Harper's new beginning: They must restore the people's faith in the government and create a new tone of civility
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 24 January 2006)

Political wisdom correctly holds that anyone who achieves high office should try to accomplish just two or three essential goals, four at most.

The government that Stephen Harper and his Conservative colleagues must now form will confront long lists of minor issues, including many that will masquerade as major problems when they begin popping up on the desks of rookie ministers. Urban violence will create much talk but should be dealt with by the provinces, where the Constitution puts the affairs of cities. Relations with the U.S. will occasionally be rocky but will cease to be genuinely troublesome when the government turns away from the foolishness of Martinite demagoguery.

The Harper Conservatives will be judged on what they achieve in the few significant places where they decide to spend their energy and their political capital. These are the keystone issues that they should never forget, though it will be the business of their natural enemies to divert them.

They must restore the people's faith in the federal government and create a new tone of civility in Parliament. They must revive the defence forces, which have been neglected and starved by successive governments, Liberal and Conservative, since the 1970s. They must relieve the citizens of tax burdens that have become unconscionable. And in co-operation with the provinces, they must change the way we organize public health services.

We have known for a long time that the people wanted a change in Ottawa. Those are four fundamental improvements that Harper and the Conservatives are uniquely equipped to deliver. They have created the promise of change, and with it an appetite for a new kind of government. The way they begin satisfying that appetite during their first months in government will define their identity and their future.

They have already shown a modest talent for symbolism. Shaving a point off the GST won't deeply affect the lives of the citizens but it's a signal that Harper is beginning the process of tax relief. He will need a series of equally surprising gestures to convince us that he wants to continue that process.

The sums handled by Ottawa are now so unimaginably large that few citizens have any idea how the financial side of federalism works -- they become interested and aroused only when, as in the scandal investigated by the Gomery commission, they believe people are stealing their money. Harper must find ways to expand the public's understanding of what happens to their money at the same time that he addresses the question of honesty within the government.

The Parliamentary Budget Authority that he has proposed, an independent agency to assess budget forecasts and statistics, could be one major step in that direction. It might mean that an office with the abilities and shrewdness of the Auditor-General could affect expenditures before they are made, rather than identifying disasters after they happen.

In dealing with the military, Harper will have to overcome the resistance of the many Canadians who believe we don't need to have defence forces -- or, if we do have them, that they shouldn't be allowed to carry guns. He will have to spend far more time than his last four or five predecessors chose to spend in defining what the military should be prepared to do.

Parliament will require similar close attention. It's a powerful symbol of the national community in itself as well as the method we use to control the government. If Harper can quickly produce reforms in Parliament he can impress everyone, even those who didn't even consider voting for him. When Preston Manning came to Ottawa he determined to change the conduct of MPs, at least on his side of the House, but soon they were acting just like Liberals.

Question Period, the most visible face of Parliament, has become a huge embarrassment to everyone who cares about the quality of public life. It looks to private citizens like a circus staffed by angry clowns. Everyone knows that it doesn't work and everyone blames someone else, usually other politicians. Could a prime minister with imagination restore its dignity? If he did, he would deserve the gratitude of the whole country.

Since an all-party agreement on reform would take months, a unilateral decision by the Conservatives might be the answer. What about an absolute rule, beginning on the first day, that no Tory speaks when anyone else is speaking? Crazier ideas have worked. At this moment no one believes that we will ever again see politicians acting publicly with a decorum that enhances their status. Harper, by proving us wrong on that point, would also prove that he's not a prime minister like all the others.

In the campaign there was a sense, from time to time, that he was trying too hard to present himself as unthreatening. On medicare he seemed almost to say that he would change little or nothing. That's surely not what the voters want from him. Our medical system has deteriorated for purely political reasons, an eccentric belief that private clinics should have no part in it -- except occasionally to look after the health of a prime minister. Harper must know that most of the world has a better and more flexible system, relatively unfettered by ideology. We need from his party the leadership that will move us toward a public system that makes the best possible use of all our medical resources, which the present arrangement emphatically does not.

In the last eight weeks Harper's greatest advantage was that his opponents radically underrated him. We should hope that in Ottawa he demonstrates that much of the country has also been underrating him for years.

In a way, democracy is normally as blind as justice claims to be. Until a given government settles into office, we know only a little about what kind of people they are, what they can do, and how true they can be to their own beliefs and promises. This is not something we can learn from either party platforms or election rhetoric.

In the governing of a nation, unlike a political campaign, ideology is not destiny. Character is destiny. We have all watched the Conservatives build themselves into a formidable Opposition party and mount a formidable campaign. But in the months and years ahead we'll begin to learn what really matters. We'll learn the true nature of Stephen Harper and the people he has gathered around him.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page