Op-ed

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Review of: Jennifer Ditchburn and Graham Fox
The HARPER FACTOR 

McGill-Queen’s University Press

Paul Durand *                   

In this authoritative book the editors – Jennifer Ditchburn and Graham Fox – have compiled an impressive selection of essays and articles; impressive because of the wide range of topics, but especially because of the professional calibre of the writers. Even where the reader may disagree with the tone of the narrative or the conclusions, one is hard-pressed to challenge the quality of the research or the objectivity of the argumentation.

Covering all the major issues of the Harper government’s near decade in power is no mean feat, but a few hours poring through this comprehensive selection will be rewarded by a broad, informative appreciation of that period.

 

CONTENTS

The book is organized under five general headings: Institutions; The World; Money; People, and Commentaries. Among these, two stand out; The World, by Colin Robertson, and Money – particularly the piece by David Dodge and Richard Dion.

I will not attempt an exhaustive review of all topics here, but will cover each heading to some degree, focusing more on the two mentioned - The World, and Money.

  • Former Canadian ambassador to Costa Rica, Chile and the Organization of American States; Fellow, Canadian Global Affairs Institute

 

INSTITUTIONS

The most interesting aspect in this section is the Harper approach to dealing with the various structures of government and the people in them. The common thread is one of distrust, nurtured through many years out of power which, together with a strong sense of grievance, generated the conviction among Harper’s people that public servants were unwilling to just ‘follow orders’ and were basically pro-Liberal. This led to a combative, dismissive approach that rejected evidence-based policy advice from the public service, and preferred ideological certainties.

While R. Paul Wilson’s chapter on the House of Commons rightly points out that anti-Harper rhetoric was overblown, it is selective, and ends up being an apologia for Harper’s consistent disdain for parliament. It fails to mention the questionable use of prorogation, wedge issues or the repeated, aggressive manoeuvres that led to the ultimate censure - the Harper government being found in contempt of parliament (a first in Canadian history). This selectivity may be explained by the fact that the writer was a staffer in Harper’s PMO during some of the most rancorous parliamentary periods.

Ditchburn writes a perceptive chapter on “news management”, well informed from her perch as parliamentary correspondent for nearly 18 years. She documents the shift from “news management” to the throttling of information and access. This included Harper’s cabinet, his caucus, public servants and particularly diplomats overseas, hobbling the government’s ability to tell its story in timely fashion. This created a vacuum that was inevitably filled with negative commentary, but despite this the government was unable or unwilling to change its strategy.

 

THE WORLD

Colin Robertson does an excellent job on “Harper’s makeover of Canadian International Policy and its Institutions”. He gives Harper credit for amalgamating trade and development assistance into Foreign Affairs, allowing for a more coherent approach to the world. But Harper’s inflexible, simplistic approach to complex issues undermined his foreign policy goals, and his resentment of Canada’s diplomats deprived him of much-needed professional policy advice.

Examples of this are provided in the single-minded attachment to Israel at the expense of other relationships, and the diaspora-driven support of Ukraine that accomplished little and probably did more harm than good to Ukraine’s interests.

Another obstacle to success in foreign policy was Harper’s strained relationships  with major foreign leaders, Barack Obama above all. Canadian prime ministers must get along with US presidents; there is no higher foreign policy priority. However, fixated on obtaining approval for the Keystone XL pipeline (but refusing to make any environmental concessions to promote its approval) Harper told the president “it was a no-brainer”, and “I won’t take no for an answer” (to which John Baird added the baffling statement, “We won’t take no answer for an answer either!”). This and other bizarre postures – such as shunning the US and Mexican ambassadors in Ottawa – soured relations with Canada’s important North American neighbours and trading partners.

China was another example where ideology (distrust of “godless communism”) over-ruled evidenced-based policy; China was given short shrift for the first years of Harper’s mandate, losing critical time with the world’s fastest-growing economy. Personal relations with other leaders were negative, adding to Canada’s isolation on the international scene.

Harper had no time for multilateralism, particularly the UN, which he pointedly ignored, thus ensuring that Canada’s campaign to obtain a seat on the UN Security Council would fail – an embarrassing first in Canadian history.

Robertson compares Harper’s personal approach to foreign policy with those of Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien - all of whom maintained extensive contacts with world leaders - and wonders whom Harper might have called, even if he had been inclined to do so.

Murray Brewster describes in some detail the disappointment that followed Harper’s initial enthusiasm for the military, due to budget cuts and procurement incompetence. He focusses on the combat mission in Kandahar which restored the Canadian military to its role as a fighting force after decades of concentration on peacekeeping, but was marred by the inept political handling of the crisis over Afghan detainees.

 

MONEY

David Dodge and Richard Dion offer a useful, well-researched comparative analysis of the Harper years (2006-2015) with the previous twenty-two years, starting with the Mulroney government in 1984. The comparison does not come off well; GDP growth was markedly slower under Harper, partially due to the recession of 2008-2009 but also due to poor policy choices during the recovery period. Although it compared well with other advanced economies because of Canada’s strong banking sector and the inherited fiscal position, post-recession recovery was sluggish.

While policy was appropriately expansive in 2009-10, it was severely restrictive thereafter as the government pursued a balanced-budget/debt reduction policy at all costs; this unnecessarily restricted growth, yielding the poor economic results mentioned compared to the previous period. The results are all the more unfortunate since the Harper government inherited from the Chretien-Martin period the most favourable fiscal situation in Canada’s modern history. While the authors generally applaud tax reduction policies, they are critical of the reduction of the GST rate by two points, which was less effective than reducing income tax levels, restricted room for stimulus when it was needed, and created a structural deficit.

In summary, Dodge and Dion conclude that “after 2010 the Harper government unduly sacrificed growth in order to improve a debt position that was already solid”.

Laura Dawson gives the Harper government high marks for its trade policies, which emphasized openness and resulted in a number of impressive free trade agreements. In particular, the CETA agreement with Europe and the Trans-Pacific Partnership were ambitious, well-negotiated agreements, although the latter may not see the light of day due to the position of the US government.

 

PEOPLE

This chapter covers three areas: immigration, law and order, and indigenous peoples.

With only a few exceptions, Ratna Omidvar is very positive about the Harper government’s record on immigration. It overhauled a creaking, inefficient system and focused it on meeting Canada’s economic and labour market needs; it eliminated backlogs and became “proactive, targeted, fast and efficient”. In placing limits on family reunification, it eliminated many abuses but, at the same time, caused some personal hardship. Overall, however, the changes receive high praise, as does the principal mover of the reforms, Jason Kenney.

Harper’s “tough on crime” agenda receives no such praise. As crime rates continued to fall, the government played on the anxieties of specific groups and made the system ever more rigid, focusing on the punitive aspects of justice rather than rehabilitation. This contradictory approach can only be explained by one factor – it got votes. And even though it didn’t make much real headway because of resistance in the judiciary and a number of successful Charter challenges, it continued to be effective politically. In the face of facts-based criticism, the government blamed the justice system for thwarting “the will of the people”, and dismissed the Charter as an irritating contrivance of the Liberal party. Harper exhibited breathtaking arrogance (and a clear loss of self-control) when he publicly impugned the integrity of the Chief Justice, for which he received wide-spread opprobrium, both in Canada and internationally, including a rebuke from the International Commission of Jurists.

The inevitable consequence of this over-zealous “tough on crime” agenda is a Liberal government bent on undoing most of it. The author suggests that the Liberals resist this temptation and consult all groups with a stake in the criminal justice system, including victims, before making sweeping changes, and that they take the evidence-based approach that they promised in all spheres of government.

Harper’s handling of the indigenous file started well, with a sincere and well-received apology for the residential schools tragedy. Other attempts, such as in funding education and insisting on band transparency, were in the right direction but met resistance - considered insufficient, “assimilationist” or inconsistent with indigenous rights of self-determination. As good as many of the initiatives and the intentions behind them were, the perception of insufficient consultation tended to sow mistrust and ultimately led to a stalled agenda. However, given the historical legacy of grievance, it is difficult to imagine conditions or approaches which could have overcome this mistrust in the short term. 

Ditchburn and Fox provide a widely varied assessment of the Harper years, well worth a read. It offers a considered appreciation of what went on during that controversial period, and the nature of its legacy today. Parts of this legacy, as mentioned, are being dismantled by the Trudeau government. Other elements are ‘baked in’ and will be present for the medium term. Among these are the structural deficit resulting from the reduction of the GST, and the impact on our foreign policy after ten years of denigrating and depleting the foreign affairs establishment. Only as these and other factors play out will we acquire a definitive sense of the lasting impact of Harper’s legacy. 


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