Sunday, April 29, 2012

Ibbitson: "Harper will leave Canada divided as never before"

By John Ibbitson, Globe and Mail, April 29, 2012
But however long he serves, by the time Mr. Harper leaves, the country will be a very different place.

It will be divided as never before between left and right, progressive and conservative, east and west, decline and growth. Politics will become – has already become – a clash of irreconcilable values, of stark choices, with the voters forced to choose.
The story so far
In the past 12 months, the Conservatives have:
•enacted an omnibus crime bill that, among a host of other changes, increases sentences for many crimes, especially those involving drugs or sex.
•formally withdrawn Canada from the Kyoto protocol on global warming, claiming the standards set by the Liberal government of Jean Chr├ętien could not be met.
•launched investigations into what it calls “environmental and other radical groups,” some of them foreign-funded, claiming they are determined to sabotage the Conservative plan of exploiting natural resources to grow the economy. Many environmental assessments are being handed to the provinces.
As well, the March 29 budget cut program spending and reduced the size of the public service by almost 20,000 positions. The qualification age for the old age security retirement benefit will gradually rise from 65 to 67. Refugee claimants from developed countries will be given speedy assessments and in most cases sent back. Workers on unemployment insurance who don't apply for jobs currently being filled by foreign temporary workers could lose their benefits.
In December, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced a multi-year funding formula for health transfers to the provinces that largely removed Ottawa from its role in promoting a national public health-care system.
These and other changes delivered a one-two punch, greatly diminishing the federal footprint in programs Ottawa shares with the provinces, while cutting back spending in areas within its own jurisdiction.
All this has left some worried about what will be left when the Conservatives are through.
Alex Himelfarb was Clerk of the Privy Council – head of the federal bureaucracy – under Mr. Chr├ętien and his successor, Paul Martin. He caused a stir with a recent blog post lamenting what he calls “the dismantling of the progressive state.”
“The consequences of such a shift are never immediate or obvious; they are subtle and slow burning, inevitably hitting the most vulnerable first and hardest ... ” he wrote.
“If we want to imagine the consequences of crushing the progressive state ... we might want to have a look at the twenties and thirties, a time of massive inequality and personal vulnerability which presaged the Great Depression.”
In an interview, Mr. Himelfarb said that he believes the cuts are too deep: “We need to raise taxes to the extent necessary to protect and renew key services and meet our economic, social and environmental challenges.”
Canadians “were told that tax cuts are a free good,” he adds. “They are not.”
Mr. Himelfarb stresses that he does not believe the Conservatives are implementing some hidden agenda. “They said they were going to do this, and they did it. There is nothing hidden about it.”
He is right. It has been almost a decade since Mr. Harper laid out a strategy that has truly begun to take shape only in the past 12 months
It is his exclusively social and fiscal conservatism, linked intimately with his contempt for anything that smacks of the contributions of any previous Liberal government almost as if it had done irreparable damage to the country he interited as Prime Minister, and his combative, even obsessive, compulsion for destroying the opposition that combine, in our view, to generate not only policies that divide but a government and a culture that favours his base, his constituency and his financial benefactors, at the expense of the rest of the people in the country.
In fact, there is considerable evidence, that as a policy wonk, Harper is blind both to individual people and to human needs generally, preferring the abstractions of policy and how to stick-handle his bills through the commons and the public, with the most strictly administered and limited of talking points, memorized and delivered by whomever he designates as today's voice and face of the government. He is 'guiseppi' to his "pinochio" members, who mouth his script, imitate his petulance and his occasional fawning, distract his critics with wild and spurious charges, in a counter-offensive designed to obliterate any criticism, even the most thoughtful and sensible. It is almost as if the political stragegy and tactic favoured by the government is to provide the most memorable and ridiculous sound bite, as the thing remembered by any audience, rather than the spurious content of any government proposal. In that unsubtle camouflage, he perhaps hopes to mask his intentions, and take his chances with the short and rather skimpy memory of Canadians, most of whom are not paying close attention to the details of the government's actions and its long-term agenda.
Like the character Sam Slick in Thomas Haliburton's Clockmaker Series, Harper has mastered the cunning of the salesman, using whatever 'tricks' it takes to sell his policies, (not clocks) and without either whimsy or laughter. This man is, in his public persona, empty of wit, empty of compassion, and empty of the nuances of both power and culture, and his leaving cannot come soon enough for the 99% about whom he could care less, in spite of the government's chanting "jobs, jobs, jobs" as their political mantra.

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