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Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses a session at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, January 26, 2012. (CHRISTIAN HARTMANN/REUTERS/CHRISTIAN HARTMANN/REUTERS)
Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses a session at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, January 26, 2012. (CHRISTIAN HARTMANN/REUTERS/CHRISTIAN HARTMANN/REUTERS)

Harper's Davos speech puts Canada on the path to substantive politics Add to ...

For much of Stephen Harper’s time in office, his critics have charged that almost every move he made was calculated to win short-term electoral advantage. To some, he looked like a man without a long-term plan, the exact opposite of what they had expected.

With his speech in Davos, PMSH 2.0 has emerged. His declaration that Canada needs to overhaul its pension approach is clearly not borne of a zeal to win more votes. No, this is one of those things that – in theory anyway– people say they want politicians to do. Take a tough issue, find a solution you believe in and press ahead, make your case. The PM is putting political capital on the line for ideas he believes in. He undoubtedly knows there is more political risk than reward in what he is doing.

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The substance that Mr. Harper proposes will be debated at length as details emerge; my comments are only about political communications.

Mr. Harper's overarching message was that the developed world has been living high on the hog, is out of shape and needs to go to boot camp. And not just a two-week boot camp, more like a 20-year one. The assertion that we have become complacent and take prosperity for granted may have a ring of truth for many people. They might agree that we need to improve our economic fitness. But they may be thinking about walking a bit more and eating a bit less – not about years of endurance and making do. There’s a reason why fitness infomercials spend so much time telling us that making progress will be easier than we think: it’s what makes us pick up the phone.

The Davos speech included a few passages that might make the average Canadian feel proud of what has been built in this country. But not many. There was a fair bit of “every silver lining has a dark cloud,” and Mr. Harper draws more on the fear of going over a cliff than the promise of reaching new heights. It’s often true that unless people are fearful of the consequences of doing nothing, nothing can change. But getting people to accept tough change in a democracy often requires more than explaining why not doing so will be awful. Attention spans are getting shorter, especially for bad news. Finding the right blend of worry and optimism is tricky, but essential.

In the hands of his opponents, the PM's pitch can be recast to sound like: things are pretty good in Canada, but the rest of the world has made a bunch of mistakes, and now Canadians are not going to be able to retire as early or as comfortably as they had dreamed. To say this is politically vulnerable would be an understatement. The Maginot line had a better chance of holding back its enemies.

If they are going to win this debate (not just pass a law sometime during this term), the Conservatives will likely need to paint a brighter picture of the future. Canadians may need to see the “after” shot: what our life looks like when boot camp is over. The Davos speech more or less described success as survival.

Finally, it’s risky to talk about changing pension entitlements without talking about protection and care for the most vulnerable. Many Canadians have come to expect they will be on their own when it comes to planning for their retirement. But the instinct to want to protect our poorer older citizens remains very powerful in Canada. It’s easy to imagine centre and left voters coalescing around an alternative approach that is almost as fiscally cautious, but imbued with the desire to ensure our older citizens live in dignity.

Many will take issue with lots of the ideas in Mr. Harper’s speech in Davos. But after years of wishing that Canadian politics would be about important issues, even those who disagree with him should welcome the fact that he is laying out a substantive path, with a focus on the long term, not next month’s poll. And that we are launched into a debate that will challenge our political leaders to make their best case, on subjects that matter.

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