Ottawa Citizen

The new nor­mal

With a ma­jor­ity in Par­lia­ment, the Harper Tories are fi­nally be­gin­ning to act like a typ­i­cal Cana­dian government, writes JONATHAN MALLOY.

- Jonathan Malloy is chair of the de­part­ment of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at Car­leton Univer­sity.

It’s al­ways clichéd to say “when his­to­ri­ans look back at the year xxxx,” but when they do, 2012 might be seen as the year Stephen Harper’s Con­ser­va­tives fi­nally be­gan act­ing more like a typ­i­cal Cana­dian government. The Con­ser­va­tive regime ap­pears in­creas­ingly ma­ture and more en­trenched than ever, while the NDP and Lib­er­als com­pete for sec­ond place.

It has never been easy to ex­plain the Harper government, but af­ter years of lurch­ing brinkman­ship and some very er­ratic ac­tions, it’s strik­ing to re­al­ize in 2012 how much it is be­gin­ning to re­sem­ble past gov­ern­ments. Its key is­sues and poli­cies are be­com­ing more com­plex and gen­er­ally less ide­o­log­i­cal (with no­table ex­cep­tions). Though the prime min­is­ter re­mains firmly in con­trol, in­ter­est­ing cracks are be­gin­ning to ap­pear in the Con­ser­va­tive façade — again, nor­mal for a ma­tur­ing ma­jor­ity government. The sta­bil­ity of its par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity and the weak­ness of its op­po­si­tion has al­lowed the government more room to ma­noeu­vre and, it seems, curbed some of its worst par­ti­san in­stincts. While no one will mis­take this for a warm and fuzzy group, it is start­ing to look a lit­tle more like past Lib­eral and Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ments — and cer­tainly less con­fronta­tional than the regime that set off a con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis in 2008.

Many of the key domestic files of 2012, such as deficit re­duc­tion, pub­lic-sec­tor lay­offs, for­eign in­vest­ment, changes to re­tire­ment ben­e­fits and de­fence pro­cure­ment messes, are fa­mil­iar is­sues from the past. The Chré­tien government, for ex­am­ple, dealt with all of th­ese (if we in­clude CPP re­form) — not al­ways in the same way ad­mit­tedly, but there isn’t a yawn­ing ide­o­log­i­cal di­vide ei­ther. Sim­i­larly, while the Harper government con­tin­ues to be pil­lo­ried for om­nibus bills and other par­lia­men­tary tac­tics, Dal­ton McGuinty’s Queen’s Park pro­ro­ga­tion was a ter­rific 2012 gift to jus­tify the Tory ar­gu­ment that they play by the rules of the game.

Hav­ing said this, the Harper regime does fol­low a much more dis­tinc­tive and con­fronta­tional ap­proach in for­eign af­fairs, has en­vi­ron­men­tal poli­cies that it alone seems to un­der­stand, and seems to revel in its rep­u­ta­tion for muz­zling sci­en­tists and con­trol­ling all government com­mu­ni­ca­tions. It is also more will­ing to make pol­icy through the in­di­rect method of pri­vate mem­ber’s bills, like Russ Hiebert’s re­cent mo­tion to make unions dis­close their fi­nances, fol­low­ing Candice (Hoepp­ner) Ber­gen’s 2011 bill end­ing the gun reg­istry. The lat­ter ap­proach of let­ting the back­benches lead can be seen as ide­o­log­i­cal stealth … or as a ra­tio­nal re­sponse by a ma­jor­ity government to avoid rest­less­ness in the ranks, and 2012 saw hints of cracks in the long-im­pen­e­tra­ble Con­ser­va­tive wall. The CNOOCNexen and Petronas-Progress for­eign in­vest­ment co­nun­drums di­vided the Con­ser­va­tive cab­i­net and cau­cus, pro­duc­ing a strange half-de­ci­sion by the prime min­is­ter and an un­usual glimpse of Con­ser­va­tive in­ter­nal tur­moil.

An­other in­ter­est­ing 2012 devel­op­ment was the con­tin­u­ing march of abor­tion-linked pri­vate mem­bers’ busi­ness, to widely mixed sig­nals from the Con­ser­va­tive cab­i­net. Re­call Gor­don O’Connor’s sur­pris­ing and blis­ter­ing at­tack on Stephen Wood­worth’s be­gin­ning-of-life mo­tion last spring; yet Mark Warawa’s bill to con­demn sex-se­lec­tive abor­tions (op­posed by abor­tion rights ac­tivists) was sup­ported by a num­ber of min­is­ters in­clud­ing sta­tus of women min­is­ter Rona Am­brose. It’s sim­ply not clear what to make of this, ex­cept that Con­ser­va­tives clearly don’t all agree — and are in­creas­ingly show­ing it in pub­lic. Per­haps most strik­ing was the prime min­is­ter’s re­cent com­ment that the ad­vi­sory board on gun own­er­ship was too stacked in favour of gun ad­vo­cates — an ex­tremely rare ad­mis­sion of pos­si­ble er­ror by Stephen Harper and an im­plicit re­buke of a se­nior min­is­ter.

In short, while far from the sprawl­ing ca­coph­ony of the Mul­roney government or the Chré­tien-Martin civil wars, the Harper government in 2012 dis­played the char­ac­ter­is­tics of a ma­ture and oc­ca­sion­ally in­ter­nally di­vided ma­jor­ity government — though still one very en­trenched and sure of it­self, with­out even a hint of dis­sent against its leader.

Mean­while, the NDP and Lib­er­als com­pete for sec­ond place. Af­ter a mod­er­ately ex­cit­ing NDP lead­er­ship race early in the year, Thomas Mul­cair has firmly con­sol­i­dated him­self as the party’s leader, though not nec­es­sar­ily in Cana­di­ans’ imag­i­na­tion. He has turned out to be nei­ther as di­vi­sive as his de­trac­tors pre­dicted, nor as sen­sa­tional as oth­ers hoped. The Con­ser­va­tives were un­able to peg him neg­a­tively as they did with past op­po­si­tion lead­ers, but nei­ther has Mul­cair es­tab­lished him­self as prime min­is­te­rial ma­te­rial and more than the lat­est out­raged op­po­si­tion leader. Part of this is be­cause he awaits a Lib­eral op­po­nent; the Lib­eral party spent most of the year sort­ing out the rules for its lead­er­ship race, only to find not much of a race.

The year 2012 saw the un­veil­ing of the two worst kept se­crets in Cana­dian pol­i­tics: one, that Justin Trudeau as­pires to lead the Lib­er­als, and sec­ond, while a huge gam­ble, he ap­pears to be the party’s only hope. Trudeau’s own great 2012 moment was his box­ing vic­tory over Pa­trick Brazeau — a small sign that per­haps the un­der­dog can win. But the bar for both par­ties is to beat each other. For now, nei­ther seems a match for the solid Con­ser­va­tive regime.

Trudeau re­mains the great un­known head­ing into 2013, and the most likely fu­ture an­swer to how the new year will be dif­fer­ent from 2012. But look­ing back on the last 12 months, the most strik­ing im­age is the ever-grow­ing en­trench­ment and ma­tur­ing of the Con­ser­va­tive government. Hav­ing fi­nally left the lurch­ing years of mi­nor­ity be­hind, it has set­tled in for the long run.

 ?? FRED CHAR­TRAND/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS ?? While far from the sprawl­ing ca­coph­ony of the Mul­roney government or the Chré­tien-Martin civil wars, the Harper government in 2012 dis­played the char­ac­ter­is­tics of a ma­ture and oc­ca­sion­ally in­ter­nally di­vided ma­jor­ity government, writes Jonathan Malloy.
FRED CHAR­TRAND/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS While far from the sprawl­ing ca­coph­ony of the Mul­roney government or the Chré­tien-Martin civil wars, the Harper government in 2012 dis­played the char­ac­ter­is­tics of a ma­ture and oc­ca­sion­ally in­ter­nally di­vided ma­jor­ity government, writes Jonathan Malloy.

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