The following open letter, forwarded to me by a friend via facebook, is written by a retired professor of political science at Wilfred Laurier University. This seems to me the most sane and rational examination of the circumstance from the conservative point of view which I have read so far – especially his remarks about how Harper’s personality is the single biggest contributor to the political impasse we’re currently in.
A LETER FROM RETIRED WLU POLITICS PROF
December 5, 2008
Numerous people have emailed, phoned, or in personal conversation asked what I thought of Canada’s current political crisis. Here, for what they are worth, are my views. They are not confidential. If anyone should wish to forward them, that’s fine with me. I claim no special insight, only great interest and many years of political research and teaching. I am sending this item to family members and friends and a few other people who may be interested. Anyone should feel free to delete what has become a lengthy analysis. You won’t hurt my feelings. Besides, I won’t know! I do, however, greatly welcome any feedback. I always benefit from other people’s ideas. I am using my academic identity because this essay is also being sent to some news media.
John H. Redekop Ph.D., D. Hum. (hon.)
Adjunct Professor, Trinity Western University
Professor Emeritus, Wilfrid Laurier University
December 4, 2008 (An early morning letter with some later editing)
Below are some personal views on the national political scene; clearly there are other interpretations. Although I am generally a supporter of the Conservative Party, but not a party member because of my media work, I shall analyze the present situation not as a person holding various conservative values but as a political scientist who has studied and taught Canadian politics for almost 40 years. My overriding intent is to be fair and balanced. Readers will decide if that goal has been achieved.
A key part of the analysis must be an evaluation of the Prime Minister; assessing both strengths and weaknesses. In my view Prime Minister Harper has been a strong Prime Minister. He is intelligent, disciplined, knowledgeable, experienced in developing policy, and good at international diplomacy although he should delegate more in this area. He knows Canada well. He is engaging and presents himself well in any situation. He speaks with conviction and considerable eloquence. With some exceptions, e.g. the appointment of Maxime Bernier, he assesses people well.
Even more importantly, Stephen Harper has achieved far-reaching and historic goals for which Canadians should be very grateful. He united the “Right” and thus gave Canada a much more balanced party spectrum. Further, when he largely settled the issue of fiscal imbalance relating to Quebec, he did what other Prime Ministers could not do . He also brought common sense to bear on the illogical and fiscally irresponsible Kelowna Accord by demanding accountability and more careful planning concerning assistance to native peoples. Very importantly, the Prime Minsiter and his ecomonic ministers developed legislation and issued regulations which ensured the stabily of our banks and the financial system generally.
We should also thank Prime Minister Harper for greatly weakening Quebec’s separatist movement when he recognized Quebec as a nation within a united Canada. (Unfortunately, his current sharp criticism of the Bloc has alienated many Quebecois and likely seriously hurt his electoral chances there.) The $40 billion reduction of the nation’s national debt is a huge achievement. In contrast to Paul Martin’s balancing the national budget by massively reducing promised transfers to the provinces, Harper and his cabinet achieved this amazing success without short-changing anyone. And we should not overlook the Harper government’s decision to treat Canada’s military forces fairly. That was long overdue. Presumably the Canadian government will no longer have to rent planes from Russia to fly Canadian peacekeepers to their place of service. The renting of Russian helicopters should also end shortly.
It is also the case that Prime Minister Harper, in less than three years, has brought in numerous praiseworthy policies, and that’s especially impressive given his minority government status. He enabled seniors to split pension incomes. He provided $100 a month for pre-school children. He brought in some sensible policies dealing with native peoples’ issues in both reserve and off-reserve situations. He brought in many important taxation improvements although, in my opinion, the second GST reduction eliminated a needed income cushion. If substantial surpluses had developed, he could have used them for further debt reduction. That $6 billion a year, which 1 percent of GST generates, would have been available for special needs as is presently the case. I could list many other significant achievements. Despite some shortcomings, Stephen Harper, on balance, has been a very fine Prime Minister. I think historians will give him fairly high marks, but not for being largely responsible for the current political scene. Of course, any full assessment must wait until the Prime Minister leaves office.
Now let’s turn to the negative side of the ledger. Concerning the present Ottawa situation, I hold the Prime Minister, and perhaps several senior cabinet members, largely responsible for this historic crisis. It’s not that he – or they – actually created the crisis, rather, he and they are mostly responsible for creating a situation which allowed others to create the crisis. Virtually all editors and political columnists hold him responsible. One columnist wrote: “The person who created this mess is the prime minister….his reckless bullying manoeuvres let the proverbial genie out of the bottle.” An editor wrote, “Canadians place a premium on fair play, and Harper crossed a line.”
Unfortunately Prime Minister Harper, like all people, has some weaknesses. Some of these shortcomings, I suggest, played a major role in bringing the country to its present state of political turmoil. First, the Prime Minister is excessively partisan in and out of the House of Commons. At times this causes him to come across as mean-spirited. He is, I think, actually a very fine and considerate gentleman but ocassionaly this trait shapes what he says and does and he hurts his cause. Similarly, he seems to have difficulty seeing political opponents not as enemies needing to be vanquished but as people holding alternate ideologies and policy views, politicians still deserving respect as elected leaders who also seek the good of the country. Second, apparently he is not readily inclined to take advice. Third, at times his judgment is flawed. This flaw was evident during the last election when, during the last ten days, because of certain policy announcements and insensitivity to public opinion, he alienated many voters in Quebec and, in my view, forfeited a majority victory.
Fourth, when he makes a mistake he seems to be unwilling to acknowledge the error even in the slightest manner although virtually everyone else understands what has happened. In last night’s short national television address he came across as lacking any sense of contrition. He thus missed a golden opportunity to win public support. It will take a lot of advertising money to try to achieve what he could have achieved with two sentences. Fifth, he does not delegate sufficiently and thus finds himself dealing with more issues personally than any human being can handle, even as efficient and competent a manager as he is.
Sixth, he seems to have difficulty building bridges with people who in some way have become alienated from him or who function as his political opponents. This trait has been evident on various occasions. I see it in his continuing treatment of Bill Casey, the MP who voted against Harper’s policy on the Atlantic Accord and again yesterday when, even though his job is effectively on the line, he failed to extend any sort of olive branch to the three opposition parties. Yes, he gave a very fine speech but to a considerable extent, in my opinion, it wasn’t the speech he should have delivered. Instead of again bashing the Opposition parties, he would have done himself and his party much more good had he been conciliatory.
Part of what he should have said might, in my view, be stated as follows. “Fortunately, Canada has the strongest economy of all Western democracies but that fact will not shield us from the impact of the global economic turmoil. In some respects this country is already in difficult financial straits and the situation will likely deteriorate. The Members of Parliament, led by the Cabinet, have a responsibility to develop the best possible policies to address this very serious situation. Clearly, all four parties have some good policies to help deal with this crises. Insight and wisdom are not found on only one side of the aisle. All three Opposition party leaders have already given me some useful ideas. I welcome their continuing input. I shall meet with each of them separately and also with all three jointly. Likely some Cabinet members will also be present.
“I ask all Opposition party leaders to work with me and my Cabinet so that all of us can cooperatively develop the best possible policies for the Canadian people. There is urgency. Despite our comparatively sound economy, many businesses are hurting and layoffs are mounting. In light of that reality this government wants to get some major economic stimulus, and perhaps even specific economic sector assistance, underway as soon as possible, perhaps even before Christmas. I solicit support from all Members of Parliament and assure them that this government wants to work with all parties in a cooperative relationship. I ask that confidence be given so that such action can proceed.” It might have been too late yesterday to prevent the Coalition challenge but such a stance, which could have been expressed all along, would, in my opinion, probably have avoided the present crisis.
I have advised numerous politicians and have also done some speechwriting. I am confident that if the Prime Minister had expressed similar sentiments on television last night, instead of again going after the opposition parties, he would have done himself, his party, and the country much more good. He missed a great opportunity!
Prime Minister Harper keeps on stressing that the ill-conceived Coalition would be dependent on Bloc support. That is true and it is a very important point. The constant goal of the Bloc, after all, is the destruction of Canada. Harper must, however, remember that since he became Prime Minister, the Bloc voted with his minority government 142 times, sometimes helping to sustain his government in office by doing so! His passionate denunciation of Bloc support of the Coalition should perhaps be a bit muted
Seventh, at times Prime Minister Harper seems slow in reacting to issues, even very critical ones for Canada. The current attitude towards mounting problems in the automobile industry is a case in point. Some crises can’t wait several months.
Eighth, on occasion Prime Minister Harper makes promises which he does not keep. One example is his promise concerning income trusts. He broke that promise. Another is his legislation about a fixed election date. He broke that one also. There are other examples. Finally, he tends to neglect empathizing with hurting people. I have yet to hear him express any warm, compassionate or empathetic statements to the hundreds of thousands of people who have lost their jobs in the auto industry, the forest industry, and many other sectors of the economy. He seems to have difficulty getting beyond the level of analyzing problems in terms of policy; he tends to ignore the people, especially the hurting people.
Having said all of the above, I conclude my listing of shortcomings by saying that by inserting into an economic statement the elimination of the $1.95 per vote income which, for the opposition parties is their main source of income, he triggered passionate anger. (For the Bloc it is 86 percent of income!) The three Opposition leaders now say that they have formed their Coalition because of the Conservatives’ failure to produce an economic stimulus package. I don’t believe them. The secretly taped statement by Jack Layton reveals the truth. It was the $1.95 issue that motivated the Opposition parties sudden affection for one another even though they recently spent weeks ridiculing and condemning each other.
Coalition leaders have shifted their argument to the matter of demanding a financial stimulus package only because it would appear too self-serving if they spelled out the real reason. Let it be remembered that all Opposition parties supported the very recent Speech from the Throne which did not contain a stimulus package. At that time they had no problem with the omission. I am convinced that if Harper had not gone out of his way to try to cripple the Opposition parties financially by denying them their main source of income, and, much less significantly, if he had not limited some union “rights” and some women’s “rights”, all of which were only marginal to the economic report, we would not now have this national crisis. Thus I argue that while Stephen Harper did not directly create the present political crisis, he made its development possible and probable.
Prime Minister Harper would have done well to reread a statement he made in March, 2005. “You don’t slip controversial provisions into omnibus legislation if you are serious about making a minority Parliament work.”
Let me add, in passing, that I think that the $1.95 per vote subsidy is actually a good policy and that its establishment by Parliament, under Jean Chretien’s leadership, was a significant electoral reform. Some Conservative MPs have stated that it constitutes “party welfare” and should be abolished. They say that political parties should all solicit their financial support among their followers which is how the Conservative Party raises most of its income. There is some merit in that argument. But I find the counter- arguments much more convincing. If you eliminate the subsidy, then some parties may be forced to resort to their old ways. (We recall that Jean Chretien also made illegal any donations by large businesses and labour unions and also large donations by individuals.) If a corporation or union decides to contribute $25,000 it can give $1,000 to each of 25 trusted members or employees who will forward the funds as personal donations. This involves a lot of work, and may be questionable morally, but it can be done. In my view it is much better to subsidize the parties at a cost of about $28 million and reduce pressure group influence. In comparison, a general election costs about $300 million.
Having analyzed the realities which, in my view, made the present crisis possible, I must now state that while, in my opinion, Prime Minister Harper made a serious blunder and has been unwilling to acknowledge it or backtrack, the opposition parties, while technically acting within the law, are all behaving immorally. Their coalition arrangement boggles the mind. The core values of the three parties are largely contradictory. Other than the Bloc, which hopes finally to be on the inside shaping policies favourable to Quebec, they are denying their most central principles and values. I don’t see how this three-wheeled vehicle can be driven.
Shifting metaphores I say that this “Jack and Gilles” show is, in my opinion, unworkable for more than a short stint. Very significantly, the Bloc holds the balance of power. It can withhold support or even oppose any policy that does not involve parliamentary confidence. We must all remember that for the Bloc, success means the dismemberment of Canada. How can this hastily cobbled-together alliance be successful? Further, this troika is headed by a man, Stephane Dion, who while having some good qualities, is so weak and unimpressive as a party leader that both the Canadian electorate and his own party have rejected him. Now, suddenly, seeing some new light, the members of this instant fraternity affirm and praise him!
It has aptly been said that in wartime and sometimes in peacetime, a common enemy creates allies. But such alliances are strictly opportunistic, as when Hitler and Stalin signed a peace and friendship accord shortly before Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. They lack authenticity and integrity. That is what we now have as a coalition on Parliament Hill.
I must also emphasize that although the Opposition parties are acting within the law by creating their illogical alliance, it is also the case that what they are trying to do is overturn the results of the last election. Technically they are acting legally but outside of the spirit of democracy. Many voters will remember this when the next election occurs.
The Governor-General must now use her latent or reserve power and make a decision. The Prime Minister is consulting with her today. Given the hour when I am writing, they are likely in session now. The impressive lady, who, unfortunately, has no training or experience in such constitutional matters, will have to make a decision. Fortunately, she can and will consult experts. She has three choices. She can prorogue Parliament, she can accept the Coalition’s request to be asked to form a government, or she can grant a request to call an election. All three options are problematic. None of them makes the present Prime Minister look good and all three potentially create monumental problems for the Conservative Party and for the country.
Well, I must close. I had intended to write two or three paragraphs. Sharing some thoughts has produced an epistle. I must add one key point. I readily acknowledge limitations in my political understanding, especially of a situation not fully known and still very much in flux. Feel free to ignore or differ with anything I have said. I have given my honest views but one person’s views are but that – one person’s views.
John H. Redekop
P.S. (Written in the late forenoon, December 4, with some later editing.) Prime Minister Stephen Harper has just announced that he has convinced the Governor General to prorogue Parliament until January 26. He has thus bought time for himself and his government. Unfortunately, while the country desperately needs government action to deal with the deteriorating economy and especially the employee layoffs, Parliament has now been shut down for almost two months while economic problems get worse.
Further, maybe the Prime Minister has only delayed the inevitable. According to the statements of the three opposition parties following the prorogation, they are still determined to vote Stephen Harper out of office, no matter what is in the next budget. They are angry at him for avoiding a confidence motion – which is true – and insist that their alliance will hold together. That remains to be seen. There may soon be cracks, especially among Liberal backbenchers. There may also soon be growing pressure for Stephane Dion to resign. He has already agreed to step down on May 1 but his “best before” date may come sooner, perhaps much sooner! Affection rooted in expediency soon whithers, especially if the object of one’s current affection has already been once rejected!
The Governor General has granted Harper’s request. In our system of government, if a Prime Minister has lost the confidence of the House of Commons, he must resign. It is then up to the Governor General to see if there is some other party or coalition in the House of Commons which can form a government and command majority confidence. If there is none, then there must be an election. In this case there was, an alternative, even if that alternative lacked credibility and included a separatist party. But had Harper actually lost the confidence? On the face of it, he had. It was clear that the Prime Minister did not have the confidence of the House. More than half the MPs, in an official document delivered to Rideau Hall, had individually informed the Governor General that they had lost confidence in the Government. The only action that had not taken place was a formal vote in non-confidence in the House. Was that needed?
Although this decision is probably the best option for the country, I found it surprising – on three counts. First, never before has a head of state in any Commonwealth country granted prorogation to a head of government after the legislature has sat for only two weeks and has not passed a single piece of legislation. Second, everyone knew that the real reason Prime Minister Harper requested prorogation was that he wanted to avoid being defeated in a non-confidence vote in the House. Third, It seems to me that in the future any Prime Minister facing a non-confidence vote which he might lose, can ask the Governor General for prorogation, citing the 2008 Harper case as a precedent. It will then be difficult for the Governor General to refuse such a request, especially if the Parliament has sat much longer than two weeks. This precedent may remove a major power which Members of Parliament now hold over the Cabinet. While the Governor General’s decision, in the present cas, was probably the best of three problematic options for Canada, in the long run it may have set an ominous precedent. .
Stephen Harper has been weakened. Whether he can survive as party leader in the long run remains to be seen. If certain developments occur, he could become surprisingly popular. If some others occur, the Conservatives may replace him as leader. Stephane Dion, not nearly as strong a leader as Harper, has been greatly weakened, much more than Harper. It is not to be assumed, if the Conservatives fall in January or early February and an election is called, that Dion, would be able to survive three months as Prime Minister should the Coalition parties win a majority.
Of course, it is also possible that Canadians will become increasingly critical of the Coalition and that if an election is called shortly after Parliament reconvenes, the Conservatives might achieve a majority win, perhaps even a substantial majority! A further possibility arises. If the Liberals soon select a strong and appealing leader and develop impressive policies and the Conservatives stumble and keep on attacking the Coalition, they might come in as the winning party, with minority or, very unlikely, majority status. I consider this last possibility highly improbably but almost all Canadians also thought the creation of the present Coalition highly improbable!
I must make some additional comments about the Opposition Coalition. Aside from its inherent ideological contradiction, we must note a specific reason why it lacks credibility. The three leaders keep on demanding economic and fiscal action by the Conservative government but throughout the years of Conservative rule, they have almost always voted against tax reductions and other financial bills which have enabled Canada to be the economically strongest country in the free world. I don’t see how they can now make their accusations with a straight face. Their voting record undermines their passionate words.
Finally, let me make this point. If the three Opposition leaders keep their word, then after the Throne Speech, likely next January 27, we will likely have an election. If the Conservatives act wisely in the next two months, they might win, perhaps even gain a majority. On the other hand, if the Coalition members manage to convince enough Canadians that they should be given a chance, they might retain the collective majority they now enjoy. Further if the Liberals suddenly change leaders, it is possible, although in my view highly unlikely, that they might win more seats than any other party.
What can concerned Canadians do? We should let MPs know what our views are. Many people will attend rallies and demonstrations.
Here ends the second part of my lengthy epistle!