Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The Harper interview

A few thoughts on the big interview last night between Harper and Peter Mansbridge on the National...

This interview seemed to have two parts to it. The primary focus was Europe, as it rightly should be. This took up more than half the interview. The European situation is a reflection of the years we're living in. We're in post-2008/2009 recession times that, as Harper notes, are turning toward recession once more. What happens in Europe in the near future could shock the world economies again. There's a good analysis in the New York Times today on what could happen in Europe and how that could affect the American election. This is how, beyond Harper's vague comments about us being "exposed to others who are exposed to others," we too could feel the heat as a result of trouble in Europe:
With an economy in free fall and 22 percent unemployment, Greece looks very close to dropping the euro and defaulting on its debts. This could potentially lead to the departure of other vulnerable nations, including Spain, Portugal and Ireland, and the dismemberment of the single currency into up to 17 different parts.

While nobody has a clear idea of how a breakup of the euro would affect the American economy, it would hurt. Citizens of vulnerable European countries would rush to withdraw their euro deposits ahead of the breakup, to avoid having their savings converted into pesetas or drachmas. Banks would fail, and financial markets would plummet as investors took their money out of risky assets and put them into the comparative safety of German bunds and American Treasury bonds.

This would very likely cripple some big American banks. And a stock market crash would wipe out the savings of many ordinary citizens. Exports to Europe would slow sharply as European economies contracted — depriving the United States of one of its few engines of growth.

Look at it this way: When Lehman Brothers went bankrupt in 2008, sending the global financial system into a tailspin, its debts amounted to about $600 billion. Government debt alone in Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland — the most vulnerable European countries — adds up to about $1.9 trillion. And the economies and government finances of most developed countries are in worse shape than they were four years ago.
There you go, pretty much a worst case scenario, so factor that in.

So what has Harper's contribution been to solving the European problems? Well, Flaherty quite bluntly told them where to go about a month back in terms of any financial help to the IMF for Europe. And Harper, as noted in this Globe report today, was preaching austerity and the need to get debt under control while he hosted the G20. That has largely been his message.

In last night's interview, he gave his more up to date present day position and said the Eurozone has to be more integrated. Yes, now that Merkel is moving that way on integration just in the last few days, Harper seems to be saying the same thing too (see above New York Times link, for example, re Merkel).

The European preoccupation serves as a reminder of the realities for politics in Canada and what a big part of the agenda that the economy occupies now and likely for the next few years. That's not just Harper's preferred focus, it's a reality beyond his control. He may make toooo much of it at times, sure, but there's no getting around its importance. It affects the ability to make headway on legitimate critiques of this government that need to be made, on democratic issues in particular.

The importance of the economy is why there is tremendous opportunity for the Liberal leadership race in particular to speak to the issue. Again - not to the exclusion of other issues, there is much more to leading a nation than being a CEO type. But it's still ground that needs to be plowed by people who want to replace Harper. He spoke in the interview in a very simple way on what his approach is:
But at the same time you do need, as we are doing in Canada, you need to undertake a range of measures, not just fiscal discipline, to ensure growth. We have an ambitious trade agenda, we are revamping our science and technology policies to get better results, as you know we're doing labor market reforms, were doing regulatory reforms. These are all things that need to be done to increase the growth capacity of our economy.
Disagree with the Conservative policies, sure. But what is the alternative vision for growth? There are a number of big planks that could be articulated.

The other part of the interview involved the questions on the monarchy and the Canadian media. Both of which seemed to show a bit of a disconnect between Harper and the reality as some of us see it.

He was glowing in describing the monarchy and what the celebrations meant, for e.g.: "sixty years of really incredible, selfless, dedicated service," and "respect, dedication, affection." In hearing him speak of the monarchy in that way, you have to wonder, is there no self-awareness in Harper that such qualities are things that he too should aspire to evoke in others? Is it just for others who have some kind of public role to achieve such standards? It is puzzling. How can a leader proceed in such divisive and secretive ways and yet speak so glowingly of these qualities in others?

The responses he gave on media seemed similarly disconnected. Where he spoke of the media needing to do its independent reporting, of there being a healthy distance between politicians and media in Canada. There was this laugher: "the media is tremendously important, and it's important for our government and all governments that we are able to communicate our story through the media." As if he is blissfully unaware of the clamping down his government has done on allowing reporters to interactively engage with he and others. Email responses have become the norm to reporters. He answers few questions. Even appearances like the Mansbridge interview are rare. But Harper speaks as if all is normal. No sense of the concerted, massive public relations effort that he has engineered in order to go around and neuter the media, not recognize its importance.

Until the next one, maybe a few months from now...