Figuring Out Harper

The January 2006 Federal election results in Canada unexpectedly yielded a minority Conservative Government. The ‘great moving right show’ is having yet another run. In Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canada now has the most ideologically committed neoliberal in power since Margaret Thatcher. The five priorities Harper has announced – an accountability package; a cut in the GST; a market-based childcare system; a law and order agenda centred on sentencing; and a reduction in healthcare wait times through increased delivery flexibility – all reflect these commitments. These proposals are embedded in the overall strategic priority of aligning Canada even more tightly with the US through increased overseas military commitments and further economic integration. Canada’s move into southern Afghanistan and increased troop deployment is already sketching in the new terrain. The major boost military spending, tax cuts and marketized public services proposed in the first Harper Budget on May 2 filled in more details. This constitutes the initial agenda of Harperism. It could hardly be more pressing for the Left to take some stock of what the Harper government is and might become.

The Harper Advantage

It was evident even on election night that Stephen Harper does not have the possibility of forging a stable Parliamentary majority. Neither the Liberals nor the NDP will want to underpin the government. The Liberals will not easily shed their opinion of themselves as the ‘natural governing party’; while willing to support the neoliberal government of Paul Martin, the NDP will find holding up a Harper administration too shameful (although Layton, ever-wanting to demonstrate his respectability to Canadian elites, mooted this scenario during the election and continues to give it some credence). And the BQ cannot be part of a Federal coalition without undermining its entire political rationale. Even in the compromising world of Canadian politics, some breaches of political faith are hard to envision.

As such, the immediate strategy of Harper will be to hobble together enough support in the House of Commons on an issue-by-issue basis to advance his five immediate priorities. This will give him a chance to stabilize his key political constituencies: the ruling groups across Canada in favour of deeper integration with the US; nationalist and regionalist forces seeking fiscal and policy decentralism; the anti-tax, market-oriented professional and middle classes; rural traditionalists; and both libertarian and social conservatives who, while policy opposites in several areas, will each see enough in Harper to keep their support in place. Harper will attempt in the next few years to construct a slightly wider political base, largely by adding to these constituencies, to fashion a majority government the next time around.

Since the days of Thatcher, Reagan and Mulroney, the Left has consistently underestimated the political appeal of the New Right. Still under the spell of Keynesian thinking that governments alone can stabilize capitalism and maintain ‘fair’ competition or the mechanistic Marxism forever invoking the final crisis of capitalism, the Left has also continually mocked the capacity of neoliberalism to forge a stable policy regime and restore capitalist prosperity. These errors have been fatal, and have left the impasse that is the Left today. We should be more sober on the potential of the Harper government and the advantages he has in forging a new coalition.

While bumbling with respect to the appointments of Ministers David Emerson and Michael Fortier, the Conservative cabinet ministers on the whole have either already held government posts or have extensive political experience. This will give them some capacity to gain a quick handle on the bureaucracy, to negotiate with the provinces in line with their priorities, and to push their agenda of closer ties to the US on trade and security, which the shrewd appointment of Mulroney’s old Finance Minister Michael Wilson will facilitate. They will, perhaps, even get through parliamentary controversies over gay marriage and other issues of social conservatism without irreparable political damage.

Harper has also inherited a massive budgetary surplus which for now should allow him plenty of elbow room to fulfill his promises of lowering taxes, raising military expenditures and financing his child allowance scheme. In relative terms, Canadian economic growth is expected to continue to be decent, which will also add to the fiscal room. The Harper fixation on an alleged ‘fiscal imbalance’ between levels of government will also likely involve some shifting of tax capacities to the provinces. This is all do-able in the short term, while creating the conditions for further budgetary constraint in the future as conditions change. The monetarist guru, Milton Friedman, designed this strategy to choke-off government activity quite some time ago and it continues to succeed. This was the economic basis of the May 2nd budget: begin with tax cuts and increased commercialization of government, keep programme spending below the rate of economic growth, and follow with spending cuts later as diminished fiscal capacity sets in.

As well, the Conservatives have a beach head in Quebec now and with the Liberals in such bad odour there — for years to come — there is lots of room for Conservatives to grow there. There is no reason why they could not capture both the federalist and the old ‘conservative’ nationalist vote, the next time around. This is the old Mulroney base, but it has a long history in Quebec, and Harper will attempt to work co-operatively with Premier Jean Charest, to re-form it.

Finally, the Parliamentary opposition will find ways to let Harper govern for at least 18-24 months. The Liberals are in disarray, and are slowly putting together what may well be a tumultuous leadership contest, with the historical figures that had been around since the Trudeau years now finally all gone. They will do what they have to do to either support particular measures that Harper will sharpen but that the Liberals had already brought in (such as intervention in Afghanistan, closer ties to the US, increased use of P3’s), or just abstain from votes to keep the Harper regime from falling. Who would want to resuscitate a pathetic figure like Paul Martin from the dead in the way Pierre Trudeau came back to haunt Joe Clark’s dismal administration? The NDP vote, for its part, doesn’t matter so long as Harper has the support (or abstention) of either the Liberals or the Bloc. The Bloc will also not be quick to jump the gun given their shoddy showing in the last election, when all should have gone their way. And the Bloc is likely to support any measure that devolves power to the provinces and builds stronger economic ties with the US — if only to advance its own goal of gaining greater political independence for Quebec.

Potential Obstacles

A realistic assessment of the current terrain of Canadian politics cannot shrink from facing the possibility that a militantly neoliberal government under Harper might last and piece together the fragmented regional, capitalist and conservative interests into a stable coalition. They will be running with a sympathetic national press in the Globe and Mail and National Post, as well as broadcasters in the Global and CTV chains. The new corporate militancy emerging in collective bargaining will also be in line with what Harper has identified as priorities. But there are several potential obstacles that could also emerge to dislodge the Conservatives from power.

If it is true that Harper’s cabinet has many political veterans, it is also the case that it is laced with Christian fundamentalists and pro-lifers. There are, in fact, nine publicly-stated pro-lifers among the twenty-six Cabinet Ministers, or a third of the cabinet. They include, in addition to Harper himself, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, Agriculture Minister Chuck Strahl, Justice Minister Vic Toews, Fisheries Minister Loyola Hearn, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Monte Solberg, Minister for Democratic Reform Rob Nicholson, Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day, Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn and National Revenue Minister Carol Skelton. Another pro-life MP of prominence passed over for a cabinet post, Diane Ablonczy, will be the parliamentary secretary to the Finance Minister.

Can Harper manage this bunch? They will be pushing a range of social conservative measures. This may well involve a debate and open parliamentary vote on gay marriage. The social conservatives will be set against a range of others who adhere to a more libertarian position, who at least oppose making such issues a centre-piece of political mobilization as they have become among the religious right, of all faiths, in the US. A number of Cabinet Ministers members, at least six of them by some counts, including Liberal turncoat David Emerson, do not adhere to the Conservative Party’s official policy in support of traditional marriage. Satisfying the religious fundamentalists, and other social conservatives from the Reform wing of the Conservative Party, will be an ongoing problem for Harper. The dilemma will be how to do so without destroying the possibility of building some kind of an urban base, where voters are more inclined to more liberal and egalitarian positions on these issues. At the very least, putting the socially conservative agenda forward will likely activate constituencies against Harper that were relatively quiescent in the election. This can already be seen in International Women’s Day marches in March, and in organizing around daycare.

Several other policies of the Harper government will also be divisive. Enabling provinces to reduce wait times by further privatizing healthcare, or reneging on prior child care agreements with the provinces, without generating massive popular resistance may prove difficult. The same goes for rescinding Liberal financial promises to Aboriginal peoples without creating a big backlash. But it also has to be faced that the Harper proposals here, especially the last, have a political base (not least from the seeds already sown by Liberal and NDP governments).

Another possible contradiction stems from Harper’s conviction to end corporate subsidies, an integral component of his neoliberal philosophy and the reforming of the Conservative Party. Imperial Oil, for example, fully expects the Conservatives to fulfill the prior Liberal government promises of huge subsidies before it commits to the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline. General Motors and the rest of the automobile sector have been effectively leveraging both its workers and the government for concessions. Other giant companies in the transportation sector, like Bombardier are always at the trough. And Canada is reaching a limit on its current energy infrastructure. With manufacturing being squeezed by the rising loonie and declining US growth, there will be increasing pressure for Federal government subsidies to corporations. This should give ample room for more critical perspectives on industrial policy and tax breaks to develop.

Finally, Harper is particularly vulnerable on his plans to develop closer trade, security and foreign policy ties with the US. The Conservative rhetoric in opposition was so consistently and stridently pro-Bush and pro-integration that it completely failed to acknowledge how much the Liberals had already done, especially under Martin, to tie Canada more closely into the US security and military systems. The Conservative’s strong stance on Arctic sovereignty (the US wants more Canadian military activity here in any case) is a bit of a ruse for deeper ties being forged everywhere else. But these plans will inevitably also raise the deep scepticism about the US’s imperial adventures, the problems of NAFTA that have already been exposed and fan the flames of anti-Americanism.

Fighting the Conservatives

It would be daft to underestimate the changes a Harper Conservative government may well bring to the country. Neoliberalism has been the order of the day since the last Trudeau government of the early 1980s. It was the Liberals, after all, that signed NAFTA in 1994, and just signed off on the Waco accord on behalf of Canada (however much different they might sound in the months ahead). But there are different varieties of neoliberalism. Harper and the people around him are far more market utopian, socially conservative and believers in American imperialism than has typically been the case in governing parties. Despite NAFTA and the gutting of transfer payments and unemployment insurance by the Martin Liberals, aspects of the welfare state have not been totally smashed. Harper will have few qualms about fully breaking with universality and national standards, allowing the provinces to do as they will. And clearly he will vigorously pursue deeper integration into the continental political economy in energy, defence, security and border matters.

It is quite conceivable that the Conservatives can stickhandle through the many obstacles and pursue this agenda. They have a distinct advantage in a weakened Liberal opposition party with declining credibility in all regions of the country. This will intensify the competition between them and the NDP over becoming the leading centrist party in Canada, the goal that Layton has clearly set for the NDP, and pursued in the last election with its ‘third way’ embrace of more ‘market-friendly’ and ‘law, order and security’ policies. It will also increase the number of calls, already circulating in large numbers in the mainstream media like the Toronto Star to more progressive media like, for the forging of a centre-centre alliance to block the Conservatives. Such an alliance could well block the Conservatives, but it would still leave us with neoliberalism and the all-party consensus tailing the American empire into the Middle East and Haiti, and wherever else the US ‘long war’ takes us next. The Liberals are, in any case, very far off from ever conceding the centre track to the NDP. They have a base in Bay Street that the NDP will likely never acquire. So, all the talk of an electoral coalition to stop a Harper majority will likely go nowhere.

Electoral forces are, therefore, unlikely to be much different going into the next election than they are now. The NDP under Layton will continue on with its strategy of recasting itself as a post-labour, market-friendly, urban progressive party open to all sectors. They may help with a campaign here and there, but the NDP will contribute little to the processes of reforming sustained anti-neoliberal forces and campaigns.

The election campaign vividly recorded the impasses of other social forces in the present period. As the social structures of neoliberalism have consolidated over the last two decades, unions and other social movements have been disorganized and individualized. The various strategies of a ‘politics of chaos’, ‘multitude against empire’, ‘anti-power’, ‘coalition networks’, that have defined the social justice movement since the 1980s, we can now clearly see have reflected the atomizing social processes of neoliberalism rather than challenged them. The post-modern visions of power, identity, state and organization have been eclipsed by events and been absorbed into neoliberalism.

The pivotal question for the Left in Canada is whether the social fractures that will emerge with Harper can also be used to push into new organization building and strategic experimentation. There are ample grounds for optimism here.

The unions in Canada have, for example, held up better than many other countries against the neoliberal assault. However, they are now in a period of retreat under the new militancy of employers, with both CAW and CUPE taking a range of concessions hits. Fightbacks in both unions are likely to unfold. The Harper government’s agenda should provide an opportunity to re-link struggles across the public and private sectors. A serious look at the overall structure of the Canadian union movement, with its maze of operations of each affiliate across an array of sectors, should also be put on the table. It is not an organizational form that can either lead the necessary organizing or the coming class conflicts. The Left should be strategically leading these campaigns.

Such organizing could easily provide stronger linkages to the anti-privatization campaigns that will develop as the Harper government agenda unfolds. The healthcare campaign against privatizations and P3’s, for example, is already facing new fights in Alberta. Harper’s rejection of the daycare agreements with the provinces will also limit the development of a public system. These campaigns have enormous popular resonance, and could be aided by some systematic union mobilizations in support. The Left’s leadership here can make them solidly anti-neoliberal campaigns and embed an anti-capitalist element in them.

The increased military role of Canada in the Middle East should provide another opening. Public sentiment is already largely sceptical of the troop deployment and Canada being involved in combat roles. Harper’s Conservatives, however, are likely to deepen Canadian military commitments. They will also be more willing to trade off market access for Canadian exports to the US against deeper military, security and energy integration. The costs to democratic sovereignty in Canada will be high. The anti-war movement has enormous potential to become a focal point for organizing against imperial interventions, the new security agenda, the racist biases of immigration and border security, and the deep integration project.

The Left has built up very sizeable capacities to aid in these struggles. The alternative media and cultural resources have continued to develop in Canada in thriving and innovative ways. Once Canadian Dimension stood virtually alone as independent media in Canada, now it is impossible to keep up with all the alternatives. Similarly, Marxist and critical thinking in Canada continues to develop in unexpected ways and places, firmly becoming embedded in intellectual and cultural life. The Tory philistines that once defined Canada no longer go unchallenged, and alternate ways of thinking about social organization have never been greater. The next step is to reclaim political and organizational capacities to match these developments. The coming struggles against the Conservatives could make a significant contribution here.

A version of this article appears in the May/June 2006 issue of Canadian Dimension magazine (

Cy Gonick is editor of Canadian Dimension and executive producer of Alert Radio.

Greg Albo teaches political economy at York University./p>

Leave a comment