It has been a year since the Conservatives won a majority government, a year in which there have been plenty of ups and downs, the latter including the robo-calls controversy and the Auditor-General’s scathing report of mismanagement and a lack of accountability on the F-35 purchase. But on most of the issues that matter, on the economy, on reining in public spending, on addressing the long-term structural challenges of Old Age Security, on immigration and on the sustainability of health-care funding, the government headed by Stephen Harper got it right.
On health care, the Conservatives did not try to overachieve, or at least overpromise: They insisted that the provinces innovate. They did not stuff them to the gills with money, because those so stuffed do not innovate. The Conservatives managed to achieve a measure of restraint while still being fair and even generous up front, allowing the 6-per-cent increases to continue each year for three more years, before moving to annual hikes that will probably settle in at between 3 and 4½ per cent. People, and provinces, don’t change unless it’s necessary to change.
Like nearly all Western nations, Canada has a long-term demographic challenge because of its low birth rate and declining ratio between those of working age and those above 65. Facing this challenge is not easy or politically rewarding. Federal income-supports for senior citizens are a key part of the social safety net. Even so, over time, the very notion of “working age” will change. By delaying Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement payments until age 67, from the current 65, in a phased-in process that will start 11 years from now and continue till 2029, the Conservatives have put everyone under 54 on notice. Demographic change is on its way like a freight train, and a wise government prepares for it.
On immigration, the government has an energetic willingness to fix long-standing problems in this politically sensitive portfolio, and address the crucial issue of newcomers’ un- and under-employment. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is altering the immigrant selection process, to focus more on younger immigrants with better language skills who have prearranged employment. Mr. Kenney is also redesigning the investor immigrant program, and changing the way foreign credentials are assessed. These measures will allow newcomers to gain employment more quickly, and ensure that Canada remains an attractive destination for the world’s most innovative and entrepreneurial people.
The federal government’s finances are among the best in the developed world, but the Canadian economy is somewhat fragile. The deficit is well on its way to a happy disappearance in 2015-2016, when pre-recession levels of spending are likely to be restored. Federal public-sector pay is now being sufficiently restrained, as was not politically feasible during the minority government years. The budget was imperfect, but did apply some tough, necessary measures.
Not all has been positive. Canada remains too reliant on natural resources and too slow in its productivity growth. The Conservatives’ policy advocates greater productivity and innovation, and they are working to unclog the border with the United States, and pursuing numerous new trade agreements, most notably with India and the European Union. Competing in the world economy is the way to become more competitive. More needs to be done, however, to revive the suffering manufacturing sector in Ontario and Quebec.
The Harper government was right to withdraw from the ineffective Kyoto Protocol, and more candid on this matter than its predecessors. Nonetheless, its passivity in not offering an alternative policy on carbon emissions may isolate Canada in the international community; Canada’s problem with the EU’s fuel quality directive proposal is unlikely to be the last of its kind. Industry is also looking to Ottawa for leadership, which is woefully lacking. The environment is a matter of importance for Canadians.
On crime, the government kept its promise to be tough, but a foolish promise kept should not be much satisfaction. It rushed through an omnibus bill that included new mandatory minimum sentences and more flexible provisions for keeping out-of-control young offenders in jail while they await trial. Enough extra cells are being built that the equivalent of four or five prisons will be added to existing federal institutions. It’s a strange policy to follow at a time of spending restraint, and falling crime – especially when the United States, with the world’s highest incarceration rate, has begun to see the error of its ways.
The Conservative government has had some major successes, but many challenges remain, and on some critical files Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has failed to provide the leadership it needs to.