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Prime Minister Stephen Harper, seen in this Reuters photo. (Chris Wattie/Reuters/Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, seen in this Reuters photo. (Chris Wattie/Reuters/Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Globe Focus

Harper unbound: An analysis of his first year as majority PM Add to ...

To pass Tory record-holder Sir John A. Macdonald requires staying until 2025 – add another two years to top all-time leader William Lyon Mackenzie King of the Liberals. But however long he serves, by the time Mr. Harper leaves, the country will be a very different place.

It will be divided as never before between left and right, progressive and conservative, east and west, decline and growth. Politics will become – has already become – a clash of irreconcilable values, of stark choices, with the voters forced to choose.

The story so far

In the past 12 months, the Conservatives have:

  • enacted an omnibus crime bill that, among a host of other changes, increases sentences for many crimes, especially those involving drugs or sex.
  • formally withdrawn Canada from the Kyoto protocol on global warming, claiming the standards set by the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien could not be met.
  • launched investigations into what it calls “environmental and other radical groups,” some of them foreign-funded, claiming they are determined to sabotage the Conservative plan of exploiting natural resources to grow the economy. Many environmental assessments are being handed to the provinces.

As well, the March 29 budget cut program spending and reduced the size of the public service by almost 20,000 positions. The qualification age for the old age security retirement benefit will gradually rise from 65 to 67. Refugee claimants from developed countries will be given speedy assessments and in most cases sent back. Workers on unemployment insurance who don't apply for jobs currently being filled by foreign temporary workers could lose their benefits.

In December, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced a multi-year funding formula for health transfers to the provinces that largely removed Ottawa from its role in promoting a national public health-care system.

These and other changes delivered a one-two punch, greatly diminishing the federal footprint in programs Ottawa shares with the provinces, while cutting back spending in areas within its own jurisdiction.

All this has left some worried about what will be left when the Conservatives are through.

Alex Himelfarb was Clerk of the Privy Council – head of the federal bureaucracy – under Mr. Chrétien and his successor, Paul Martin. He caused a stir with a recent blog post lamenting what he calls “the dismantling of the progressive state.”

“The consequences of such a shift are never immediate or obvious; they are subtle and slow burning, inevitably hitting the most vulnerable first and hardest ... ” he wrote.

“If we want to imagine the consequences of crushing the progressive state ... we might want to have a look at the twenties and thirties, a time of massive inequality and personal vulnerability which presaged the Great Depression.”

In an interview, Mr. Himelfarb said that he believes the cuts are too deep: “We need to raise taxes to the extent necessary to protect and renew key services and meet our economic, social and environmental challenges.”

Canadians “were told that tax cuts are a free good,” he adds. “They are not.”

Mr. Himelfarb stresses that he does not believe the Conservatives are implementing some hidden agenda. “They said they were going to do this, and they did it. There is nothing hidden about it.”

He is right. It has been almost a decade since Mr. Harper laid out a strategy that has truly begun to take shape only in the past 12 months.

A plan long in the making

The Prime Minister chose this year's Davos economic conference to unveil the surprise plan to raise the retirement age.

Many observers consider that speech a virtual mandate for the conservative transformation, but it was in a much earlier address that he actually revealed his game plan.

In 2003, speaking in Toronto to Civitas, a private conservative club, the then-leader of the Canadian Alliance laid out his core beliefs and priorities as an economic and social conservative.

The victories of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan had already realized much of the economic-conservative agenda, Mr. Harper said, although “we do need deeper and broader tax cuts, further reductions in debt, further deregulation and privatization.”

But the real challenge, he maintained, lay in confronting “the social agenda of the modern left.” Conservatives must fight for “issues involving the family ... such as banning child pornography, raising the age of sexual consent, providing choice in education and strengthening the institution of marriage.”

But he cautioned that “rebalancing the conservative agenda will require careful political judgment ... issues must be chosen carefully ... real gains are inevitably incremental ... any other approach will certainly fail.”

Just as he predicted, Mr. Harper was able to move more quickly on the economic than on the social front during the minority-government years.

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