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Harper v. Mulroney Add to ...

One of the more popular games in Conservative circles of late is favourably comparing Prime Minister Stephen Harper to former prime minister Brian Mulroney on the yardstick of being a "real conservative."

But is the current incumbent really that much stronger in his record than Mulroney? Has Harper actually moved the consensus towards a conservative future more than Mulroney?

Below is a short analysis of the two Conservatives. The categories are drawn from two sources: Stephen Harper's page as Prime Minister and the Manning Institute's recent conference agenda.

Attempting to view their legacies through blue coloured glasses, the only area where Harper is clearly more successful in accomplishing a conservative agenda is in matters of security and justice.

Mulroney is the superior conservative on sovereignty, the federation, environment, foreign policy and democratic reform. The two tie on the economy and faith-based government for lack of information.

SOVEREIGNTY

Brian Mulroney responded forcefully to the intrusion of the American icebreaker Polar Sea with a significant campaign to strengthen Canada's sovereignty in the far North. His relationship with Reagan allowed Mulroney to help the U.S. president understand the need for Canada to govern its own territory. As Stephen Harper acknowledged in a 2006 speech, "In the 1980s, the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney won recognition of our Arctic possessions under International Law."

Harper's own accomplishments more or less simply build on this key legal and political accomplishment of his predecessor.

Point to the Quebecker.

ECONOMY

This is a more difficult category to measure because of its scope. Should the metric be average unemployment rate, or debt to GDP ratio, or new business creation?

Conservative academic Tom Velk of McGill used an interesting approach.

Velk's measurement is an advanced version of the misery index, taking what was traditionally a sum of the inflation and unemployment rates and expanding it greatly.

The analysis - undertaken during the Chrétien years - showed Mr. Mulroney with the highest economic performance of any post-war prime minister.

Stephen Harper's current standing compares to Mulroney's quite well, but is heading south fast.

Open-minded conservatives, like this guy, find it tough to say the recent budget will make things better. In fact, we are likely to see both unemployment and inflation at very high rates for the next few years.

I'm calling this one a tie, simply because the current economic situation makes it impossible to measure Mr. Harper on the past alone. 

FEDERATION

Judging from Mr. Harper's website, the metric of "The Federation" is Senate reform.

Mulroney risked big on this file and lost. But the risks he took would have instituted core Conservative policy like the creation of a Triple-E Senate. In fact, Mulroney is responsible for the elevation of the first elected Senator, Stan Waters.

In contrast, Stephen Harper spent a lifetime working on Senate reform, but in office responded to the challenges of government by reverting to past practices of an appointed partisan Senate.

While Harper has the better conservative rhetoric, Mulroney gets the point for actually attempting a massive Senate reform package and getting it inches from passage.

SECURITY

The Harper government undoubtedly places more emphasis on conservative justice measures than Mulroney did.

But Mulroney does have a solid record on security, probably as "conservative" as a PM could achieve given both the temper of the times and the need to maintain seats in Quebec.

Mulroney allowed a full and frank open vote on the restoration of the death penalty in 1987, whereas the Harper government only moved to end clemency appeals by Canadians facing the death penalty outside Canada.

Mulroney's record on crime includes a rape shield law, "no means no" on sexual assault, and a significant toughening of gun laws. However, these would not fit easily into a strict interpretation of "conservative."

There are also challenges with the Mulroney government's anti-terrorism standing, particularly the Air India bombing.

But overall, Harper's administration clearly falls more in line with "conservative" ambitions.

ENVIRONMENT

My favourite conservative, Theodore Roosevelt, was an ardent conservationist, and Mr. Mulroney clearly follows in TR's footsteps better than Mr. Harper.

Environmentalists call Brian Mulroney Canada's " greenest prime minister."

While Harper's achievements on the environment are not beastly, they certainly don't compare.

Another point to Mulroney.

FOREIGN POLICY

A key component of measuring a government as fulfilling conservative ambitions is a moral foreign policy where conservative values like free markets and individual liberty are championed.

Mulroney has the Free Trade Act and NAFTA on trade, an unassailable lead.

On individual liberty, Mulroney championed the end of apartheid in South Africa.

He developed a strong influence on successive American presidents, and led the nation to war in the Gulf.

Many of the Harper governments foreign policy successes, including ending the softwood lumber dispute, the mission extension on Afghanistan and extending and expanding the NORAD deal, are examples of concluding or maintaining positions in place under the previous Liberal regime. That said, Harper's strong support for Israel, boycotting of Durban II, and support for Kosovo independence do mark a successful approach to foreign policy in their own right.

However, Mulroney clearly dominates this category.

FAITH-BASED GOVERNMENT

This is an interesting category from the Manning Centre. It is difficult to discern on what measure public policy and faith can be consistently linked, especially given the political chasm just within Christianity between, say, the social gospel United Church of Canada and Manning's First Alliance Church in Calgary.

Clearly, neither Harper nor Mulroney wore their religion on their sleeve.

Harper, an evangelical Christian, is extremely quiet about his profound faith. Having been stung badly in the loss in 2004 in part over impressions of Harper as a social conservative, the PM clearly avoids any characterization of his government in that manner.

Little to no legislation produced by the current government could be characterized as faith-based. There was a free vote on same-sex marriage, although it was never designed to pass. Debates on abortion were shut down immediately.

Mulroney also kept his Catholicism in the background when tackling debates on abortion, capital punishment and euthanasia.

In fact, neither Harper nor Mulroney can be easily measured on faith-based initiatives as both so clearly keep faith at arms-length from communications, if not from decision-making.

This must be judged a tie, as neither would put forward a strong social conservative agenda in public.

DEMOCRATIC REFORM

A touchstone of Manning's Reform Party, democratic reform is not a hallmark of the Harper administration.

One is hard-pressed to find a political regime in modern Britain, Canada or the United States that matches Mr. Harper's for centralization and top-down decision making. The Bush Jr. administration in the United States was ideologically rigid, but highly delegated. R.B. Bennett's term in Canada was a one-man-band, but Bennett showed considerable intellectual flexibility.

In contrast, Mulroney was famously loose with his caucus, allowing open votes on issues from capital punishment to abortion, and engaging in free wheeling, no-holds-barred caucus meetings.

The Harper administration introduced some institutional reform items, like terms for Senators and changes to the Elections Act. But almost all of them failed to pass in the first term.

More importantly, the proof of democracy is in the living, and few would point to the Conservative Party of Canada today as a greenhouse of open debate.

 

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