Until a few days ago, 2013 had been a dismal year for the Conservatives. It was the proverbial annus horribilis. They faced the Senate expenses scandal, open protests from caucus members over being denied freedom of speech, a revived Liberal Party emerging from the boneyard to stunningly overtake them in popularity. To try and reset the agenda, the governing party came forward with a much-ballyhooed Throne Speech last week. It bombed.
But pay little heed. In one fine swoop following that Throne Speech, Stephen Harper has rescued the year for his government and given himself something to be remembered for other than grinding political opponents into the dirt.
Assuming it is ratified, the free-trade agreement with the European Union may well go down as the best thing the Harper government has done. We haven’t seen a full text. We have little more than our government’s glowing spin on the text. And there are so many variables in such deals that projecting outcomes is a perilous enterprise. But it is an agreement that, while not as big as Brian Mulroney’s North American free trade agreement, opens up broad new frontiers for this country. Any agreement that does that deserves saluting.
The new pathway to Europe breaks Canada out of the fortress North America bloc. Trade diversification from the U.S. has long been a goal of Canadian governments. The failures of John Diefenbaker and Pierre Trudeau to attain such ambitions didn’t hurt the country in their times, but failure this time surely would have. While still huge, the U.S. market is a declining one. A decoupling of sorts was needed and is sealed with this accord.
The agreement is also laudable in that it represents a welcome departure from the antagonistic approach of this government in so many other areas of foreign policy. Instead of acting in concert with other nations, the Harper government has been running around with its morally superior nose stuck up in the air. It spurned China for its first four or five years in power. It spurned the United Nations. It ran away from Iran and from being a player in that region by shutting down its embassy in Tehran. It displayed unseemly arrogance toward the U.S. President, saying it wouldn’t take no for an answer on the Keystone XL pipeline.
Playing the Europe card sends a different signal. As Mr. Mulroney noted, “This is not just a trade deal. This provides the sinew for a strong and thoughtful foreign policy.” A foreign policy, he interestingly added, that should embrace the United Nations.
The agreement finally lends substance to the Conservatives’ claim that they are strong economic managers. They were inept at the outset of the 2008 global economic crisis, saying no major measures of redress were necessary. Only when the opposition put a gun to their heads did they adopt a stimulus plan. They have unimaginatively plodded along since that time with the country’s resource base and strong financial infrastructure inherited from previous governments putting it in a superior position to ride out the global storm less painfully than others.
But the accord with Europe has a visionary stamp. It may take a while for a political payoff to come because it doesn’t take effect for a couple of years. But it leaves the opposition parties much weakened in any bid to cast themselves as the better alternative for charting the country’s economic course. The opportunity they do have, as per the Senate scandal and so many other examples of abuse of power, is in making the case that this is a politically corrupt government. The morality issue’s potential impact is not to be underestimated. It is the chief reason why the Liberals are in first place today.
But the European agreement gives the Conservatives strength and credibility they didn’t have before. This isn’t an incremental measure. This isn’t the type of cynical vote-targeting we’ve become so used to from this Prime Minister. This is in a higher sphere. It is nation-building governance.