Harper's competent, but he's weak on the 'vision thing'

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Monday, January 24, 2011

Here's today's quiz: Name the five priorities that Stephen Harper ran on in the 2006 election.

The answer: Cutting the GST from seven per cent to five per cent; daycare cheques of $100 per month; a federal accountability act; a crackdown on crime; and a health-care guarantee.

The first four promises have been kept. Check, check, check, check. The last -the health-care guarantee -remains a work in progress. Waiting times for elective surgery remain a huge issue in Canada's health-care system and you still can't, as the health-care guarantee stipulates, go outside your province or even the system if a minimum wait time is exceeded.

In the many five-year-anniversary appraisals of Harper's time in office, there has been hardly any mention of the campaign platform that got him there. But in terms of the promises he made in the election of Jan. 23, 2006, Harper can pretty much claim he has done what he said he would.

Cutting the GST was obviously good politics, if not necessarily good policy. But the GST cut, and the daycare cheques, allowed Harper to connect with voters as consumers, and were the two main reasons he won in English-speaking Canada. In Quebec, it was also his promise of "open federalism" that enabled his breakthrough of 10 seats.

Apart from the five priorities, the principal achievement of the Harper government has been navigating the economy through the dangerous shoals of the Great Recession to the safe harbour of recovery. No other G7 country has come through the downturn in such good shape. Canada has the lowest deficit and debt rates, its financial-services system is the best in the world, and the economy has gained back all the jobs lost in the recession and then some.

There are other important files, notably the auto bailout and the Haitian relief effort, in which the government has passed the critical test of competence. Bailing out GM and Chrysler might have been the best of bad choices, but events have proven it was the right thing to do. Without Ottawa and Ontario's equity stake in the companies, they would have left Canada. As it sells off its shares in GM, Ottawa might actually get its $10 billion back.

But these are transactional files, and Harper is very much a transactional, rather than a transformational, prime minister. He's not a leader who is comfortable with what the first U.S. president George Bush famously called "the vision thing."

And as McLean's magazine columnist Paul Wells has written, Harper tends to get into trouble when he runs out of script. If the five priorities were the script for his first term, Harper's agenda has been event-driven in his second term since 2008.

Some of the events, such as the parliamentary crisis, the second prorogation, and the hoo-hah over the long-form census, were self-inflicted wounds. Harper's fascination with tactics has often gained him short-term partisan advantage, but with the exception of Arctic sovereignty, a longer-term strategy articulating a vision of Canada has been notably missing.

In the last 60 years, there have been only three transformational prime ministers: Lester Pearson, Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney. And at this point, Harper doesn't belong in that company.

Harper certainly doesn't benefit by comparison to Pearson, ranked the best prime minister of the previous 50 years in a 2003 study by Policy Options magazine. In two minority terms of government that lasted exactly five years, Pearson enacted a transformational agenda that included the Canadian flag, the Auto Pact, health care and the Canada and Quebec pension plans. He achieved all of this with the greatest parliamentarian of the age, John Diefenbaker, breathing down his neck.

Trudeau might have mismanaged the economy (the national debt increased 1,100 per cent on his watch), but in his fourth and last term he also patriated the constitution with the entrenched Charter of Rights, a transformational achievement. Mulroney's first years included the Canada-U. S. Free Trade Agreement, and his second term was marked by the Acid Rain Accord with the U.S.

Harper easily passes the test of competence, but he continues to struggle with a trust deficit. And he's currently out of script. Maybe it's time for the next five priorities, and time he started thinking big.

 
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