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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during a post-election news conference in Calgary on May 3, 2011. (JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during a post-election news conference in Calgary on May 3, 2011. (JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

John Ibbitson

Four challenges that could keep Harper up at night Add to ...

Stephen Harper has had two pleasant weeks to contemplate his majority-government win. But the freedom to pass legislation unhindered by opposition-party vetoes comes with a price: the headaches of managing a large, restive caucus and new and powerful sources of opposition.

Consider these four challenges that face the Harper government going forward.

1. Factions

In preparing his new cabinet, which could be unveiled this week, Mr. Harper confronts all the traditional problems of balancing region, gender and new blood versus old guard. But this cabinet will be particularly difficult to construct.

First, the Quebec caucus is painfully slim. As a result, Mr. Harper may have no choice but to invite former foreign minister Maxime Bernier, that loosest of cannons, back to the table. If the Prime Minister doesn't, there will be one very disgruntled, and very vocal MP sitting behind him.

Other MPs, who held their tongue for the sake of solidarity when the government was vulnerable during the minority years, will have nothing to lose once it's clear they will never make it beyond the backbench. We'll hear grumblings about abortion, gay marriage and other so-con issues from the Christian caucus. Western MPs will feel neglected once it sinks in that there are more Conservative MPs from Ontario than from the four Western provinces combined.

And inevitably, people will stand around in bars and wonder whether Mr. Harper intends to seek a fourth mandate in 2015, and who might replace him if he doesn't.

2. The budget

Elections have a way of messing up a country's finances. During the last one, the Conservatives promised to accelerate deficit reduction while also offering Quebec compensation for a harmonized sales tax.

Jim Flaherty - if he remains finance minister - will have to take the March budget, add in these two new, conflicting priorities and produce a financial document that somehow still makes sense. That will mean significant cuts in other areas of public spending, overseen by a new Treasury Board president who will have one of the most thankless jobs in cabinet. Mr. Bernier, perhaps?

3. The Americans

A surprising amount of the government's agenda involves Canada-U.S. relations, always a delicate subject. First and foremost, the Yanks want to see a new copyright act. Canada lags behind American and other international standards in protecting digital property. Liberal and Conservative governments have been trying to pass a new act since 2005 without success, as consumers, artists, corporations and government departments war over who should be compensated for producing what.

Then there are questions of continental security and trade. Canada wants more of the latter, the Americans want a greater emphasis on the former. Arctic issues continue to simmer, as the Harper government asserts sovereignty over everything while the Americans continue to insist on right-of-passage through Arctic waters. Choosing foreign affairs, international trade and public safety ministers who work closely with each other and with the Americans will be one of Mr. Harper's most sensitive tasks. Luckily for him, the presidential election cycle is underway, so nothing concrete will happen on most files till January, 2013.

4. The premiers

The real opposition to a majority government comes from provincial capitals. If any two premiers from Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta oppose a government proposition, that proposition is in deep trouble. Right now, the premiers of the four big provinces are weak because of local circumstances, but after provincial elections this fall and next year, that will change.

Mr. Harper has mostly kept peace with the premiers by keeping out of their faces, but with new accords on health care and equalization needed by 2014, that's no longer an option. He will learn, as Jean Chrétien, Brian Mulroney and Pierre Trudeau learned, that it's the provinces, not the opposition parties, that keep a prime minister with a majority government up at night.

There are other challenges facing this administration. The biggest might be the sense of entitlement that comes with governing for a long time. The big scandal involving a lobbyist, a contract and an official who takes a vacation he shouldn't have is simply a question of when, not if.

Mr. Harper may yet come to long for the day when he could blame it all on the parties across the way.

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