Harper’s top 10 self-inflicted political wounds
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s much-touted skill as a political tactician may be over-rated.
By W.T. STANBURY
The Hill Times
October 4, 2010
As a serious hockey fan, Prime Minister Stephen Harper knows the importance of not scoring on your own goal. However, he has been responsible for a surprising number of self-inflicted political wounds. My list of self-inflicted wounds (roughly chronologically) provides evidence that suggests Harper’s much-touted skill as a political tactician is over-rated.
Reversal on Income Trusts
On Oct. 31, 2006, the Harper government imposed a massive tax on most income trusts, and created a public policy “train wreck,”(Stanbury, The Hill Times, Sept. 22, 2008). The decision is important for several reasons (i) The decision and its justification was cloaked in secrecy (although some corporate executives got their oar in), and the PM made the decision; (ii) the huge size of the losses inflicted on trust holders ($35-billion) who relied on Harper’s promises during the election campaign; (iii) the reasonably predictable follow-on economic costs that were ignored and later denied (increased foreign takeovers, loss of an essential retirement investment vehicle, and reduced tax revenues); (iv) the main reason given for the action—“tax leakage”—was shown to be grossly exaggerated as being based on methodology known to be faulty by officials in the Department of Finance; (v) the sheer effrontery of the move resulted in the creation of Canadian Association of Income Trust Investors, which mounted a vigorous, but unsuccessful, campaign against the tax and has made the finance minister the target of criticism ever since, (see Stanbury, The Hill Times, Jan. 26, Feb. 23, and Dec. 2, 2009).
Hyper Control Over Information:
The PM’s intense efforts to control all aspects of the information created by his government since coming to power has been the subject of vast amounts of reporting and commentary in the news media. The strategy is questionable (dumb?) for several reasons: (i) It has made enemies of journalists who provide an important conduit to shaping the perceptions of voters. (ii) The degree of control has raised questions about the PM’s psyche (key word: obsessive). (iii) It has also raised question about whether the PM is undermining basic principles of democracy. (iv) The control efforts have resulted in cover-ups—and those suggest that greater political damage follows from the cover-up than the original act. (v) The PM has broken his party’s 2006 election promise to reform the Acceess to Information Act. (vi) Much of the effort to control information drives the PM to acts of monumental pettiness and waste, for example, counting the 8,500 signs relating to the stimulus program. (vii) The new photo and video unit Harper created in the PMO smacks of a cult of personality.
On May 17, 2007, National Post columnist Don Martin revealed that the Tories had created a 200-page secret “obstruction manual” for the chairs of Commons committees to help them offset the power of opposition parties whose members constitute a majority on each committee because of the minority government. “Conservative committee chairs were instructed to choose Conservative-friendly witnesses, how to rule motions out of order, and what to do if things do not go in favour of the government’s agenda,” (Bea Vongdouangchanh, The Hill Times, May 28, 2007). The manual made it clear that Harper had no desire to negotiate and cooperate with the opposition parties. He made most bills a matter of confidence knowing that the opposition parties did not want an election—they didn’t have the money (unlike the Tories), and the polls were not favourable. The manual became a symbol of Harper’s anti-democratic tendencies.
Cuts to Arts Agencies
The PM announced cuts of $45-million to arts entities in August 2008—a month before the general election was called on Sept. 7. There was an enormous adverse reaction—aggressively promoted by the arts community. The opposition parties promised to salve the wounds in high dudgeon. It is said that the cuts cost Harper a majority government, although the Tories increased the number of seats from 124 to 143. The cuts were a dumb move for several reasons: (i) they were made about a month before Harper called the 2008 election—giving time for opponents to organize their response; (ii) they saved only a tiny fraction of the large amount of direct subsidies to artists and arts organizations; (iii) the arts community was known to be extremely well-organized in terms of lobbying precisely because it is so dependent on government subsidies and regulatory measures; (iv) artists are articulate and inclined to be vocal—the mere threat of any reduction in government “goodies” had in the past led to massive outcries; (v) the cuts were presumably aimed at pleasing the Conservative base, but these supporters were most unlikely to defect absent the cuts. James Travers argues that “In 2008, a wholly unnecessary tilt at arts funding, coupled with bizarre advice to invest in a tumbling stock market, cost Harper a more decisive victory at the expense of the most vulnerable Liberal leader in decades, Stéphane Dion,” (The Toronto Star, July 31, 2010).
Missing Start of Big Recession
Despite all the economists in the Department of Finance, the government failed to appreciate that Canada had entered a major recession in the summer/fall of 2008—some time after the U.S. The fiscal measures in the “Economic Statement” of Nov. 27, 2008 were wrong. The Victoria Times-Colonist (Nov. 29, 2008) noted that “Most governments have accepted the urgent need for stimulative measures to prevent a dramatic slowdown. Harper agreed with that approach at the recent G20 meeting. [However], there were no such measures in the economic statement. The government is apparently willing to delay its response until the budget in February.” Maclean’s magazine columnist Scott Feschuk later described the “Economic Statement” as “the single-most inaccurate and widely mocked economic update in the history of both Canada and math,” (www.macleans.ca, Sept. 22, 2010).
Proposed Cut of Per-Vote Subsidy
The PM personally decided on the announcement (in the “Economic Statement” of Nov. 27, 2008) that the per-vote subsidies for the five major political parties would end March 31, 2009. It had been introduced by the Liberals in 2004. The Victoria Times-Colonist (Nov. 29, 2008) called the PM’s move “an undemocratic—even thuggish—attack on the opposition parties… . It is a move worthy of some Third World strong man.” The provision was part of a triple whammy (the other two were the temporary suspension of federal public servants’ right to strike, and a curb on public servants’ ability to make pay-equity appeals through the courts). All had to be withdrawn within a few days in the face of a proposed coalition that would have defeated the Harper minority government. Harper then abused his power to advise the Governor General and persuaded her to prorogue Parliament on Dec. 4, 2008, until Jan. 26, 2009 when the massive stimulus budget was introduced.
Prorogation #2 in Dec 2009
This too was an unprecedented act, contemptuous in its casualness (prorogation was requested by telephone), and the literally unbelievable rationales offered to justify it. The Toronto Star (editorial, Jan.15, 2010) noted that the PM’s rationale for proroguing kept shifting. The first version was that the government needed time to “recalibrate” and “consult” before bringing in a throne speech and budget in March. Then the PM said: “I don’t think it makes sense for a session of Parliament to go on and on.” That morphed into the government needing time “to continue to deliver the economic measures that are being delivered here and elsewhere across the country as part of the economic action plan.” Finally, in early January, Harper said that if he had allowed Parliament to continue sitting through the winter, there would have been continuous votes of confidence and election rumours. “That’s the kind of instability I think that markets are actually worried about.” However, the real reason for the second prorogation was spelled out by Tom Flanagan, Harper’s former campaign manager. “Everybody knows that Parliament was prorogued in order to shut down the Afghan inquiry, and the trouble is that the government doesn’t want to explain why that was necessary.” He referred to the government’s explanations for prorogation as “childish talking points.”
NOFAR on Key Policy Issues:
In the Sept.13 issue of The Hill Times, I summarized the criticisms that the Harper government has taken as a no-facts-analysis-or-research (NOFAR) approach to its numerous and expensive anti-crime measures. Maclean’s magazine’s Andrew Coyne argues that “the Tories habitually ignore the expert consensus on a wide range of issues—crime, taxes, climate change—[and] they want to be seen to be ignoring it. It’s the overt antagonism to experts, and, by extension, the educated classes, that marks the Tory style. In its own way, it’s a form of class war…. To whip up popular hostility to intellectuals is to invite the public to jump on its own funeral pyre,”(www.macleans.ca, Aug.17, 2010).
Mismanagement of GiC Appointees:
The PM’s management of governor-in-council appointees has produced much commentary to the effect that he is intolerant of any criticism. Linda Keen, former head of Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, was demoted after shutting down the Chalk River nuclear-based reactor on the advice of experts concerned about safety. Peter Tinsley, head of Military Police Complaints Commission, and Paul Kennedy, head of the RCMP Complaints Commission, were not reappointed. Both had acted and spoken independently, but within the bounds of their responsibilities. The budget of Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page—a new position touted by Harper as bringing “truth to budgeting” was cut after he produced reports critical of the numbers put out by the Government. The budget has since been reinstated, as promised.
Columnist Susan Riley (The Ottawa Citizen, Aug. 20, 2010) described as “ laughable [the] explanation for the sudden transfer of the RCMP’s most prominent defender of the gun registry (sudden-onset unilingualism).” And “Veterans Ombudsman [Pat] Stogran’s position will not be renewed, after he complained about red tape and other problems. The same thing happened to Steve Sullivan, the crime-victims’ ombudsman, after he was critical of the Conservatives’ vaunted “tough-on-crime” agenda. A president of the Canadian Wheat Board, an ethics commissioner, leaders at Rights and Democracy, the list is growing impressively long,” (The Montreal Gazette, Aug. 20, 2010, editorial). Harper is said to be considering limiting all such appointments to a single term of four years (Don Martin, National Post, Sept. 23, 2010).
Census Long Form:
The PM personally made the decision to make the mandatory long-form of the census voluntary in 2011 (announced June 26, 2010). This was done over the advice of several ministers, DMs, and the Clerk of the Privy Council. The ex post facto explanation by Industry Minister Tony Clement was that complaints to Tory MPs about the intrusiveness of certain questions was the basis for the decision. Yet, the proposed change was not discussed by the Tory caucus. Further, it will increase the costs by about $30-million, and compromised the integrity of the data. “The long-form census debate has been the most grotesque miscalculation by a Canadian government in years… (Michael Den Tandt, The Toronto Sun, Sept. 9, 2010). Jeffrey Simpson argued the census decision “turned almost every respectable and respected institution in the country against [the Conservatives],” (The Globe and Mail, Sept. 21, 2010). Between July 11 and Sept. 28, 2010, The Globe and Mail published what must be a record 13 editorials critical of the change in the census.
These examples of self-inflicted political wounds reported by the media were selected from a surprisingly long initial list. There are items pregnant with possibilities that could form the basis of a second list, e.g., the accelerated sole-source purchase of the F-35 fighters for $16 billion; the huge costs of the summits in summer 2010; and the failure to broaden the support of the Conservative Party.
W.T. Stanbury is professor emeritus, University of British Columbia.
The Hill Times
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
Posted by Brent Fullard at 3:20 PM