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Counterpoint: Harper has not shifted Canadians’ opinions

Michael Adams is president of the Environics Institute. This essay is in reply to John Ibbitson's "How Harper created a more conservative Canada"

Has Stephen Harper really taken Canada in such a conservative direction that it's unlikely to bounce back?

To move the country requires making laws, allocating government resources, manipulating symbols and shaping opinion. Mr. Harper has certainly left his mark in some of these areas. It would be surprising if someone held power for nearly a decade without doing so.

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Generally speaking, however, the values and attitudes of ordinary Canadians have not shifted notably. Mr. Harper sometimes plays to public opinion, sometimes carefully runs against it, and sometimes flouts it in areas where he won't face consequences (such as militarism and foreign policy). He navigates public attitudes astutely, but I see little evidence that he has changed them.

On crime, he has not moved public opinion. Quite the opposite: He has heeded it in a way his predecessors did not. In the past, elites (whether Liberal or Progressive Conservative) pursued evidence-based policy while the public still favoured old-fashioned punishment. When Parliament abolished the death penalty in 1976, more than three-quarters of Canadians still backed it. Mr. Harper saw this gap between public perception and how criminal justice was being handled. He didn't have to persuade Canadians that a "tougher" approach was preferable – just that he was the man to deliver it.

Similarly, on domestic security, he has not shifted attitudes so he can pursue a more aggressive agenda of surveillance and preventive detention. Canadians are alarmed by the threat of terrorism and willing to give the government a lot of latitude in keeping them safe.

This reaction troubles civil libertarians, but it is not new. During another bout of national anxiety, a Liberal prime minister was asked how far he'd go to fight the threat. "Just watch me," he replied – and Canadians cheered.

Foreign policy, another showcase issue, has also allowed a tougher stance: military action in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya; hostility to multilateralism; venerating heroic battles; refusing to champion peacekeeping; taking loud stances on conflicts abroad (Israel, Ukraine, Sri Lanka) and crowing about these "principled" positions at home.

These gestures may help to swing some ridings, but not the population at large. When it comes to foreign policy, most Canadians will allow politicians to act against their own preferences without punishing them. They have let Mr. Harper change Canada's behaviour internationally, but still value their Pearsonian, liberal-internationalist history as much as they do their forebears' valour at Vimy.

As for reducing the size and role of government, it is true that there has been no groundswell of opposition to the tax cuts, but neither has the Prime Minister trumpeted his efforts. He works subtly (sometimes using omnibus bills to reduce the profile of what he is doing) because Canadians do not want their entitlements dismantled. They are also more or less evenly split when asked whether government should be smaller, larger or stay the same size. Older voters are more likely to support status quo – and the government has been careful not to ruffle greying feathers. Nor have Liberal and NDP warnings that he would slash the welfare state come to pass. Transfers to the provinces for health and education have actually increased, and the Conservative response to the financial crisis was a massive, heavily advertised stimulus.

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Plus it's worth remembering that, despite a small-government party in power federally, political outcomes elsewhere hardly suggest that Canadians have lost all faith in public investments or public services: the election of Kathleen Wynne in Ontario, the collapse of Wildrose in Alberta, a Liberal wave on the East Coast, centrists in power in Quebec, plus a raft of high-profile progressive mayors. Mr. Harper may be the most fiscally conservative leader ever, but Canadians' relatively stable belief in the efficacy of government and their attachment to major programs such as health care and education haven't given him much leeway.

The environment may be the issue on which he and the public differ most. Indeed, for an otherwise canny and careful politician, he leads a government whose hostility to the environment is so extreme it's almost reckless. Canadians are not comfortable with the nation's inaction (and increasingly bad reputation) on climate. Six in 10 (who live outside British Columbia) say they would support a B.C.-style carbon tax – up from 42 per cent in 2008. Canadians are losing patience, and the PM's environmental obstinacy seems an obvious opening for the opposition to exploit. However, the Liberals were burned badly by Stéphane Dion's Green Shift, and the NDP fears push-back from supporters in resource-rich regions.

If the environment is where Mr. Harper trails the public the most, immigration probably finds him more progressive than Canadians at large, especially parts of his base. Is there any other right-leaning leader in the western world who would increase already high levels of immigration, embrace multiculturalism, and eschew any hint of xenophobia? Critics may object to parts of his approach (temporary foreign workers and refugees, for example), but it's hard to argue that he embodies anything like the racist nationalism seen either in Europe or even the U.S. Republican Party. On immigration and multiculturalism, he is an apt successor to Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney.

So, while the playing field has not changed fundamentally and most voters still oppose his agenda, the opposition is struggling to connect with them, and Stephen Harper remains extremely adept and hard to beat. Whatever he has done to Canada, he may well have a chance to keep doing it.

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