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lawrence martin

Change, anyone? How about one of the most comprehensive and consequential policy rollouts this country has seen in a long time.

The NDP leadership race and various scandals, imagined or real, have been capturing headlines. But after years of hesitation, Stephen Harper's government is putting forward an agenda that, if implemented, could amount to a conservative watershed.

If there's a theme, it's market efficiency. If there's a target, it's some of the country's long-standing sacred cows. The transformation, some of which will be outlined in Thursday's budget, will incense social democrats but find big favour on the right.

Start with the health-care system. Mr. Harper and company have outlined plans for funding changes that will allow provinces to spend federal cash as they like, no strings attached. If provinces wish to go the privatization route, they'll be free to do so.

Then there's Old Age Security, a planned overhaul aimed at making the system more sustainable over the long term. The reforms are reportedly going to move the age of eligibility from 65 to 67.

Also in the works is a bold, market-driven reshaping of trade policy. It entails a pronounced move away from the "all eggs in one U.S. basket" approach to a courting of free trade everywhere. There's already been the dismantling of the age-old Wheat Board. And speaking of sacred cows, there's serious talk of bringing an end to the supply-management system that shields farmers from foreign imports on eggs and dairy products.

Regarding immigration, on the table is what Jason Kenney calls "transformational change": a streamlining of the system that's meant to blast away the backlog and allow provinces to cherry-pick newcomers, with the intent of bringing skilled professionals to the country instead of freeloaders.

How about resource development, which has traditionally contended with environment protection? A winner has been declared and it isn't the tree huggers. It's full speed ahead for pipelines and resource exploitation at the expense of green priorities. This week's budget is expected to further weaken environmental assessment laws and reduce fish habitat protection.

On the big bloated bureaucracy, the new Tory course will see substantial cuts. But Mr. Harper's team is also touting a culture shift aimed at turning bureaucrats from spending enablers into cost containers. This change, bizarrely enough, is being ushered in by Tony Clement, he of G8 spending boondoggle fame. Thursday's budget, with its deficit reduction plan, will also see the Conservatives start to get serious about smaller government.

In the area of innovation and research and development, a reform is likely to see a shakeup of the 96-year-old National Research Council. Ottawa's $3.5-billion Scientific Research and Experimental Development program is also slated for an overhaul aimed at a more efficient distribution of incentives.

Another former untouchable that could be targeted is the Atlantic fishery. Conservatives are talking about a move toward a more market-based approach that weans the system off unemployment insurance dependency.

As part of the big shift, we've already seen the hawkish casting of foreign policy, the demise of the gun registry and the "lock 'em up" hard line on crime.

Through years of minority government, the Conservatives moved cautiously on policy, the politics of survival. Remember the first Harper government and its much-touted five priorities: accountability legislation, a reduction in health-care waiting times, the GST cut, a cash handout instead of national daycare, and some anti-crime measures. Compared with today, it was anemic stuff.

The big right turn coincides with the advent of Thomas Mulcair as leader of the NDP. Many in his party, fearing that the Conservatives are grabbing the country by the lapels, will want him to assume the role of defender of the old Canada. The presumption is that the people want the old Canada.