October 28, 2008
An endorsement for Harper...
The fear factor: Why Stephen Harper does not deserve to be dumped
Oct. 9th, 2008
IT IS not easy to be a successful Conservative in Canada. Perhaps it is the effect of living next to the United States. Perhaps it is because the country was founded on the collectivist principles of "peace, order, and good government" rather than the individualist "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" of its neighbour. Perhaps it is because the things that Canadians most value about their country are its publicly run health service, its European-style welfare state and its tolerance. All are associated with the Liberals, who have been the natural party of government in Canada for the past century. To cap it all, conservative ideas of deregulation and unfettered free-market capitalism have been brought into disrepute by the financial turmoil south of the border.
So perhaps it is not surprising that the hopes of Stephen Harper, Canada's Conservative prime minister, of endowing his minority government with a parliamentary majority at a general election on October 14th may end up being dashed. At first his decision to call the election looked shrewd, as the Conservatives raced to a lead of 15 percentage points in the opinion polls. Then the Wall Street panic got going. Canadians began to worry that Mr Harper was not doing enough to protect them. His poll lead has been cut by almost half. Unless he bucks the trend he could even lose power.
That would be unwarranted. It was a surprise when Mr Harper won the last election in January 2006, ending a dozen years of Liberal rule. Few pundits imagined that he would survive longer than a year. That he has governed for 32 months is a tribute to the political skills of an underestimated man. He does not offer a soaring vision of radical change. Canadians have not warmed to him: he comes over as a bloodless control freak. But he is hardworking, and a skilled parliamentary tactician. He governs a rather successful country that needs incremental improvement, not a revolution.
Mr Harper promised Canadians some modest measures. Some of these were sensible. Others, such as the cut in the sales tax, were not. But he got most of them done. He patched up Canada's relations with the United States, which had deteriorated. His decision to keep Canadian troops fighting in Afghanistan was unpopular, but he was careful to ensure that it was backed by leading Liberals. He has increased defence spending, which shows realism in a country that lays claim to a large chunk of the disputed Arctic.
Mr Harper's political home is in the west, in oil-rich Alberta where they like their politicians in the carnivorous mould of Sarah Palin. In office he has tried to woo eastern Canada, dropping his previous opposition to abortion and gay marriage, and recognising French-speaking Quebec as a "nation within a united Canada". But his inner oilman has won out when it comes to the environment, an important issue in a country that is both a heavy carbon-emitter and especially vulnerable to climate change. Stéphane Dion, the Liberal leader, bravely proposes a carbon tax, which he claims would be revenue-neutral. Simply to rubbish this as a "crazy" idea that would "screw everybody", as Mr Harper has done, shows a disappointing lack of leadership, and is grounds enough to deny the Conservatives a majority. In fact another minority Conservative government would not be a bad result for Canada: neither of the main party leaders has done enough to persuade Canadians that they deserve untrammelled power.
If the voters go further and eject Mr Harper, that, sadly, will not be because they have been convinced by the cerebral Mr Dion's worthy carbon tax. It will be because the opposition - a gang of four, comprising the socialist New Democrats, the separatist Bloc Québécois and the rising Green Party as well as the Liberals - has succeeded in panicking the voters on the economy (see article). And yet, in a sinking world, Canada is something of a cork. Its well-regulated banks are solid. Growth has slowed but not stopped. The big worry is the fear that an American recession will drag Canada down with it.
Mr Harper says, rightly enough, that his government has taken prudent measures to help Canada weather a storm it cannot duck: he has offered tax cuts and selective aid to help vulnerable manufacturing towns. But it is his seeming non-reaction to what is so far a non-crisis that looks likely to deny him the majority he was seeking, and could even let in the opposition. In what is the first credit-crunch election in a big Western country, Mr Harper's ejection would set a dispiriting precedent that panic plays better politically than prudence.
Copyright 2008 - The Economist