Incoming Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper has moved quickly
to signal that his government’s lack of a parliamentary majority will
not deter it from pursuing an unabashed right-wing agenda—tax and social
spending cuts, health care privatization, tough “anti-crime” legislation,
the expansion and re-arming of the Canadian military, and closer cooperation
with the Bush administration.
Headed by Harper, himself a neo-conservative ideologue, the cabinet sworn in
Monday is by any measure the most right-wing in modern Canadian history. Harper
has given the principal economic and social affairs ministries to MPs with intimate
ties to big business and/or key figures in the Ontario Tory government of Mike
Harris, which from 1995 to 2002 mounted a massive and hitherto unmatched assault
on public and social services and workers’ rights, while rewarding business
and the well-to-do with massive tax cuts.
As his Justice and Public Safety ministers, Harper has named two prominent
social-conservatives, infamous for their pro-police rhetoric, indifference to
basic civil liberties, and criticism of “activist” judges. The defence
minister is a career military officer and paid lobbyist for the arms industry
who, not surprisingly, has long advocated sharply increased military spending.
The new environment minister is a fervent opponent of the Kyoto accord. And
so it goes ...
With the aim of setting a tone of austere government, Harper slashed the number
of ministers from the 39 in the outgoing Liberal government to 27 and ordered
the ministers-to-be to arrive at their swearing-in ceremony by car and taxi,
rather than limousine. “The structure,” boasted Harper, “is
designed to promote accountable, efficient, and effective government—more
focus and purpose; less process and cost.”
While Monday was long on ceremony and short on policy pronouncements, Harper
did announce that parliament will reconvene in April and that he intends to
move quickly to cut taxes, beginning with a 1 percentage rate reduction in the
Goods and Services Tax (GST). This cut will bring the greatest dollar benefit
to the wealthy, but it is far less inequitable than the Conservatives’
other major tax proposal—the virtual elimination of the capital gains
Harper also vowed Monday that he will proceed, despite the avowed opposition
of the other parties in parliament, to rip up the previous Liberal government’s
plan to expand public day care spaces and instead give families a meager $25
per week for each child under 6. The aim of the Conservative plan is to ensure
that a comprehensive, national public day care system does not evolve.
By naming Jim Flaherty as his finance minister and John Baird as head of the
treasury board, the department responsible for the government’s spending
allocations, Harper wanted to demonstrate not just his resolve to cut taxes
and reduce social spending, but to pursue these policies in the face of massive
popular opposition. Both Flaherty and Baird were frontbenchers in the Harris
government, which in the face of mass working class opposition rammed through
a raft of regressive measures, including cutting welfare benefits by more than
20 percent, abolishing a prohibition on the use of scabs, sanctioning a sixty
hour workweek, and slashing billions of dollars from health care and education.
A former Bay Street lawyer and the author of legislation to drive “aggressive
panhandlers” (i.e. sections of the homeless) off the streets, Flaherty
sought the Ontario Tory leadership, following Harris’ retirement, as the
“hard-right” candidate. He promised to “reignite” the
Common Sense Revolution, with still more tax and spending cuts, the outlawing
of teachers’ strikes and the incarceration of the homeless, while deriding
Harris’ longtime finance minister, Ernie Eves, as a mushy middle-of-the-roader.
Tony Clement, another architect of Harris Common Sense Revolution, will be
the new health minister and as such will have responsibility for overseeing
implementation of the Conservatives’ health care “wait-time guarantee.”
That two decades of spending cuts have so gutted Medicare that patients with
even life-threatening conditions must often wait months for treatment is a travesty.
But the Conservatives’ “wait-time guarantee” is a cynical
ruse, aimed at exploiting the conditions created by the spending cuts they championed
to open the door for the privatization of the provision of health care services
and ultimately the development of a two-tier system in which the rich will have
access to the best health care money can provide and the majority will be rendered
dependent on a dilapidated public system.
The National Post’s right-wing Catholic political commentator,
Father Raymond J. De Souza, chortled over Harper’s cabinet selections:
“Mr. Harper has assembled a remarkably conservative cabinet, grounded
in robust conservative political philosophy. Jim Flaherty and John Baird, the
two most fiscally conservative Ontario Tories, will run the nation’s finances.
Maxime Bernier, an economic conservative and advocate of a Quebec flat tax,
will run Industry. Tony Clement will challenge the public health care monopoly.
Vic Toews and Stockwell Day will be in charge of law and order. None of these
are go-along-to-get-along types. They will articulate a ... conservative approach
to public policy.”
More significant was the reaction of corporate Canada. Thomas D’Aquino,
the president of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, the country’s
most influential business lobby group, lavished praise on the new government.
“We see it as a government that will govern from conviction,” said
D’Aquino. “We see it as a government that will be bold, even though
it is constrained by its minority status.”
According to the Globe and Mail’s Andrew Willis, Bay Street
was “impressed with Day One of the Stephen Harper era. ... The financial
community is applauding the shift to the right that’s apparent in the
new federal government, as one Bay Street executive noted when he said: ‘These
are true blue conservatives, not pink Tories’.”
Press pundits have noted that the majority of the members of Harper’s
cabinet were not active in the Reform Party, the right-wing, western-based populist
party, of which Harper was a founding member and which forms the core around
with the new Conservative Party—a fusion of the Reform/Canadian Alliance
and the Progressive Conservatives—was built. From this fact, some have
gone on to argue that Harper is continuing to tack to the political center,
in keeping with his promise to lead a modern, moderate government.
This claim cannot pass muster.
First, social conservatives and the religious right are well-represented in
the government in the form of former Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day
and Vic Toews, respectively the public safety and justice ministers.
More importantly, in so far as Harper has marginalized the Reform wing of his
party and sought to keep the fundamentalist anti-abortion and anti-gay activists
on a leash, it is with the aim of fashioning a Conservative party and government
that more faithfully pursues the socially regressive agenda of big business.
It in this light that Harper’s two cabinet “surprises”—the
recruitment of David Emerson, the industry minister in the outgoing Liberal
government, and the naming of Michael Fortier (who is not an MP and therefore
is to be made a Senator by Harper) to the post of public works minister—need
to be viewed.
As the former CEO of forestry giant Canfor, Emerson is a charter member of
Canada’s corporate elite. As international trade minister he will have
responsibility for seeking a solution to the longstanding Canada-US softwood
An international business lawyer and merchant banker, Fortier has previously
worked at TD Securities and Credit Suisse First Boston Canada, and as a senior
partner at Olgivie Renault. Among his close associates are fellow Olgivie lawyer,
Bush family friend and ex-Prime Minster Brian Mulroney, and a large number of
prominent Quebec business leaders, including the head of the Quebecor media
empire, Karl Peledeau.
The naming of Fortier as public works minister has been seen as a signal that
Harper wants to intends to make privatizations and the promotion of so-called
public private partnerships or PPPs to develop infrastructure a government priority.