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Andrew Steele

All politics is local Add to ...

Poor Stéphane Dion.

Mocked in attack ads for his annoyed response to a leadership race jab with "Do you think it's easy to make priorities?" the former Liberal leader actually hit the nail on the head.

The single hardest thing about politics is picking the one or two, maybe three things you will push hard and complete, at the expense of the other twenty things you and your supporters want to accomplish.

Jean Chrétien was criticized endlessly for his dull and plodding regime that never seemed to reach for the stars, but that was a consequence of having his priorities - national unity, balancing the budget - and sticking to them ruthlessly.

Paul Martin was criticized endlessly for his mercurial and shambolic regime that always seemed to reach for the stars, without checking its footing first. Everything was very, very important for Martin - Africian aid, First Nations, productivity, the democratic deficit, the BRIC countries, human rights in China, etc, etc - resulting in no priorities and the Mr. Dithers label.

Stephen Harper started with a tight list of five priorities - accountability, GST cut, law and order legislation, financial assistance for parents, wait times guarantee - and actually achieved four of the five. But after that, the goals became unfocused, his regime became somewhat adrift, he ran a Seinfeld campaign about nothing but how bad the other guy is, and almost imploded his entire government with a non-priority attack on political party funding.

Now, Harper is reasserting his priorities, and in a group much tougher to roll over than the Canadian Parliament.

Gordon Brown, Barack Obama and the leaders of Europe are calling for new global priorities among the G8 countries.

Brown articulates these as:

-- More aid to banks to loosen up the credit markets.

-- Suppressing commodity prices, particularly oil, to prevent choking the green shoots of growth.

-- Renewed aid to sub-Saharan Africa

-- Major investments to combat climate change

-- Reform of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund

Rightly, Canada's federal government is being criticized for being out of step with the rest of the world. But there is reason to Harper's obstinate resistance.

Canadian banks are on solid footing for the most part, and aid to them would be both unpopular and unnecessary.

Suppressing oil prices would help Ontario and Quebec but hurt Alberta and Saskatchewan. Harper would rather not have to decide between geographic pillars of his coalition.

The Harper government moved forcefully away from African aid in favour of Latin American aid that better reflects Canadian trade patterns. The policy is highly debatable, but it's a decision the government made after due consideration and one it would be loath to reverse.

Climate change remains a major challenge for the Harper government. They want to stay within the U.S. regulatory framework, while making that framework as weak as possible. Any linkage of the relatively moderate Americans to the highly anti-climate change Europeans will pull the American consensus away from Harper's position.

Even reform of the major international financial institutions would seem a distraction to Harper, who ideologically disapproves for these mega-lenders, and where Canada has little skin in the game.

More to the point, Harper will be tested in an election in the next year on the success or failure of his first round of stimulus, not the second.

The June progress report on the economy revealed that 80 pre cent of the money budgeted had been "allocated," but the actual translation of those allocations into cranes, ditches and jobs is far, far less.

If the federal government raises its eyes from a summer of driving money out the door, the government's single priority - shovels in the ground - could be lost.

And let's not forget Canada is already running record deficits, projected to last for another five years, demanding huge program cuts and/or tax increases to return to balance. A second round of stimulus would only enflame the fiscal crisis we are in.

Harper is out of touch with the other heads of the G8 governments (or at least Britain, the United States, France and Italy), but with reasons.

Tip O'Neill, the long-time Speaker of the House and unabashed New Deal Democrat, once opined that "all politics is local." The G8 is the perfect example.

Barack Obama is trying the Roosevelt approach of "never let a good crisis go wasted" and jam everything through while he has a chance: financial reform, stimulus spending, health reform, climate change. The hopes he raised in the last election demand real evidence of change if Obama is to retain Democrat control of Congress in 2010.

Gordon Brown needs a game-changer to save the Labour Party from defeat in the next election. Pushing the tiller of the global ship far to the left is probably his last best chance to do that.

Nicolas Sarkozy is a colossal failure as President of France who desperately needs to be seen as championing the old-school French interventionism that he once campaigned to end.

Angela Merkel of Germany leads a nation still haunted by its Weimar-era hyperinflation, where hard currency and balanced books are psychologically critical. She knows the inevitable result of a second round of stimulus will be a global inflation challenge, and wants no part of it.

Just like them, Harper is guided by domestic concerns, not international ones at these meetings. And his only real domestic concern is this: if he doesn't turn the economy around with the money he's already "allocated" then it's going to be a very ugly year for Conservatives.

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