Monday, April 18, 2011

Stephen Harper's national unity record

So we saw over the weekend that Harper is adding national unity to his electoral arsenal in support of his argument that a "strong, stable" Conservative majority is needed to fight a resurgent separatist threat.

Well, polls in Quebec and some influential sentiment over the past few years wouldn't support that characterization of the separatist forces these days. He may be putting too much stock in that 93% level of support Pauline Marois received on the weekend along with Gilles Duceppe's speech. But in any event, let's stipulate, just for the sake of argument, that there is some kind of resurgence and down the road threat in the form of a future PQ government whose probable election could pose a challenge for the next Prime Minister.

So, what is Stephen Harper's national unity record?

From 2000, there is this famous op-ed he wrote: "Separation, Alberta-style: It is time to seek a new relationship with Canada." Not so long ago, there was Harper agitating for Alberta to seek a new relationship with Canada, modelled on Quebec's ongoing battles.

From 2001, there is the famous "firewalls" around Alberta letter. Calling for Alberta to withdraw from the CPP along with this notable shift he advocated on health care:
"Resume provincial responsibility for health-care policy. If Ottawa objects to provincial policy, fight in the courts. If we lose, we can afford the financial penalties that Ottawa may try to impose under the Canada Health Act. Albertans deserve better than the long waiting periods and technological backwardness that are rapidly coming to characterize Canadian medicine. Alberta should also argue that each province should raise its own revenue for health care – i.e., replace Canada Health and Social Transfer cash with tax points as Quebec has argued for many years. Poorer provinces would continue to rely on Equalization to ensure they have adequate revenues."
Every province for itself was his view on health care. And then there was the infamous line: "It is imperative to take the initiative, to build firewalls around Alberta, to limit the extent to which an aggressive and hostile federal government can encroach upon legitimate provincial jurisdiction." That is just not a national unity builder signing on to a letter like that. It wasn't so long ago.

From more recent times as Prime Minister, let's look at his interactions with the provinces...

There was the battle with Danny Williams that saw a provincial Premier lead an unprecedented - and successful - campaign to shut out Harper's Conservatives in the 2008 election. Premised on the Harper government's reneging on the Atlantic Accord. A prime example of how Harper can let a federal-provincial battle descend into unmanageable conflict.

He has let his ministers rail away at Ontario while he has been Prime Minister. From Van Loan's "small man of confederation" crack at McGuinty, to John Baird's verbally flipping the bird to Toronto, to Flaherty's criticisms of Ontario's tax policies. It bred bad blood with the nation's most populous province.

He has acted controversially on the federal spending power:
In the 2006 federal election, in an effort to gain more Quebec seats, Stephen Harper campaigned in that province with the promise to “limit the spending power that the Liberals have so badly abused.” Once elected, Prime Minister Harper did not immediately follow up on this promise. However, the first major attack was an attempt to both curry favour with Quebec and start the emptying of the federal coffers. In the 2007 budget, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty gave Quebec an additional $2.3 billion, which included a $700 million equalization payment with no strings attached. Premier Charest immediately used it for a tax cut to fund his re-election.
Also from that same piece, there is plenty of familiar evidence to show that Harper is systematically weakening the federal government by limiting its spending capacity. On the $30 billion in sole-sourced F-35s, the $10 to 13 billion on questionable mega-prison expansions, the GST cut to 5% which "will reduce the federal purse by more than $76 billion in lost revenues between 2008 and 2013," and the corporate tax cuts which will "result in a loss of cumulative $60 billion in federal revenues." His economic, military and crime policies are weakening the federal government by draining its resources. All of which could lead to a weakening of our national health care, a significant unifying Canadian defining characteristic.

And let's not forget, on the pure, traditional national unity stuff, yes, there was the Quebec is a nation within Canada motion. But there was also unprecedented Prime Ministerial railing away at Quebec during the 2008 constitutional crisis when he was at risk of losing power. He manufactured that the Bloc was part of the 2008 coalition agreement and inflamed the rest of Canada against the coalition on that basis, at the risk of stoking an upsurge in separatism in Quebec. All for his own political gain. He continues to do it to the present day, doing it in this election too with his incessant coalition talk. From Ned Franks, on the 2008 crisis:
Normally Canadian prime ministers work toward encouraging national unity and a common sense of purpose among Canada's French and English populations. Not so Mr. Harper in this political dogfight. His rhetoric was the most anti-Quebec, and by inference anti-French, of any major party, let alone a government, of at least the post-Second World War period. Perhaps, having failed to increase his support there in the election, he felt it expedient to abandon Quebec and appeal to the latent hostility toward bilingualism and Quebec in his political heartland of the west. Perhaps his party's polling had indicated that this line of attack was a winner outside Quebec.

Regardless, there was no doubt that Mr. Harper's inflammatory and tendentious rhetoric was stunningly effective in mobilizing public opinion against the proposed coalition.
"Normally Canadian prime ministers work toward encouraging national unity..." All you need to know, really.

Trust him with the national unity file? He is the last person we should trust with it.