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National Opinion Centre

There is a story out there that Stephen Harper has made Canada more conservative. In fact, he has made it more authoritarian and the question now is how future leaders will deal with this.

John Ibbitson is the latest to make the claim and his piece provides a useful foil for getting at the points I want to make, so bear with me.

Ibbitson’s analysis focuses on six policy areas: spending, crime, immigration, security, democracy and federalism. We can dispense with the first three quickly.

As Ibbitson notes, government spending may have fallen sharply over the last four years but, historically, spending has always waxed and waned. Four years is hardly enough to conclude that balanced budgets and tax cuts are the new normal. Just ask Paul Martin.

On crime, Harper has made sentencing harsher, but I agree with Michael Adams: this didn’t require a change in values. The public has always had a penchant for Old Testament justice. Harper has just been more willing to pander to it. A new Liberal or NDP government would quickly abandon the hard-edge on Harper’s crime agenda.

Finally, Ibbitson notes that the Conservatives changed immigration by reducing access for refugees and welcoming business immigrants. On this, I agree. And perhaps there is a conservative legacy here, though I don’t think much turns on it.

Ibbitson’s views on the other three areas are more interesting. On security, he says, Canada has gone from being the “boy scout of nations,” to “something of a brawler”.

On democracy, the changes focus on Harper’s readiness to centralize power in the PMO, engage in top-down decision-making, use omnibus bills, ignore and suppress evidence, and so on.

Finally, on federalism, Harper has simply withdrawn: he still sends transfers to the provinces, but fails to participate in any discussions and steadfastly refuses to meet with the premiers as a group.

These are fair descriptions of Harper’s approach in the three areas, but if there is a common theme here, it is not conservatism. It is Harper’s centralizing and controlling leadership-style. Even his approach to federalism, which Ibbitson describes as “passive,” is really passive-aggressive: he can’t control the agenda, so he refuses to engage.

Moreover, as Ibbitson notes, centralization and control aren’t unique to Harper. They are part of a trend that goes back at least to Pierre Trudeau. Every prime minster since—Liberal and Conservative—has been a part of it. So the driver obviously isn’t conservative ideology, but what is it?

Centralization is a reaction to globalization and the digital revolution. The same trend has occurred in governments around the world. The speed of events, the explosion of organizations, and the bedeviling interdependence of issues—all were a shock to them.

Modern political institutions were designed for the slower, more parochial world of 19th century nation states and empires. Since Pierre Trudeau, national leaders everywhere have tried to manage these new forces by increasing their control over the people and processes under them, that is, through centralization.

Harper is only the latest in a long line, though he may now have pushed things to the breaking point. The system is now so centralized that further increases could put the legitimacy of our political institutions in question.

So, yes, a change in our political culture is underway, but it is not about creeping conservatism so much as creeping authoritarianism—which raises our second question: What should future leaders do about it?

There is only one real alternative to authoritarianism: collaboration. Ibbitson actually broaches this when he suggests there is still room for a new leader to be innovative on the environment. Harper, he says, has been a laggard on this file.

Well, not exactly. He has been singularly unwilling to listen to anyone with opposing views. And that makes him an authoritarian, not a laggard. But Ibbitson is right that real progress on a big issues like this requires a different approach. The question is whether a new prime minister will have the will and ingenuity to act on that.

There is room for optimism. There have been some encouraging signs from the premiers through the Council of the Federation; and we hear talk of collaboration—sincerely, I believe—from all three opposition leaders in Parliament.

Justin Trudeau’s proposal on carbon pricing is a timely example. He proposes to work with the provinces to set national standards for emissions, then leave it to them to achieve these in their own way.

Critics see this as a formula for failure. They think we need a strong federal leader who will impose a new regime. I think this old-style thinking.—yet another attempt to solve what is essentially a collaborative problem through more centralization and control. While it sounds good in theory, it will likely fail in practice. The provinces won’t let it happen, as Harper has clearly figured out.

Carbon pricing may be the right place to test a more collaborative approach. It won’t be easy and it could fail, but if Trudeau or some other leader strikes the right tone, the premiers have as big a stake in succeeding as he does.

One way or another, we must break free of this decades-long cycle of centralization and control and this would be a big step in the right direction. It won’t be easy. Like Harper, many leaders still see governments as instruments of control and that is how they govern.

Rather than doing the hard work to bring about change, it is often easier to slip back into the comfort of the world we know, however dysfunctional—and that is Harper’s real legacy.


Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate, Policy and Engagement, at Canada 2020, Canada’s leading, independent progressive think-tank. Don is an internationally recognized expert on democracy and Open Government. His recent projects include chairing an expert group on citizen engagement for the UN and the OECD; and chairing the Ontario Open Government Engagement Team. The views expressed here are those of the columnist alone. Don can be reached at: or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan 

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
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