As Canada’s Conservatives prepare to gather for their annual convention at the end of June, many are no doubt reflecting on the troubled state of the Harper government. Nine years after taking the leadership, and two years after finally forming the “strong, stable, majority” government he promised, what has Stephen Harper accomplished?
To be fair, Mr. Harper has faced his share of challenges, from the global financial meltdown to the Senate expense scandal. But then, he didn’t get to be Prime Minister by being fair: He built a reputation as a conservative hard-liner on his merciless critiques of Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, even Preston Manning.
In the famous 2001 “firewall” letter, Mr. Harper and his Calgary School cohort even went after Alberta premier Ralph Klein. “Mr. Premier,” they wrote, “we acknowledge the constructive reforms that your government made in the 1990s – balancing the budget, paying down the provincial debt, privatizing government services, getting Albertans off welfare and into jobs, introducing a single-rate tax, pulling government out of the business of subsidizing business, and many other beneficial changes.”
However, they added, “no government can rest on its laurels.”
Again, to be fair, Mr. Klein had been in office for nine years when the letter was written; Mr. Harper has been in office two fewer years.
But the budget isn’t balanced, not even close. Canada’s federal debt – $481-billion when he took office – has ballooned to $612-billion. Privatizing government services? You can board a government-owned Via Rail train to Ottawa and ask him about that one. The unemployment rate, 6.4 per cent when he took office, now sits at 7.2 per cent.
A simplified single-rate tax? How about a plethora of tax credits pushing the Income Tax Act to more than 3,000 pages? Pulling government out of the business of subsidizing business? Mr. Harper kept the pork-barrelling regional handout agencies in Quebec and Atlantic Canada, and added new ones in Ontario. He bailed out GM and Chrysler, and doubled guarantees for bank mortgages, boosting the taxpayer-backed balance sheet of Canada Mortgage and Housing to over $550-billion.
Judging Mr. Harper by his own standards, he need not worry about resting on his laurels.
In 2001, he lectured Mr. Klein about defending Alberta. “It is imperative for you to take all possible political and legal measures to reduce the financial drain on Alberta caused by Canada’s tax and transfer system,” the authors wrote. But when Mr. Harper became Prime Minister, federal transfers to Quebec were $12-billion and the province was $104-billion in debt. This year, federal transfers to Quebec will top $17-billion and the province is $173-billion in debt.
Canada’s equalization program expires in 2014. As Prime Minister, Mr. Harper is finally positioned to lighten the load of transfer payments, not just on Alberta, but Ontario, British Columbia and Saskatchewan. Will he deliver on his promise?
Not according to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. “We will not reduce … transfers to provinces and territories for critical services like health care and education,” Mr. Flaherty boasted to the Commons in his most recent budget speech, as Mr. Harper beamed approvingly from the next chair. “In fact,” he continued, “funding for these important social programs will continue to rise each and every year our government is in power.”
Such transfers enable Quebec to offer university tuition to its grateful rioting students for less than half what it costs in the rest of the country. They enable Quebec to steer away from messy economic activity – oil and gas exploration, for example, a chore best left to those generous Westerners.
With Mr. Harper and Mr. Flaherty at the helm, it’s tough to fault Pauline Marois, Quebec’s separatist Premier. She says her province’s petroleum riches need to stay in the ground until Quebec finally achieves its liberation from the rest of us. “If, one day, we produce oil and gas in Quebec, why would we let half of this wealth go down the road to Ottawa?” she asks in a video posted on the Parti Québécois website.
In 2001, Mr. Harper asked what might happen “if the government in Ottawa concludes that Alberta is a soft target.” In 2013, we have the answer.
Gregory Thomas is federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.