I recall some years ago," Liberal MP Keith Martin was saying this week, "when Stephen Harper said he was going to change the face of Canada, that when he got through with it, you wouldn't recognize the place." The former Reform/Alliance MP went on to say that, while he didn't agree with the direction, Mr. Harper is well on his way.
Sometimes lost in the continuing uproar over the way the Prime Minister does things - i.e., with all the subtlety of Vlad the Impaler - is what he's actually done.
A Conservative PM will be ultimately judged on how far he's advanced the conservative agenda. In this context, there are things to behold.
Start with taxation. Through their long history, Liberals usually felt they could propose increased taxes without fear of a scorched-earth backlash. The prevailing wisdom was that a higher tax regime was necessary to preserve a gentler, more compassionate society than the one next door. Look now, though, and watch the Grits, even with that big deficit out there, running from the subject, afraid to even mention it. The first four years of Mr. Harper has poisoned the ground they walked on.
A Conservative staple is law and order, a crackdown on crime, moving the penal system to the right. Even though crime rates slide, the Tories trot out bill after bill aimed at filling the jails. They spurn Supreme Court rulings on Omar Khadr. They go after the gun registry. Anyone who opposes them, anyone who puts in a word for civil liberties, gets hit with the "soft on crime" tag. It's crude, but it works. The Liberals stammer.
On foreign policy, the Conservatives' aim was to turn soft power hard. They've largely succeeded, moving the country from its more traditional honest-broker role to a morality-based "us versus them" partisanship. If the Liberals object, say to Mr. Harper's one-sided policy in the Middle East, out comes the rhetorical sledgehammer. Their criticism means they're anti-Israel, maybe even anti-Semitic.
Almost everywhere you look on the starboard side of the spectrum, Team Harper is scoring. National programs such as daycare and the Kelowna Accord on native health and education have been scrapped. Multiculturalism, that old Liberal fundamental, is being curbed as limits to cultural tolerance are advocated. The country's new citizenship guide has a more conservative lean. A Conservative goal has been to take the flag from the Liberals. Their own brand of patriotism - The True North Strong and Free - is doing it.
On another long-time Tory staple, a revitalized and glorified military, it's the same. The government's big defence buildup, which began under Paul Martin, is only now set to taper off for deficit-fighting purposes. Anyone raising a dissenting voice is obliterated with the same kind of demagogic sloganeering as used on other issues. On this one, it's a shot at their patriotism: They don't support our troops.
Quietly, there is an advance on another front - decentralization, getting out of the way of big business, getting out of the way of provincial jurisdiction. Michael McBane, national co-ordinator of the Canadian Health Coalition, says a federal retreat on national health care is clearly detectable. Measures to have the provinces comply with the Canada Health Act aren't being enforced. The Health Council of Canada has had its mandate changed, Mr. McBane says, so it no longer monitors Paul Martin's health accord with the provinces. The feds' promise of a wait-times guarantee has been taken off the radar screen. The silence over the growth of private for-profit clinics is deafening and, says Mr. McBane, a national pharmaceuticals strategy has been all but abandoned.
One area in which the Conservatives lost their ideological way was their proclivity for big spending. But their new budgeting augurs a shut-off of the taps. Their consistent tax cutting, meanwhile, has resulted in a smaller revenue base that will inhibit future Liberal-styled big-spending initiatives.
Not one for fancy phrases, Mr. Harper has never articulated a vision. He just enacts one. To look at the country now - compared to the welfare-state, peacenik era of Pierre Trudeau - is to see a remarkably different coloration.
Whether or not the public likes it, right-side values are taking hold. The visionless party, philosophically at loose ends, is the Liberal one. The governing side knows where it's going and how to get there.