A wise mind recently observed that the federal cabinet today is very different from six years ago, and this is telling.
In Stephen Harper’s first cabinet, a rookie prime minister who had never run anything of any significance relied on powerful cabinet ministers in key portfolios: Stockwell Day at Public Safety, David Emerson at International Trade, Jim Flaherty at Finance, Chuck Strahl at Agriculture and Jim Prentice at Indian and Northern Affairs.
Apart from Mr. Flaherty, they’re all gone now. Mr. Harper’s critics are correct when they accuse him of running virtually a one-man government.
But it’s not easy. Mr. Harper is the hardest-working prime minister in living memory. Those who have watched him say he reads everything; he has a better grasp of the files than most of the ministers responsible for them. He involves himself intimately in the budget; Mr. Flaherty is already one of Canada’s longest-serving finance ministers, but he is far from sovereign in his portfolio.
The Prime Minister has gone from being an inexperienced newcomer in foreign affairs to one of the developed world’s longest-serving heads of government. He takes a personal interest in aboriginal affairs issues, in natural resources, in trade, in – well, you name it.
In short, Mr. Harper exercises near-total control over his government because it’s in his nature and because he can.
He uses this power to two ends. The first is to entrench the Conservative Party as a political institution. The second is to make Canada a fundamentally more conservative place.
After John A. Macdonald and before Stephen Harper, every Conservative prime minister either met defeat or bequeathed defeat to his successor. Each defeat left the party – an ad hoc and volatile coalition of Prairie farmers, Quebec nationalists and Ontarians temporarily fed up with endless Liberal governments – in a shambles.
Mr. Harper’s goal is to cement a new, stable coalition of Westerners and suburban Ontario voters around fundamental conservative principles: sound finances, free trade, safe streets, and an alliance-based foreign policy.
He is using that coalition to make conservative values Canadian values. He will stay in power as long as it takes to achieve that goal. The only way to stop him will be to defeat him.
Mr. Harper’s critics and political opponents fail to grasp that they are confronting the most transformative prime minister since Pierre Trudeau. He aims to remake Canada in his political image. If progressive forces fail to stop him in the next election, they risk decades in the wilderness: nursing their grievances, grabbing power every now and then, but not for long and always with a bad ending. Just as it once was for the Conservatives.
But how is Mr. Harper to be stopped? There is no possibility that the NDP and the Liberals will merge before the next election. Their only hope is to win enough combined seats to reduce the Conservatives to a minority after the 2015 vote. Then, just as Mr. Harper warned in 2011, they can defeat his government on its Throne Speech and the second-place party – which will almost certainly be the NDP – could take power, supported by the third party.
Success for the opposition hinges on winning a dozen seats in suburban ridings around Toronto, which is where elections are won or lost. It hinges on shaking the confidence of suburban middle-class Ontario voters in the Harper government’s economic credentials. For those who want to see the end of Mr. Harper, nothing else should matter but those voters. Nothing else.
Yet both parties continue to treat economic issues as an afterthought. Neither party has a coherent plan for growth and job security. Both obsess on the environment, on health care and education – which are provincial responsibilities – on social equity.
Neither party feels the concerns of suburban middle-class Ontario voters in their bones. Mr. Harper does.
Until that changes, this Prime Minister will just go on and on, and Canadians will become used to being a more conservative people.