Stephen Harper is a policy Luddite—and proud of it. In his view, a national inquiry will do nothing to solve the issue of murdered and missing aboriginal women. Last week he dismissed talk of finding “root causes” and “systemic issues” as little more than gibberish.
When the premiers met in Ontario last year they turned their meeting into a very public fight with Jason Kenney. When they meet in Charlottetown this week, the target may be Harper.
Last year the premiers also passed a motion for a public inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women. The tragic death of Tina Fontaine has put the issue back in the news and Harper’s comments on the inquiry have caused outrage.
At least two premiers, Kathleen Wynne and Greg Selinger, have already returned fire. There is a nasty dispute brewing here over how the country is being run and the premiers may decide Charlottetown is the place to get it squarely on the table.
While Harper’s views on social policy are at the centre of this clash, they are neither new nor surprising. He took them over from a much-admired role model: Margaret Thatcher. She describes her social philosophy in the famous 1987 “there is no such thing as society” speech.
Basically, Thatcher regards talk of “societal causes” as misguided and confused. She opts for a simpler view where the social issues that afflict people are the product of individual behaviour and ultimately it is individuals and families who must resolve them.
“No government can do anything except through people,” she says, “and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour.”
Harper has a similar view: “We should not view this [the murder and disappearance of aboriginal women] as a sociological phenomenon,” he said last week. “We should view it as crime… the most important thing is to make sure we have a thorough police investigation.”
The reference to ‘sociology’ is both a nod to Thatcherism and an allusion to the shot Harper took at Justin Trudeau after the Boston bombings. When the newly minted Liberal leader openly speculated about the “root causes” of terrorism, Harper charged him with “committing sociology.” It was like a sucker punch to the jaw and left Trudeau looking like a policy sophomore.
Now the prime minister is trying the same move on the premiers, in effect suggesting that the call for an inquiry is as thoughtless as it is fruitless. Inquiries, he might well have said, involve a lot of airy people whining about all the bad things that have happened to them and their friends, and speculating about all the things governments should do to make them right. They solve nothing.
Harper’s hard-edge here is striking. He obviously thinks it will play well for him, casting him as someone with clear ideas and no patience for woolly reasoning—as someone like Thatcher. He’s been striking the same pose on the international stage, portraying himself as a tough realist who is ready to take a clear stand against terrorists like ISIS and thugs like Vladimir Putin. And there’s something to be said for this.
But if he thinks Canadians will see the abduction and murder of aboriginal women the same way they see terrorism, he should think again. Here at home, they want empathy along with strength. Justin Trudeau has it right: Harper, like Thatcher, is on the wrong side of history, while Wynne and Selinger are speaking to 21st century sensibilities.
First off, they agree that murder is a crime, that it should be solved as quickly and efficiently as possible, and that the guilty should punished. The real question is whether a government should rest on its laurels once these steps have been taken.
For Wynne, failing to do what we can to protect the most vulnerable people in our society is like a second crime—the crime of abandonment. Whatever Harper says, there is overwhelming evidence that systemic forces are at work here and that they can be addressed.
Harper’s refusal to get involved is seen as the main obstacle and Wynne’s frustration is boiling over. “Right now, the national discussion happens at the table with Canada’s premiers, as opposed to with the prime minister,” she stresses.
On CBC’s The House, Selinger was even more specific. Harper actually misunderstands the point of the inquiry, he bristled. No one is calling for a process that promotes more speculation on the issue. The challenge now is to identify the specific causes that need to be attacked and to form a plan to focus resources on them.
So the inquiry is not a talk-fest, but an exercise in hard-headed analysis that will produce an informed response to a complex issue—a plan. And that goes to the heart of the philosophical difference between the premiers and Harper.
Harper, like Thatcher before him, either believes such causes will not be found or that nothing can be done to address them. In his view, government plans to tackle big social issues are a waste of time and resources.
Social policy should stay focused on individual actions. His crime agenda is a good example. Harper’s approach is to pass tougher laws, hire more police and build more prisons.
But as Wynne and Selinger would surely point out, the approach is entirely reactive. The crime agenda focuses on catching and punishing people who have already committed a crime. It does nothing to prevent it.
Why can’t there also be a plan that is proactive, much as we now complement efforts to cure illness with strategies to prevent it through healthy living?
Harper’s answer never seems to get beyond sarcasm. Instead, we are supposed to see his policy-scepticism as a sign of strength, clarity of thought, and genuine leadership. Meanwhile, innocent women are being brutally murdered.
Charlottetown could be a watershed. Perhaps the Council of the Federation is ready to step up to the plate and demonstrate that this kind of proactive policymaking is not only possible, but necessary—with or without Ottawa.
Dr. Don Lenihan is an internationally recognized expert on democracy, public engagement, accountability and service delivery. Since 2009, he has been Senior Associate at Canada’s Public Policy Forum in Ottawa. From October 2013 to April 2014, Don served as Chair of the Ontario Open Government Engagement Team. The views expressed here are those of the columnist alone. Don can be reached at: Don.Lenihan@ppforum.ca or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan