Harper embraces realism


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OTTAWA -- Prime Minister Stephen Harper is four years old today. He acts much older.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/01/2010 (4757 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Stephen Harper is four years old today. He acts much older.

The Conservative leader was elected Jan. 23, 2006, despite smear campaign rivals warning he would steer Canada in a hard-right direction. So far, his critics have been disappointed. That hidden agenda remains, well, hidden.

If there’s been any ideology driving the Harper government, it’s rooted in surviving and thriving as a government by eliminating fear factors and incrementally attracting new voters in a bid to become the new natural governing party.

The result has been a highly disciplined, scandal-free reign. Cabinet departures have been limited to one unhappy couple — Maxime Bernier was dropped from Foreign Affairs after forgetting sensitive documents at his girlfriend’s home and Michael Chong quit Intergovernmental Affairs after objecting to giving the Quebecois nation status, within Canada.

But Harper’s speech to the Calgary Convention Centre on the night of his first election victory has been proven less than prophetic. “The West has wanted in,” he told the cheering crowd. “The West is in now.”

There’s irony there because almost all founding Conservative principles have been pretzel-twisted to fit regions other than the West. Elected senators, fixed election dates, balanced budgets, greater transparency and arm’s-length appointments have all been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency or economic necessity.

Arts funding has risen, regional economic development programs expanded, the public service bloated and program spending has grown faster than ever before.

Every political move is seen through the prism of enhancing Conservative appeal in Liberal-held territory and to ensure it won’t be easily reclaimed.

Ethnic outreach and immigration policy has been tailored to new Canadians, tax breaks designed to attract soccer moms, the Quebecois nation status was aimed at soft sovereigntists and the famous Harper gala piano performance was to prove this prime minister could be tuxedo-crowd-friendly.

Hard-right conspiracy, what conspiracy?

The base has so far refused to revolt, mostly because the right wing has no other voting option and perhaps because of an understanding there has to be plenty of policy give before they can take the control of a majority mandate.

They can take heart in how the Conservatives have given federal policies a testosterone tweak. Law and order bills have been no-nonsense and numerous, aggressive moves are being made to reassert Arctic sovereignty and Canada has been noticed on the world stage as an energy superpower that has earned its stripes in bloody battlefields.

Personally the prime minister has changed — and not just in greyer hair and a slimmer waistline.

The leader who addressed his caucus on Friday has mellowed, the hard edges softened and his notorious choke-chain control of ministers loosened.

“Canada is safer, stronger and better off than it was four years ago,” Harper told his MPs — which would be news to the 600,000 workers who lost their jobs in the recession.

Harper’s 50th birthday wish is obvious — his government needs just 10 more seats to marry a majority mandate in the Commons with a Senate that will fall under Conservative control next week when a handful of Tory lapdogs are expected to receive their true-blue pedigrees.

MPs will tell you the easy job is ending. Blowing a historic-high surplus on economic stimulation projects hardly demanded difficult choices, but to eliminate a $56-billion deficit without raising taxes, cutting social programs or squeezing transfer payments to the provinces is a mission impossible, particularly under minority constraints.

That may explain the nostalgic tone of the Harper’s retrospective, an inhale as he warned the government must “start planning now for deficit reduction when the recession ends.”

Given that the recession is already declared over by most economists, the hard task is set to begin and that, Conservatives believe, will require the parliamentary comfort and political certainty of a majority to accomplish.

They’re already cheering their leader on to four more years of Conservative rule, but the patience they’ve shown in governing with opposition partners is giving way to impatience for a majority they feel is within their grasp.

— Canwest News Service

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