Friday, January 20, 2006

Conservative Majority? Second Thoughts

{The following post, though written on Janaury 20, appeared as a special article to the Williams Lake Tribune on January 24, 2006. Given the importance of aboriginal issues in the Cariboo-Chilcotin region of British Columbia, I felt it was an apposite commentary. However, I probably should have known better than to hazard a guess as to what the party standings would be after the election. Another blow to the prestige of political "science"! --MC}


Stephen Harper has finally made a mistake. While he has for the most part avoided getting drawn into detailed discussions of who will be in his Cabinet ( a blunder that former British Labour Party leaderNeil Kinnock made in 1992, stealing defeat from the jaws of victory in that year's British general election), his remarks about how his power would be constrained by Liberal-appointed bureaucrats, judges, and Senators have had the opposite of their intended effect.

First, the feeble nature of Harper's reassurance served to underscore the near-absolute power that a Prime Minister enjoys in a majority government. Second, Harper appeared to imply that our professional civil service and independent judiciary are as politicised by patronage appointments as the Senate is. Third, the soon-to-be Prime Minister's attitude suggested that a Conservative government might need to appoint conservative judges, conservative deputy ministers, and conservative senators in order to rectify the problem. Finally, we were led to wonder just what there was in Harper's conservative agenda that would come into conflict with the Charter of Rights or strain the usual obeisance of unelected officials toward their political masters.

Journalists and political opponents pounced upon Harper's remarks, and rightly so.

I am betting that the election of a Harper Government will trigger a run on library and bookstore copies of Thomas Flanagan's First Nations? Second Thoughts, especially on the part of citizens in the aboriginal policy community. Flanagan, a close advisor to Harper who is certain to be playing a leading role in a Harper PMO, is famous (or infamous) for puncturing the image of Louis Riel and attacking any form of special status for First Nations people. Essentially, he is a throwback to the classical liberalism on Indian policy that was abandoned by Pierre Trudeau in the wake of the aboriginal backlash against his 1969 White Paper and the pathbreaking Supreme Court decision in the 1973 Calder case. First Nations? Second Thoughts makes a refreshing read (i.e. classical liberalism is not dead), but its prescription, taken as a whole, is not tenable either legally or politically, in today's Canada.

The Conservative attitude, typified by Flanagan--is that native Canadians, who suffer from ghettoization and a culture of defeatism and dependency, are best helped by changing the structure of economic incentives and opportunities that face them as individuals, rather than the kind of collective enablement that comes from aboriginal rights, treaties, or "throwing money" at their problems. How will this stance be manifested once the Kelowna Accord is scrapped? I am willing to believe that that the mooted policy changes could result in marginal improvements to the lives of some First Nations peoples, but most of that cautious optimism is based upon the force of Section 35 of the Constitution Act, the impressive body of law recognizing indigenous difference in the constitution and the common law, and the determination of today's First Nations leadership, all of which would prevent any Government from undoing what has been accomplished in the past 30 years.

{People wishing to look at a detailed profile of Flanagan, the Calgary School, and their influence upon Stephen Harper, should look at "The Man Behind Stephen Harper" by Marci MacDonald in The Walrus, dated Friday October 08, 2004: http://www.walrusmagazine.com/article.pl?sid=05/05/09/2119243 . According to MacDonald, First Nations? Second Thoughts unleashed outrage in aboriginal and academic circles. "These aren't second thoughts," says Joyce Green, an associate professor at the University of Regina and a Metis herself. "They're the same old first thoughts that the colonizers came with from Europe. It's a celebration of the original arguments that supported the subordination of indigenous peoples." }

It is not surprising that the Globe and Mail and the Vancouver Sun have both endorsed the Conservative Party in this election. The Conservatives are the Official Opposition and the best bet to form a new government. But what both newspapers should have also stressed is that the objective of house-cleaning and the promise of new accountability standards can be realized in a minority parliament. Many voters wince at the prospect of another minority government, and the conventional wisdom is that a Conservative minority would be as unstable as the previous Liberal one. I disagree. Mr. Harper can work with the NDP on accountability, the Bloc Quebecois on decentralization, and even the Liberals on a wide range of economic and social issues. He will likely only need the support of any one opposition party for any given piece of legislation--a distinct improvement over the situation facing Prime Minister Martin. The result should also be sufficiently well-drawn to remove some of the incentives for vote-buying and floor-crossing on the part of individual Members that marred the 38th Parliament.

A minority government would also force the Conservatives to do what they clearly have not yet done----actually sell their programme to Canadians.

P.S. My Predictions, as of 7 p.m. Friday Jan.20:

Conservatives-- 138
Liberals -- 73
Bloc Quebecois-- 62
NDP -- 35

3 comments:

me said...

Mark you were way off on predicting the Conservatives were within reach of a majority (see UBC election stock market for how money predicts: http://esm.ubc.ca/CA06/index.php ). And the Canadian electorate seems to be ahead of you in keeping Harper in check with a small minority. Especially here in BC, the electorate has held Harper in check, wary of the conservatives for the reasons that you mention.

In this country, a Prime Minister with a majority has far too much power. Harper’s answer that there are checks and balances in the system and that the Liberal invested system would be against him, reveals how this political strategist thinks when his guard is down.

With a minority he will have to be well behaved. His acceptance speech was very nicely measured and conciliatory to the other parties and inclusive of all geographic parts of the country. However, I don’t recall him mentioning First Nations. This omission would seem to speak loudly given his advisors. (I found the article on Flannigan fascinating.)

Harper takes the Liberal stance that we are individuals and we all should be treated symmetrically by the government. This is a laudable principle of horizontal equity. With respect to First Nations it seems like there has been too much shameful history, much of which is recent, to not attempt to make, amends. Certainly, the time to attempt to back away from the path of greater First Nations determination is long gone.

Now, if he only cared for the poor, then at least there would be indirect action on alleviating the ongoing plight of First Nations’ peoples.

me said...

A follow up: maybe it was a close call after all. Your prediction made Friday Jan 20 gives the Conservatives considerably less seats than leading pollsters that day: Ipsos-Read predicted Conservatives with a majority of 157 seats and EKOS had them at 151 seats (http://esm.ubc.ca/CA06/index.php). The UBC Election Stock Market has a Majority Government Market (http://esm.ubc.ca/CA06/charts/mini-CA06.M.pdf) which from Jan 15-22 dropped from nearly 40% to below 20% probability of the Conservatives forming a majority. It would appear that Canadians stepped away from the brink.

Mark Crawford said...

me: Thank you for your comments. Had I been a more careful psephologist, I would have noted the large number of still-undecided in Toronto. What appears to have happened in the last few days of the campaign was a mini-version of the Liberal "fear" vote that had occurred in 2004. This time it was more limited to Metro Toronto and (to a lesser extent) Metro Vancouver and Montreal as well. It is surprising that the Tories would win 10 seats in Quebec and still only get 122-124 seats nationally. The only unfortunate aspect of this result is that the combination of Tories and NDP falls a couple of seats shy of a majority. This would give PM Harper a "third option" in his negotiations, thereby contributing to a more stable Parliament.
--MC