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