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Searching for clues to Harper's so-called hidden agenda

The hidden agenda: it's a phrase that Stephen Harper's political opponents have used against him for years, and one that is coming up with increasing frequency as he stumps toward his goal of a Conservative majority in the May 2 federal election.

But what's he hiding?

The assumption is that, armed with a majority, Mr. Harper would aggressively pursue a radical social agenda, highlighted by pro-gun, anti-abortion and tough-on-crime policies. Or worse, dismantle universal health care.

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But if Mr. Harper is concealing anything, it's far more likely a determination to make government a lot smaller. So, think instead of privatizing Crown corporations, deregulating some long-protected industries and squeezing costly government programs.

Pushing an economic agenda over a social agenda is consistent with Mr. Harper's former life as an economist and president of the National Citizens Coalition, where he championed causes such as dismantling the Canadian Wheat Board and targeting government waste.

Austerity is coming. That's a given.

But beyond promising to erase the budget deficit in three years, the Conservatives are being coy about what they're all about on economic policy. And they aren't campaigning hard for smaller government.

The quest for a majority has forced Mr. Harper to compromise on some traditional party values, including unfettered free trade. In a commitment designed to reassure Quebec dairy farmers, Mr. Harper renewed and reinforced a vow to defend the agriculture supply management system, now and forever. That could make progress on some future trade deals nearly impossible.

And yet if Mr. Harper's Conservatives win a majority, but lose some of their 11 Quebec seats, the prime minister might eventually feel emboldened to sacrifice protected dairy, egg and poultry producers in exchange for trade gains for other commodities, such as beef and pork.

The Conservatives took another contentious issue off the table when they promised to continue giving the provinces an annual 6-per-cent increase in transfers for health care when an existing deal expires in 2014. If they deliver the money, a Conservative government will likely have to cut much deeper elsewhere to erase the deficit as promised in three years.

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On privatization, the Conservatives might look to shed some high-profile assets. The government has had conversations with FedEx Corp. about forging closer ties with Canada Post and its profitable subsidiary, Purolator Courier.

Other Crown corporations could also prove attractive to the private sector, including a clutch of profitable (or at least self-sustaining) companies, such as the Export Development Canada, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., the Business Development Bank of Canada or the Canadian Commercial Corp.

Selling Crown assets wouldn't do much to cut the deficit. But it would allow the government to report one-time financial gains, while also claiming symbolic victories on the road to a broader agenda.

Government regulation is likely to be another target. Eliminating regulation that impedes trade with the U.S. is a key part of ongoing security and harmonization talks with the Obama administration.

In January, the Conservatives created the Red Tape Reduction Commission. The commission's website talks of slashing government red tape and compliance costs, including complaints about the Canada Revenue Agency. But there isn't much to show the for the commission's efforts so far, and there's no sign of an interim report promised for this spring.

There are other, more sweeping, deregulation projects a majority Conservative government might tackle, including a gradual dismantling of foreign-ownership rules that limit competition in telecommunications, airlines and banking.

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And on the subject of foreign controls, Industry Minister Tony Clement promised, but never delivered, a review of foreign investments rules following the government's decision to block the Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan takeover. In a majority scenario, look for Mr. Harper to reaffirm Ottawa's laissez-faire approach to foreign investment, Potash notwithstanding.

In its short-lived March budget, the Conservative government promised to find roughly $4-billion a year of savings via a sweeping review of government spending. Most experts said cuts to programs - and government workers - are probably inevitable to achieve those savings.

The Conservatives might, for example, look for savings from some major government programs, such as the Employment Insurance system or the Canada Pension Plan. The former Harper government had already proposed working with the provinces to create pooled private pension plans, rather than enhancing the CPP.

But no one really knows. And how would they? Mr. Harper has run a campaign carefully designed to promise just enough to add some key seats, without laying out a clear vision of what he'd do with a majority.

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About the Author
National Business Correspondent

Barrie McKenna is correspondent and columnist in The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau. From 1997 until 2010, he covered Washington from The Globe's bureau in the U.S. capital. During his U.S. posting, he traveled widely, filing stories from more than 30 states. Mr. McKenna has also been a frequent visitor to Japan and South Korea on reporting assignments. More

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