A Harper vs. Dion election match could generate heat. Really.

JOHN GEDDES May 26 2008


A Harper vs. Dion election match could generate heat. Really.

JOHN GEDDES May 26 2008



A Harper vs. Dion election match could generate heat. Really.


It doesn’t have to be like this: Canadians who revel in politics as a spectator sport relegated to pressing their noses up to the glass of the U.S. presidential contest, sighing with envy. There’s no denying that the primaries now wrapping up have been unusually vivid, making the squabbling in Ottawa’s minority Parliament look pallid by comparison. Casting ahead to next fall, it’s all too easy to imagine more of the same. The clash of presidential campaign narratives—the Republican maverick with his Vietnam prisoner of war backstory, up against, as now seems certain, the stirring Democrat orator who would be the first black presidentlooks certain to outshine the rivalry between Stephen Harper and Stéphane Dion.

Yet there’s more potential in a Harper vs. Dion campaign matchup, whenever it comes, than jaded pundits allow, or an uninspired voting public assumes. Granted, the biographies of the leaders of our two main federal parties aren’t nearly as intriguing as those of Barack Obama and John McCain.

Both the Prime Minister and his Liberal challenger, though, arguably bring more intellectual heft to the political arena than either presidential hopeful. If Harper and Dion aren’t sparkling public personalities, there’s no reason they couldn’t still serve up an uncommonly meaty policy debate.

Remember, Harper came of age intellec-

tually as an economics M.A. student caught up in the fervid neo-conservative atmosphere of the University of Calgary in the 1980s. He emerged as a policy provocateur with a knack for party strategy, willing to deliver whole speeches of bluntly right-wing analysis of the Canadian condition. For his part,

Dion honed a formidable intellect as a star Ph.D. student at France’s best grad school, studying the street-level politics of Paris suburbs under a famous academic mentor. He went on to earn his bones in Canadian public affairs in single combat, first as a Montreal academic and then a federal cabinet min-

ister, often as the lone francophone federalist willing to challenge the claims of Quebec’s sovereignist establishment.

Far from being risk adverse, these two first captured attention by being gamely risk-receptive. So how did Harper, as Prime Minister, become more obsessed with controlling the message than driving the debate? How did Dion, as Liberal leader, manage to

let himself be labelled indecisive? The answers to both questions lie in the day-to-day grind of trying to lead partisan coalitions, at a time when neither big party polls strongly enough to feel safe, and both sense they have scant margin for error. But politicians are no more likely to lose their convictions, at heart, than anybody else. So perhaps it’s

not too much to hope that the authentic Harper and Dion are only dormant. Maybe each needs the other to prod him back to fighting form.

A tantalizing hint of how that

batde might be sparked has recently filtered out from Liberal backrooms. Dion is considering putting a carbon tax at the centre of the next Liberal platform. Up until recently, conventional wisdom among Liberal and Tory strategists alike was that taxing fossil fuel consumption, to curb Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, was a political non-starter. Their shared fear: while voters might pay lip service to environmental concerns, they would punish a party that tried to make them pay for pumping out carbon dioxide.

But British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell’s groundbreaking introduction of a carbon tax earlier this year challenged that assumption. Campbell’s tax, low to begin with but slated to ramp up over time, did not prompt a popular backlash. Dion took note. He hasn’t made a final decision, but already his circle is buzzing. “It’s about bringing about fundamental change in the way we do things,” said one aide. If Dion does press ahead, his familiar “three pillars” pitch, in which he claims to have a vision for making the environment equal to the economic and social policy, might suddenly sound like more than rhetoric.

Responding would test Harper’s policy imagination. It would also make it hard for

him to go on caricaturing Dion as a non-leader who can’t make up his mind. But by putting a carbon tax at the centre of their platform, the Liberals might seem to be playing to Tory strengths. After all, the Prime Minister is, according to polls, preferred by a wide margin over Dion as an economic manager. He would almost certainly portray a Liberal carbon tax as bad economic policy, even if Dion sold it as part of a broader package with offsetting tax cuts elsewhere.

Allowing Dion to set the main subject of a campaign debate

would be risky for the Tories. As ^ well, Harper tends

not to see tax and eco _

nomic policy as the best issues on which to differentiate Conservatives from Liberals in the minds of swing voters. Back in 2003, he wrote insightfully about how the political revolution led by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher a generation ago forced liberals everywhere to the right on economic matters. As a result, free trade, balanced budgets, and even tax cuts are no longer the privileged province of conservatives. “The truth of the matter,” Harper said, “is that the real agenda and the defining issues have shifted from economic issues to social values, so conservatives must do the same.”

He identified “foreign affairs and defence, criminal justice and corrections, and health care and social services” as the new defining policy files. Sure enough, all these areas turned out to be focal points for his minority government. If debate in the next campaign is to be elevated to a true test of ideas, Harper will need to continue highlighting some or all of these areas again. It might be his only way to avoid fighting on Dion’s chosen ground of environmental vision.

Harper might start with foreign affairs. An incumbent prime minister enjoys the clear advantage of being able to present himself as an actor on the world stage. Recently, Harper has tried out an unexpected variation in his performance: a surprisingly hard line on the always crucial subject of relations with the United States. At last month’s CanadaU.S.-Mexico summit in New Orleans, asked by reporters about Democratic presidential contenders threatening to open up the North American Free Trade Agreement, he countered with a sharp warning of his own. Harper implied he would use Canada’s oil and gas exports to the U.S. as a tool for maintaining market access.

Then, earlier this month, he dispatched Industry Minister Jim Prentice to Washington to assail American politicians for allowing the so-called “thickening” of the Canada-U.S. border. This was no hastily conceived improvisation. Although Harper has a long pro-American

track record, he has been gradually building toward a more critical stance. In an interview with Maclean’s late last year, he candidly said he expects the proliferation of U.S. security and export regulations at the border to keep slowing down tourism and trade at least until the next president takes office.

He said cabinet has held serious discussions about how to develop new long-

term strategies if Canada can’t recover its lost “special relationship” with the U.S. “If we can’t restore it,” Harper said, “we’re going to have to think through carefully whether that requires some long-term rethinking of our other strategies.” He wouldn’t go into details, but any policy thrust that assumed a permanent cooling of Canada-U.S. ties would be a dramatic departure. It might entail a more systematic approach to expanding trade to other countries, or a tougher stance—as Harper’s allusions to oil and gas exports suggest—when it comes to pressuring Washington into taking seriously Canadian concerns about efficient access to the U.S. market.

Dion might find it hard to match Harper in promising for a stern new approach to the U.S. relationship. Conservatives are basically inoculated against being branded anti-American; Dion would have to tread more carefully. As well, Harper could use robust defence policy, always popular in Washington, to balance off a more tough-talking position on trade and border issues. His government has already ordered the Canadian Forces new tactical lift aircraft, helicopters and Arctic patrol vessels. This week, he announced a 20year, $3 0-billion defence procurement program. By planning far beyond the life of a


single government, he hopes to claim credit for the long-term replacement of everything from fighting ships, to fighter jets, to the vehicles and systems that fight on land.

In a dream debate, Dion would flatly reject at least some of those multi-billion-dollar purchases, and the philosophy behind them. Canadians voters would be treated to a bracingly clear clash of defence visions. Harper would argue for Canada to keep building a military armed for what he once called “the great geopolitical battles against modern tyrants.” Dion would counter by listing Tory military procurements he has already denounced as “in many cases neither necessary nor wanted by the army, equipment that is no part of any coherent foreign policy plan.” He might reject, say, replacing the aging CF-18 fighter jets. And he might underscore

the contrast by stressing his idea for Canada to take the lead in promoting an international treaty banning cluster bombs—a return to the sort of multilateral priorities Lloyd Axworthy championed when he was Jean Chretien’s highest-impact foreign minister.

Few Canadian elections, however, are shaped mainly by visions of Canada in the world. Harper and Dion would inevitably return, in any truly revealing debate, to how they see Canada as a federation. They are both steeped in often bitter past disputes over the relationship between Ottawa and the provinces, Quebec in particular. Harper started out as an advocate of strict equality among provinces. He also warned against giving in to the old Tory temptation to court Quebec nationalists. But as Conservative opposition leader, he softened his stand, accepting the notion of “asymmetry” to single out Quebec in the 2004 health deal then-prime minister Paul Martin signed with all the provinces. And as Prime Minister, Harper tabled the motion in the House that led to a vote recognizing the Québécois as a nation within Canada.

No doubt he has adapted as part of a strategic bid to wrest valuable votes away from the Bloc Québécois. But his Alberta-bred pol-

itics has always chafed against what he sees as federal incursions into provincial jurisdictions. The potential for sympathy with Quebec nationalism was always there. In last fall’s Throne Speech, he promised “legislation to place formal limits on the use of the federal spending power for new shared-cost programs in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction.” That bill hasn’t yet been tabled, but depending on exactly how the law tries to hem in Ottawa, and how it is sold in Quebec, such legislation might form the basis for a memorable campaign duel with Dion. He has long fought against any claim that Ottawa intrudes too much on provincial turf, especially Quebec’s. “I’ve seen this often,” he told Maclean’s last year, “politicians coming and saying, “You’re right, separatist leaders, to say that Canada is unfair to Quebec. You are right to say that Canada is being unfair to you, that the country is too centralized, but elect me and it will change.”

If a battle over federal powers might catch the attention of Quebec voters, anxiety over the fuk ture of exporting industries could be the top-of-mind issue in Ontario. Much depends on how long the pain inflicted on Ontario manufacturing communities by the current U.S. slump lasts. If voters in the most

populous province are still preoccupied with their eco nomic prospects come election time—next fall, or even next year— they will be demanding answers. And with 106 Ontario seats up for grabs, Harper and Dion will have little choice but to offer something. If his many past statements are any indication, Harper is by deep conviction far less inclined to offer dir

ect help to industries. Back in the spring of 2004, when he was running for the leadership of the new Conservative party, he said: “You know, the principal area where we’re going to get the government out entirely is corporate welfare and industrial subsidies.” Not quite. Last year, the Tories announced their strategic aerospace and defence initiative, a subsidy fund that will dole out $900 million over five years. This year, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty unveiled a $ 250-million, five-year automotive innovation fund. Clearly, Harper has found it harder in power to turn off the corporate subsidy spigot than he imagined when he was in opposition. Still, in a real debate with Dion—a scrap that forced each man to dig down for what he truly believes in—Harper might reclaim some of his old zeal for letting the free market do its thing.

And the perfect foil for a reborn, non-interventionist Harper might be Dion. The Liberal leader proposed a $l-billion fund, for instance, to support manufacturers switching to green technology. “Tax cuts alone are not enough,” he said early this year. “The federal government must partner with the manufacturing sector as it adjusts to recent economic shocks. That requires strategic investment.” On the other hand, Dion is not a one-dimensional, old-style advocate of government grants. If anything, the tax platform he proposed last fall concentrates more than the Tories have on business tax cuts.

But it’s that sort of complexity that would make a full-volume Harper-Dion clash so thrilling. Dion starts the argument over a carbon tax, Harper broadens it to include managing the economy or streamlining the tax system. Harper stakes out a position on how to manage a problematic U.S. relationship, Dion replies by raising even bigger issues about how Canadians want their country to act abroad. Either presses the other’s buttons on Quebec, and the whole federal-provincial balance of powers issue is soon in play. There’s enough here to brew up a perfect storm of a political debate. But the key ingredients are Harper and Dion themselves. They are politicians, sure, prone to playing angles and accepting compromises. But these two were fighters first, thinkers who knew their own minds, and weren’t adverse to telling you so in clear terms. We need to hear those voices again. M

OIL AND gas exports to the United States, defence policy and manufacturing woes— all could factor into an election campaign