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Friday, January 27, 2006

Harper's stated priorities

So, while he’s yet to be formally crowned King Of Canada, our new prime minister, Stephen Harper, has laid out some of his priorities.
They include: exercising Arctic sovereignty, a bill to combat corruption in the House of Commons, his childcare tax rebate and promised cut to the GST.
The bill to combat corruption should have no trouble making its way through the house. It is the one issue he has that all parties share. Although the NDP are likely to try to modify it somewhat, I wouldn’t expect them to have much luck. The Liberals aren’t likely to help the NDP out on this one, not wanting to extend them anymore legitimacy than they have to.
The Arctic sovereignty issue is all smoke and mirrors, a distraction, a made-up issue designed to do nothing more than calm fear that Harper will get too cozy with our American neighbours. He could choose to go to work on the Softwood Lumber issue, and would undoubtedly garner a lot of support from the opposition if he did, but he doesn’t want to do that. Harper prefers instead to go at Arctic sovereignty because he knows its a non-issue for the Bush administration, and he can score brownie points for apparently standing up to the US, while in reality doing nothing at all.
Watch for our new PM to avoid softwood for as long as he possibly can. He doesn’t want to engage in any real scrap with Bush. No, he just wants to appear like he’s scrapping with him. He knows that Canadians like a PM who stands up to our American cousins.
As for his childcare tax rebate plan. Expect this one to get some heat. First of all, Quebec is going to want assurance that this tax plan is not instituted in lieu of money for a childcare system. The previous government has already committed operating funds for the next year to Quebec’s widely popular and successful childcare plan. Canadians can expect that commitment to be maintained. And therein is the problem! How are the other provinces going to react if Quebec gets funds and they don’t. The opposition, particularly the NDP, are not going to like the idea. If Harper wants to pass this plan he may have to relent and beef it up to include money for some sort of public daycare system.
As for the cut to the GST. Harper may be able to pull this one out of the hat simply because the opposition are not going to want to be seen as opposing a bill that, on the surface anyway, seems like a good idea. Look for the Liberals, in particular, to fight this one. They know its a long way from another election and may be willing to take some negative press, in the short term, for resisting it. Look for the opposition to seek some sort of assurance from Harper that the cut will not be accompanied by a tax increase to cover the loss in revenue. They’ll be wanting something they can come back on Harper for later. The plan will pass, but not until Harper jumps a few hoops.
Another issue that is certain to rise on the agenda soon will be Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan. This week 2000 Canadian troops were sent to the Kandahar Province of Afghanistan. While there, the Canadians will be on a search and destroy mission against Taliban insurgents. While Canadians are not making much noise about this at present, it will only take a few soldiers coming home in body bags for that to change. This will be the first real hard test for the new government, even though it was the previous government who committed our troops to this action.
Look for issues related to proper funding to the armed forces to rise quickly on the national agenda. Depending on how the action in Kandahar goes, there might also be great debate about whether Canada’s armed personnel, primarily peacekeepers, should be involved in this type of exercise. If Canadian casualties mount, we can expect this to become a national crisis. Canadians will react to body bags in a manner the US public has not.
Another big challenge for Harper will come when he names his cabinet. It will be interesting to see how many of the “wingers” in his party will be named to important posts. Expect Harper to go for a middle of the road cabinet, and to exclude some of his party’s more ardent rightists. If members like Stockwell Day are given important positions, look for the opposition to get in a flurry. If they are not, then look for cracks to begin to develop within the Conservative ranks.
Another issue that will be placed on the back burner for as long a period as possible will be Harper’s promise to revisit Gay Marriage with a free vote in parliament. The longer he sits on it, the more he’ll aggravate the Christian right, and the longer he aggravates them, the closer he’ll come to a split in his party ranks. However, if he pushes this one forward, then he stands a very real chance of a serious fight from the opposition, and a short-lived honeymoon with the voters who, by and large, from every poll taken, do not to revisit the issue. If Harper does go ahead with his promise of a free vote on the issue, it will open one or two cans of worms. If it passes, the public will be furious. If it fails, his right flank will be incensed. Its a no win issue and Harper knows it. It will be interesting to see what he does.
One last issue worth watching for is Harper’s ability to deal with the divided parliament. There have been several biographies aired on national TV the past few days that clearly identify the problems Harper has had idealing with the issue of compromise. Clearly, the new PM is the sort of fellow who puts things out on paper, expects others to see its clarity, and then further expects people to fall in and abide by what he’s laid out. In a parliament where the majority of the seats are in opposition, this isn’t going to work.
Will Harper be able to deal with such adversity?
We’ll see! Stay tuned.


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