Canada’s Wasted Years

John Hancock on the Harper government’s empty legacy at home and abroad.

By: /
6 June, 2013
By: John Hancock
Senior Counsellor at the World Trade Organization

When Stephen Harper’s Conservatives first came to power in 2006, critics warned of their “hidden agenda”. The critics, it turns out, were too generous. Despite the image of tough leadership and ideological conviction, this government has done less to reform, restructure, or re-imagine Canada than any of its modern predecessors – and this at a time of seismic global change. The problem is not a hidden agenda, but no agenda at all.

Consider the legacy achievements of past prime ministers. Jean Chretien eliminated the federal deficit and restored Canada’s fiscal health. Brian Mulroney negotiated free trade with the United States and introduced the Goods and Services Tax. Pierre Trudeau gave Canada a constitution, established the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and made us officially bilingual. Lester Pearson brought in universal health care, the Canadian pension plan, and our national flag. 

Where are the equivalent big national initiatives today? Canadians have been so transfixed by the idea that Prime Minister Harper is poised to radically re-make Canada, we’ve failed to notice how little this government has actually accomplished after seven years in power.

The Conservative’s dream of turning Canada into an energy superpower seems to be unravelling: the Keystone XL oil pipeline is bogged down in U.S. politics (made worse by our government’s open contempt for international environmental cooperation); plans to diversify exports to Asia are going nowhere; and world energy prices are falling, with the result that Canada is now selling its oil and natural gas to the U.S. market at deeply discounted prices. Meanwhile, it is the United States, thanks to aggressive innovation and exploration, which is emerging as the next energy superpower.

What are the major economic achievements? Having inherited one of the strongest economies in the western world, the Conservatives have presided over its dissipation. Government spending has increased every year since the Conservatives came to power and federal deficits have returned for the last five – a trend foreshadowed by the government’s extraordinarily short-sighted decision to give away 2 per cent of the hard-won GST. Even with the lowest interest rates in 50 years, interest payments on the federal debt are more than the government spends on transportation, education, and scientific research combined. Meanwhile, exports are down, investment has stalled, growth has slowed, and households are overstretched.

What about structural reform? Canada continues to slide down the global competitiveness and innovation ladder – from the 9th most competitive economy in 2009, according the World Economic Forum, to 12th place today – yet there is no coherent plan to reverse this trend, let alone a bold blueprint for national renewal along the lines of the MacDonald Commission. Lack of policy direction is compounded by policy ambivalence and U-turns. After initially welcoming foreign investors with open arms, the government has started closing the barn door – but long after Inco, Alcan, Falconbridge, and other Canadian corporate giants have been lost. Trade policy is everywhere and nowhere – trivial agreements with Panama and Jordan, non-existent agreements with rising Asia, a stalled agreement with troubled Europe, and an outdated agreement with the United States.

Foreign policy accomplishments? Under past governments, Canada led international efforts to recognize China, mobilize against apartheid, create the World Trade Organization, and ban land mines. Canada’s tangible contribution to internationalism under this government has been to cut diplomatic ties, walk away from global treaties, denigrate the United Nations, and impede the Palestinians’ quest for statehood – an amalgamation of narrow-minded policies recently branded, in an Orwellian twist, the “dignity agenda“. Other than Israel, the Conservatives can’t seem to decide from one year to the next whether Canada’s best friend is the United States, China, Britain, or Latin America. Even efforts to re-invent Canada’s armed forces are running out of steam in the face of the F-35 fiasco and rising budgetary constraints.

In place of real policies, which require tough decisions, difficult trade-offs, and political costs, this government prefers symbolic ones. But while venerating the Queen, glorifying the military, policing the Internet, or quitting the Kyoto Protocol may fire up the base and distract the opposition, these self-serving policies do little to address the deep structural, social, and political challenges facing Canada.

Indeed, what makes these years of national drift so costly is the fact that the world around us is dramatically changing – power is shifting, economies are restructuring, competitors are adapting. The tragedy is that not too long ago Canada appeared uniquely well placed to benefit from these changes. Our finances were strong, our banks were solid, commodity exports were booming, and growth levels were among the highest in the OECD. But rather than leveraging these strengths to build an even stronger and more prosperous Canada, the government chose to coast on them instead, with the result that Canadians have surprisingly little to show for the good times – no lasting reforms, no new growth sectors, and no long-term investments in infrastructure or education.

The opposition continues to whip up fears about what this government will do to Canada but they should be more worried about what it has failed to do – and so should we.  

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