A cabinet shuffle is evidently imminent in Ottawa. Two years having passed since the election of 2011, it is now time for the Conservative government to rearticulate what it has to offer the people, and why it deserves to win the next election.
The Conservatives had, so to speak, a good Great Recession. Though at first slow to acknowledge the gravity of the crisis, they then rose to the challenge, applying a major fiscal stimulus to the economy, and in due course withdrew it, heading toward a restored fiscal balance – and of course Canada's pre-existing small-c conservative financial system helped. (The earlier, populist reduction of the GST by two percentage points did not help, however.)
Now, the recession is over, and Canada's economic growth is slow but fairly steady. The question invites itself: What do the Conservatives have to offer the country henceforth?
There is no sense of inevitability, of a perennially dominant party, as has been the case in some eras of Canadian history.
An Ipsos Reid survey on federal politics, released on Wednesday, titled At the Midpoint, shows the public's ambivalence. Among the more curious findings is one that suggests that Canadians believe that there is an inverse proportion between competence and honesty. Of the three major parties, the Conservatives are held to be the most competent and the least honest; with the NDP, it is the other way around. As usual the Liberals are somewhere in-between. On the face of it, greater competence is likely to attract the voters, but if the Conservatives drift on in their current direction, a desire for a change may yet prevail.
The present lead in the polls of Justin Trudeau and the Liberals, though not insignificant, could easily evaporate. Mr. Trudeau's amiable boyishness is not a quality that most citizens look for in a leader; he needs to persuade people that he would be a steady and resourceful pilot of the ship of state. Thomas Mulcair of the NDP projects an opposite image, unpleasantly brusque but strong; though he has moved his party somewhat toward the centre, it is still the NDP, not the Canadian equivalent of Tony Blair's moderate New Labour.
The Conservatives do not need to revise their essential principles in the next couple of years; it is their habits and demeanour that could be improved.
They would benefit from being less passive-aggressive, less controlling. For example, a greater degree of co-operative federalism would be welcome, in a quite literal sense (not particularly what that phrase meant in the 1960s). The federal government could usefully interact more with the Council of the Federation. Likewise, in this year's federal budget, Ottawa could have been more accommodating of the provinces in the matter of employment training, which after all belongs to the provincial jurisdiction of education, under the Constitution Act, 1867.
More broadly, the Harper government has not sufficiently engaged with all the major constituencies of Canadian society. Left-wingers may believe that it is advancing the interests of big business, but many of the CEOs of major corporations do not find this government at all easy to communicate with. The scientific community could be listened to more attentively, too. And, quite aside from their well-founded desire for a leaner public service, the Conservatives have a certain lack of respect for the federal bureaucracy, which, for all its limitations, is a rich source of knowledge and experience. A renewed Conservative government would be more accessible, outward-looking and forthcoming.
Some of the better aspects of the Conservatives' Reform Party heritage – not its resentful side – could be revived, to re-energize parliamentary government and increase accountability and transparency.
Backbenchers should of course not be in control, but they should be given greater leeway to express some of their views; the leadership is needlessly worried that a few MPs' cranky or eccentric ideas will be attributed to the whole Conservative cabinet and party. And the next parliamentary budget officer – an office created by the Conservatives themselves – should not be treated as an opponent.
The practice of omnibus bills, which make serious parliamentary scrutiny impracticable, should end. Many pieces of legislation have been needless treated as if they flowed from the budget, when they are not truly fiscal measures.
Most of the goals of the Conservative government are accepted by most of the Canadian public. Greater innovation should be encouraged; export markets should be diversified from the United States, but access of Canadian oil and gas to the U.S. – through the Keystone pipeline and other routes – should be assured. The Canadian economy as a whole should be less dependent on natural resources. Of course, Canada is not a planned economy, but governments can encourage and facilitate in manifold ways.
Consequently, fatigue with the Conservatives, after two minority governments and one majority, is not inevitable. It is to be hoped that the cabinet shuffle, expected next week, will help refresh the government, make it more open-minded and forthright – and turn the 2015 election into a serious, animated contest among parties that truly deserve the voters' consideration.