As fall approaches, those of us who teach Canadian politics will be wondering more than ever how to explain the Harper government to our students. The summer census controversy was the latest example of the government's unpredictability. While the Tories have made it clear they don't care what professors think, even observers who don't see Stephen Harper as the devil incarnate have been unable to explain why the government does what it does. Here are some competing theories.
Brokerage Party: Traditionally, Canada's two major parties have been seen as brokers that try to bring different regions and views together. Some argue that the new Conservative Party is basically the same as the old Progressive Conservative Party, but that's hard to digest. Brokerage parties seek to blur distinctions and try to be all things to all people. That does not describe the Harper government.
Ideological Party: The traditional opposite of a brokerage party is an ideological party, and they rarely win power without a lot of watering down (observe NDP governments). Are the Harper Conservatives an unusual case of an ideological party in government? Perhaps, but what ideology? Even before their lavish stimulus package, the Conservatives drove up government spending in a very un-fiscal conservative way. They have made some social conservative moves, such as cutting pride Parade funding and restricting the use of development funds for abortion, but have vowed not to reopen abortion or marriage laws. Perhaps they're military hawks? They have announced billions for advanced fighter jets but have firmly held to an Afghan withdrawal. The ideology isn't consistent.
Secret Agenda: Critics counter that, if and when Stephen Harper wins a majority, the true agenda will emerge - a libertarian one that minimizes the state entirely. This is hinted at in the census affair and the stunning 2008 fall economic statement. But, again, this government keeps doing very un-libertarian things, such as expanding the prison system to lock up more small-time crooks, blowing a billion dollars on the G8/G20 summits, and praising tight government regulations for saving Canada's banking industry. A social conservative agenda is also possible. It's clear that many Conservative backbenchers aren't wild about abortion and gay rights, but it's unclear if the government really wants to roll back gains. Again, there's evidence, but it's inconsistent.
Forty Per Cent: Many Conservative insiders have a simpler explanation: They just want to move Canada in more conservative directions. No secrets here. The only thing missing is a parliamentary majority to bring some stability and speed things up. And in our electoral system, all they need is about 40 per cent of the vote to do this.
But the Tories insist on pursuing their 40 per cent the hard way. Apart from the 2008 economic statement that nearly brought down the government, the Conservatives waste tremendous political capital on the census and other issues that upset not just the usual suspects but moderate supporters and swing voters. It's one thing to anger professors over the census, but the Tories managed to provoke the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, the Canada West Foundation and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business as well. This clumsiness won't get them to 40 per cent.
Lack of Adult Supervision: This is a common lament among old Tory hands who say the government is in the hands of hyper-partisan young aides. Compare it with Ontario's Harris government, a much more disciplined team that chose its priorities carefully, avoided explosive social conservative issues, and - with occasional exceptions - projected competence and focus. But this explanation is weak as well; not only does it rely on anecdotes and more than a little nostalgia, it ignores the array of senior and experienced figures in the Harper government - many of them Harris veterans.
In the end, no one seems to have a clear explanation that makes sense of the Harper government. The one agreed attribute is that this is a stubborn government that refuses to admit mistakes or back down. Of course, no government likes to do so. But most choose their battles carefully - especially in a minority situation - and appear to follow some sort of coherent strategy, even if it's the traditional brokerage attempt to be all things to all people. Not this government. And so as a new season begins, we are likely to be baffled even more by this unique government that seems intent on breaking all existing moulds.
Jonathan Malloy is a professor of political science at Carleton University.
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