Between tomorrow’s first anniversary of Stephen Harper’s election, and the anniversary of his minority government taking office on Feb. 6, there will be no shortage of appraisals of his first year in office.
If Jean Chretien was a transactional leader, and Paul Martin proved to be a transitional figure, the most striking thing about Harper is that he is bidding to become a transformational prime minister in a minority House.
This has nothing to do with his five priorities, which were nothing more than a checklist to get elected on and a road map for the first session of the Parliament. He can now say "check" to three of them - the Accountability Act, cheques for child care and the GST cut. A fourth item, the crime package, is a work in progress in the House and the fifth, the health-care waiting- times guarantee, is a matter of tortuous negotiation with the provinces.
It has everything to do with Harper’s idea of the country, and where he wants to take it, as well as its role in the world, and how he wants to play it. The first was completely predictable, the second entirely unforeseen.
Harper’s idea of the Canadian federation is one in which the feds respect the constitutional division of powers between Ottawa and the provinces. Furthermore, he has promised not to invoke federal spending power in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction without the support of a majority of provinces. This is classical federalism and very much at variance with the invasive federalism advocated by the NDP and practised by the Liberals (Martin’s entire domestic program was in provincial jurisdiction).
There is historical continuity here. The Conservatives are the party of the British North America Act, the party of Confederation, and Harper is a BNA prime minister.
The management of federal-provincial relations, particularly between Ottawa and Quebec, is one of the basic tests of any prime minister. In only a year, Harper and Premier Jean Charest have established the most harmonious relationship between a prime minister and Quebec premier since the Mulroney-Bourassa era.
A deal on the fiscal imbalance, to go along with Quebec’s role within the Canadian delegation at UNESCO, will fulfill two campaign promises. And the re-election of Charest and Harper could have significant long-term implications for rebalancing the Canadian federation along lines envisioned by the founding fathers. At a minimum, there would be a debate between Conservative advocacy of classical federalism and the Liberal-NDP preference for strong central government, which the Bloc Quebecois scorns as domineering federalism. The more classical federalism prevails, the less relevance there is for the Bloc.
Harper’s management of the Ottawa-Quebec file was predictable in the sense that it has followed from his Quebec City campaign speech on open federalism.
What’s surprising is the degree to which foreign and defence policy has become a dominant frame of Harper’s first year in office.
This was unforeseen in the sense that we went through an eight-week campaign, including eight hours of televised debates, without a single question on foreign policy.
But when Harper made his first foreign trip to Kandahar rather than to Washington last March, that was an important statement, not just in support of Canada’s troops, but of the NATO-led, UN-sanctioned mission.
Harper inherited the redeployment of Canada’s troops from Kabul to Kandahar, but ever since the House narrowly approved a two-year extension to February 2009, he has taken ownership of it. With apologies to Colin Powell, while he didn’t break it, he owns it. With Quebec’s Royal 22ieme Regiment rotating in as the relief this summer, it could break him if casualties mount again to 2006 levels.
And after years of Canada playing both sides of the Middle East street, there is certainly moral clarity in Harper’s unequivocal support of Israel. He sees no moral equivalency between the Israelis and Hamas or Hezbollah. Canada was actually the first Western country to cut off non-humanitarian aid to Hamas. And Harper’s declaration that Israel’s response to Hezbollah’s rain of rockets was measured rather than disproportionate was a departure from Canada’s customary wishy-washiness. He certainly wasn’t saying it for the votes, especially in Quebec.
Equally, on China, while Harper hasn’t quite said that human rights trump trade, he hasn’t yet learned how to strike a balance between the two. And as he discovered, the Chinese don’t get mad, they get even.
On Canada-U.S. relations, Harper got a deal on softwood lumber, and managed to disagree with the Bush administration without being disagreeable on issues like the Maher Arar case. He has also raised climate change in each of his meetings with President George W. Bush.
What can Bush do for him in the future ? Well, he could stop calling him "Steve" in public. Prime Minister would do just fine.
After a year in office, this government passes the basic test of competence. The big test of the second year will be how Harper manages another unforeseen issue - climate change, which has leapt to the top of the list of issues concerning Canadians. The challenge isn’t to take the environment off the table, but off the ballot.