irving Gerstein was exhorting partisans to fork out in order to forestall a prospective Liberal government that "would increase taxes, weaken our borders, gut the military and pursue the most radical social agenda in our nation's history."

It may sound hokey to non-partisan ears, but it works.

The Conservatives raked in $17.4 million in donations last year (while spending about $7 million on fundraising) and are on track for another banner 2011; their 2010 take exceeded that of all the opposition parties combined.

That Tory success prompted Liberal party president Alf Apps to report in November that political contenders must fundamentally rethink their messaging.

"CPC strategists, current masters of that art in Canada, understand that 'connecting' with voters is about reaching them emotionally," said his "Road to Victory" report.

Allan Gregg, the chairman of polling firm Harris-Decima and a former strategist for the federal Progressive Conservatives, describes Harper as "a revolutionary realist."

"His radicalism is not so much in what he does, but what he refuses to do," Gregg said in an interview.

National daycare and the Kelowna accord to help First Nations were both abandoned as soon as Harper came to office in 2006. Most recently, Canada formally announced this month its withdrawal from the international Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions.

Ottawa has withdrawn any pretence of enforcing the Canada Health Act, and Harper has yet to have a first ministers conference with the premiers.

The end of the federal long gun registry, a human smuggling bill, a revamped copyright act, new rules for citizens arrests and Senate reform are in the offing for parliament's spring sitting.

With the notable exception of a proposed national securities regulator, there's not a new national program in the mix.

As for all that acrimony and unedifying behaviour in the Commons, Harper appears supremely unperturbed by anything that diminishes the legitimacy of parliament in the eyes of the Canadian public.

"The unwillingness to engage, to risk argument, to risk fun is everywhere," popular culture critic John Doyle wrote of Canadians in the Globe and Mail this autumn. "Conform or shut up is the theme."

Yet Canadians aren't likely to shut up in 2012 anymore than the Harper Conservatives are likely to follow Beardsley's advice to "calm down, relax and breathe a little."

And with New Democrats, under a new leader to be chosen in March, and Liberals also clamouring for donations using every gut appeal possible, it promises to be another raucous year in federal politics.

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