What’s Stephen Harper’s Next Move?

HarperThe Canadian Parliament resumes sitting today as Prime Minister Stephen Harper returns from his state visit to Israel.

Reaction to Harper’s trip to Israel has been mixed. Many commentators have noted our Prime Minister’s refusal to publicly criticize any of the Israeli government’s policies even though Canada’s official position is that the new settlements being built in Palestinian territories are illegal. Others have publicly lamented the loss of Canada’s role as an impartial broker in Middle Eastern affairs.

With Parliament resuming the focus will now return to Canadian domestic issues. The ongoing Senate scandal will be high on the list of issues to be dealt with. So also will be safety and environmental issues surrounding the increasing transport of oil by rail and pipeline.

Economic issues are bound to come to the fore as well, with the Finance Minister rumored to have a new budget ready for release sometime in February. Jobs and employment figures will certainly be on the table, as will the future of Canada’s Health Care system with the current Federal-Provincial Health Accord expiring next year.

Canada_votesmallThe Conservative government will no doubt be talking up its accomplishments as it positions itself for the upcoming 2015 federal election. Next month marks the beginning of the ninth year of the Harper government’s rule, an exceptionally long time for Conservative rule in Canadian politics. The only previous Conservative governments in the last half-century were under John Diefenbaker (1957-63), Joe Clark (1974-79) and Brian Mulroney (1984-93).

Harper’s first two terms as Prime Minister were as head of a minority government. He won a majority in the 2011 election, but with only 39% of the popular vote thanks to Canada’s multi-party system. A poll conducted last November showed only 29% of Canadians favoring the Harper Conservatives. One cannot help but think of Brian Mulroney’s disastrous final election bid in 1993 that saw the Conservatives suffering the worst defeat ever for a federal governing party.

Stephen Harper’s policies since becoming Prime Minister have been driven more by ideology than by practicality. He represents the most conservative faction of the Conservative Party (his roots are in the Alberta based Reform Party), and his policies have been strongly criticized by former Conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark.

NCC logoBefore becoming leader of the Canadian Alliance Party (the precursor to the Conservative Party of Canada), Harper served from 1998 to 2002 as president of the National Citizens Coalition, a conservative think tank which has actively campaigned against the Canada Health Act, the Canadian Wheat Board, closed-shop unions, the mandatory long-form census, and electoral laws that limit third-party spending. It has promoted increased privatization, tax cuts and cuts to government spending.

Since becoming Prime Minister, Stephen Harper has worked steadily to accomplish many of the goals promoted by the NCC. In 2011 the Conservative government announced that the long-form census questionnaire would no longer be mandatory. In October 2011 the Harper Conservatives introduced legislation to scrap the Canadian Firearms Registry; it was passed in February 2012. In August 2012 the Conservative government ended the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly on wheat and barley purchases. Most recently, Bill C-377, which would place increased restrictions on labour organizations, has been reinstated in its original form in the current session of Parliament after being softened through amendments by the Senate in the previous session.

Health Council of CanadaEven more serious are the changes envisioned by Harper for Canada’s system of health care. The Harper government has announced that it will stop funding the Health Council of Canada which coordinates national approaches to Canada’s provincially operated health systems. The Health Council basically provides the ‘glue’ that holds the nation’s health care system together. According to a report in the Toronto Star,

The vacuum in federal leadership will fragment the health care system into 14 separate systems operating independently from each other. This fragmentation undermines the core principles of the Canada Health Act, especially comprehensive coverage and portability between provinces and territories.

Lack of federal coordination and guardianship means that more and more Canadians will lack access to comparable health services in primary care, prescription drugs, home care, rehabilitation and longer-term care.

This latest move follows other actions taken to undermine Canada’s national health care system.

First the Harper government derailed the national pharmaceutical strategy contained in the 2004 Health Accord. … Then the Harper government unilaterally announced major cuts to federal transfer payments for health as well as fundamental changes to equalization payments. The cumulative effect will be to take more than $60 billion out of health transfers and equalization payments in the decade following 2014. … Now the Harper government is saying when the 2004 Health Accord expires next year, it will not be renewed.

EI ProtestLast month the Toronto Star provided an extensive listing of other programs that are being targeted by the Harper Conservatives. It reports that since taking power eight years ago, “the federal Conservatives have chipped away at programs that helped define the compassionate, caring Canada built over the course of several generations.” In particular, “Social programs long valued by Canadians are in the Conservatives’ crosshairs.”

Federal health-care spending is to be reined in. Canadians in future will have to work two years longer before receiving old age security — a measure Harper said was meant to address Canadians’ disproportionate focus on “our services and entitlements.”

And at a time when 1.3 million are without jobs, the federal government has toughened the criteria that employment insurance recipients must meet to hang on to their benefits. In all, only 37 per cent of jobless Canadians are eligible for EI benefits.

The Star reports that

Dozens of groups dedicated to improving human rights or the wellbeing of the most vulnerable citizens have also seen their funding reduced or eliminated as Ottawa redraws its priorities and budget allocations.

At least 10 aboriginal organizations and more than a dozen environmental groups, including the Experimental Lakes Area research site and the Hazardous Materials Information Review Commission, were hit. Groups working on child care, rights advocates, health-care researchers, numerous immigrant support organizations and women’s groups … received less support from Ottawa.

These moves have been going on since the Conservatives formed their first minority government in 2006. That year, having inherited a $13 billion budget surplus, the Conservatives still eliminated $1 billion in spending.

Gone were the Court Challenges Program, which had funded legal actions by gays and rights activists, and the Law Commission of Canada, a respected federal law reform agency. At the same time, the Conservatives took aim at Status of Women Canada, closing regional offices and barring the federal organization from funding women’s groups involved in advocacy and research. Also among Harper’s first moves was cancellation of the $5-billion, five-year national child care program set up by the Liberals.

But, the 2012 budget, announced once the Conservatives finally won a majority government, revealed the broader scope of Harper’s agenda.

[It] cut the Canadian International Development Agency’s budget by $319 million; trimmed spending in the Aboriginal Affairs Department by $165 million and reduced Environment Canada’s budget by $88 million. It also scrapped the independent National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy … .

The budget legislation overhauled environmental protections established over many years, weakened equal pay rules meant to protect women, aboriginals and others working for federal government contractors, and launched a crackdown on charities, including environmental groups, suspected of doing too much political advocacy.

But it was changes to the EI system that sparked some of the angriest responses to the Conservative agenda. The new rules require laid-off workers to take jobs they might previously have considered unsuitable, possibly with up to 30 per cent less pay. If not, they could lose their EI benefits.

Stephen Harper’s conservative agenda for Canada shows close parallels to the regressive policies advocated by conservative Republicans in the United States. But these moves are not broadly supported by the Canadian public.

The vast majority of Canadians want their national health care system to be preserved. They want environmental regulations to be rigorously enforced. They want the rights of aboriginals, women and minorities to be protected. And they want the elderly, the poor, and the unemployed to receive adequate support.

Stephen Harper has been steadily dismantling Canada’s social contract ever since his party took power. He is causing irreparable damage to “the compassionate caring Canada built over the course of generations.” We need to make this his last year to govern.

It’s time for Canadians to show Stephen Harper the door.

Stephen Harperphoto credits: Chris Wattie/Reuters; Adrian Wyld/CP