Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Stephen Harper: Campaigning or Changing?

Over at the creatively-titled "peace, order, and good government", comes this take on Stephen Harper:

From Chantal Hébert's column in today's Toronto Star:

But almost one month into the election campaign, the evidence is that the past 17 months have also had a profound transformational impact on Canadian politics.

Start with the Conservatives. Their campaign should put to rest the notion that the merger of the right was little more than an Alliance takeover of the former Progressive Conservative party.

Not even close. They can say anything they like while it's just campaigning. The proof that they themselves believe it would lie in the way they govern, not in what they tell us while they're trying to win votes. In order to find out, we'd have to give them the chance to prove they mean it.

Personally I remain sceptical. Harper's transformation from his stated views of just a few years ago is too abrupt. See Tim's post on this site from just a few days ago.
One of the odder aspects of Canadian politics that I've noted before is that unlike, say, the United States, you really don't want to look too right-wing or you'll lose most of the country. That doesn't mean that you can't be right wing in truth, but that you shouldn't appear as such.

This is the main reason why the Liberal party has been so controversial. They have a tendency to "campaign left and govern right" that consistently wins elections, but frustrates both the left, who don't see their favored policies enacted; and the right, who are treated as anathema during elections. Still, everybody at this point knows how this works, and undermining it by somehow creating a Liberal-NDP coalition is a popular concept among both voters and the liberal literati. Unfortunately, aside from the poorly implemented idea of "strategic voting", Canada's electoral system makes that difficult-at-best.

This has culminated in the government of Paul Martin, but with somewhat of a difference. Martin's centre-right positions during his tenure as finance minister and leadership candidate (where he had to distinguish himself from other liberals, including Jean Chretien's hand-picked successor, John Manley) have given way to centre-left positions on, if not the majority of issues, enough to show a significant change from what he was promising back before he was leader. This is at the core of the "Mr. Dithers" charge- he cannot remain consistent with his old positions, his somewhat conservative advisors' beliefs, and what (at least appears to be) his relatively liberal attitude as PM, so has moved back and forth between them in order to keep everybody happy.

This has made him unpopular in certain circles, particularly opinion journalists, but at least it kept Canada from openly supporting the missile defense boondoggle. (This is important: what the United States needs from Canada is symbolic support, not financial or military support. Canada openly defying the US on issues takes away from any rhetoric of consensus that the United States can bring to bear: if even Canada doesn't support something, then why the hell should anybody else?)

The side-effect of these two effects, though, is the weird perceptions that are out there about Stephen Harper. The "run left, govern right" trick is well known, and there's little reason to believe that the Conservatives won't do the exact same thing. Stephen Harper has every reason in the world to make himself and his party look more moderate than they really are, and even the most cursory examination of his record and his campaign promises would, normally, set off alarm bells.

Yet, if one looks at Paul Martin, one does see a candidate who has changed. Whether it is base political calculation, a change of heart, or perhaps even a movement back to his own true beliefs now that he is no longer minding the books or engaged in his long run for the liberal leadership, he's not making the policies that people expected the Paul Martin of old to make. If Martin changed, then logically Harper can change, right?

And therein lies the problem: Harper is a horse of a different colour. He is, first and foremost, something that Canadians don't usually have to deal with: a libertarian. I don't believe he is truly a social conservative, although he has had to work with them (like the more libertarian Republicans in the US) in order to achieve power, but I know that he's a fairly doctrinaire libertarian when it comes to social programs, the role of government, and the usefulness of a social safety net.

This explains the attacks on "corporate welfare",for example. Corporate stalking horses like your typical Republican (or, indeed, too many Liberals) don't dare touch these programs, but Harper ran on promises of eliminating them during the last elections. These are the promises of a libertarian, not a social conservative.

If you look at the Hebert article, you'll see that the positions that they're willing to jettison are all socially conservative ones-and to be honest, Hebert is reaching when she describes the new positions as "progressive in the first place. The ones that actually near and dear to Harper remain solidly in place.

So, has Harper actually changed? I agree with POGGE- there's little reason to believe that a man's political positions can change so much in 2 or so years, and every reason to believe that he's just playing the same old positioning game.

(Which, of course, gets back to the opinion makers: they seem to be of the belief that the best thing for Canada would be for the Liberals to "be out in the wilderness" for a while, and then come back as a better, meaner, leaner party. I personally think this is nonsense, and will engage the question later.. but a significant component of this belief is that Harper wouldn't be too bad, so it's fine for the Liberals to lose. The problem is that as far as I can see, yes, Harper really would be that bad. No matter how much they dislike Paul Martin and his supporters, they can't simply wish Harper's libertarianism away.)

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