The Guardian view on Canada’s elections: is the Stephen Harper era over?
It is the second biggest country in the world, yet sometimes it seems almost invisible. Often ignored by its powerful neighbour, regarded with only distant affection by the two European countries from which its settlers came, and taken for granted by many nations who should be more grateful than they are for its help and mediation in the past, Canada ploughs a lonely furrow. Now it is heading toward an election that will determine whether it will continue along the predictable rightward course set by Stephen Harper as prime minister over the past decade or whether it can recover some of the verve and originality that once marked its politics, not least under Pierre Trudeau, whose son Justin is one of the contenders.
Under Mr Harper, Canada has not only moved to the right in almost every area of policy but has entered an era of highly calibrated, money-driven negative campaigning at odds with the courtesy that is one of the most attractive of Canadian qualities. So the result matters, obviously for Canada itself, but also for a world that has long been missing the special role it used to play on the international scene.
Money, its uses and its abuses, runs like a thread through Mr Harper’s time in power. At the very beginning, a scandal over the diversion of government funds under the then Liberal government helped him into office in 2006. Ironically, it then turned out that his Conservative party had itself been breaking electoral laws on spending during that campaign. Forming another minority government after the 2008 election, he began dismantling Canada’s system of political party subsidies, a policy that benefits the Conservatives, who have the largest base of wealthy donors, and puts other parties, particularly the Liberals, at a financial disadvantage.
Money came to Mr Harper’s rescue in a different way during the international fiscal crisis, because Canada’s prudent and well-regulated banking system and its stable housing market insulated it from the worst effects. None of this was Mr Harper’s doing – his own instincts are antiregulatory – but he got some of the credit. Money, in the shape of profits from tar sands, also influenced the notorious decision to withdraw from the Kyoto protocol, and Canada’s pledges ahead of the next international environmental conference in Paris are the weakest of any major industrial country. In spite of what Thomas Mulcair, leader of the New Democratic party, calls this “rip it and ship it” philosophy,
Canada’s economy has faltered in recent years, and Canada is near, or perhaps already in, recession. The fall in oil prices is partly to blame, but his critics say that Mr Harper’s emphasis on a balanced budget at a time when the economy needs stimulus, not constraint, as well as giving tax breaks to the better-off, has made things worse.
Domestically Mr Harper has tried to move Canada away from its social democratic tradition, reducing government spending and services, privatising government agencies, cutting public health. He has gagged government scientists and civil servants, is bringing in new internal security laws, and made Canada a less open society. Internationally he has made the Canada that begged to differ (with Britain on Suez, on Vietnam with America, for example) and the Canada that was a pillar of peacekeeping and the United Nations a distant memory. And his particularly passionate identification with Israel has lost Canada the “honest broker” status that it arguably enjoyed in the Middle East in the past.
The political contest in Canada this time is particularly difficult to predict since the three big parties each have about 30% in popular support. Any of the three could end up in government, alone or in coalition. But we may be permitted to hope there is now a chance that something of the old Canada, committed to moderation and multiculturalism at home and to multilateralism and cooperation abroad, will re-emerge from the fray.