On this beautiful Sunday morning, I came across an article in the New York Times Sunday Review by Stephen Marche, a regulator contributor to the NYT on Canadian issues. It is an article that illustrates Harper’s failures as a PM in the last 9.5 years, especially his need for control the lack of transparency in a democratic society. It reads like an indictment of the Harper government in the past almost 10 years. As Canada is heading into a Federal Election on October 19th, there is no better time than now to discuss what the three leading federal parties have to offer. In Canada, of course. Normally, Canadian politics is as exciting as a snooze fest. It hardly registers as a world-changing event worthy of international media coverage. Unlike the American elections which can drag on for as long as 16 months and often dominate news coverage around the world during those months, Canadian PMs are often elected without all the pomp and circumstance. Why do I think Stephen Harper is making waves around the world? Not just in the NYT, but also recently in the Guardian. This election is different because this election is a referendum on Stephen Harper’s ability to lead the country through the next 4 years and his 4th term as Prime Minister, a rare accomplishment by any PM. This person has been leading our government since the end of my undergraduate days, a very long time ago. He has led the country through a major recession and the ups and downs of oil prices, which are intimately tied to the desirability of our currency. He has led the country through significant policy changes affecting everything from immigration to people’s ability to save for retirement through the introduction of the very successful TFSA (Tax-Free Savings Account). He has also forged closer ties with the United States to assist in the global war on terrorism. As China celebrates its run-away GDP growth, Harper has also welcomed the Middle Kingdom to invest in Canada. This is a remarkable departure from the government’s earlier and much tougher stance in its diplomatic relations with China. Who can forget his no-show at the 2008 Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony? That was probably the lowest point in the two countries’ relationship.
What this article fails to show is the circumstances under which Harper has had to make his decisions, all of which may be of interest to constitutional lawyers. I don’t really think the answer to any of his policy changes can be black and white. For example, revoking citizenship for dual citizens convicted of terrorism or high treason has stirred controversy. We live in an age of global terrorism, and this is a fact. Although Canada did not initiate the Iraq War nor are we responsible for the splinter terrorist groups that have shocked the world for their brutality and barbarism, we are involved in this global combat against terrorism whether or not we like it. Social media has facilitated brainwashing of impressionable young men and even young women so that it is not all that shocking when a seemingly innocent young man from a small town in Quebec, full of rage, is driven to terrorism because of what he learned on Youtube. Or when two young high school students, neither of whom from an ethnicity associated with Middle Eastern terrorism, board a one-way flight to the Middle East. We cannot run away from these threats as if we were living in a bubble. We live next door to a giant that is very sensitive to these issues. It is easy to overlook the fact that the mastermind behind 9/11 was living in Toronto in an ordinary neighbourhood. I believe Harper has a responsibility to protect Canadians and the world against people who use Canada as a gateway to terrorism.
Although the economy under Harper has faltered (as the author correctly points out), Canada has always had a resource-based economy. Our economic fortunes are directly correlated with the prices of commodities. Canada does not have a Silicon Valley (Waterloo region probably but the once almighty Blackberry is in a weakened form) or a strong R&D sector that can prop up the economy when the oil sands dry out. Canada does not have as diversified an economy as in the United States. And yes we do have a financial hub in Toronto, but we also need more sectors that can create wealth, not transfer wealth. The type of dynamic entrepreneurship in the United States is not on display in Canada, although many young people have ventured into it, sometimes more out of necessity because the cards are stacked against them in the job market. No PM can change the entrepreneurial spirit of a country. Americans’ success goes back to the country’s founding. The two countries have taken dramatically different economic paths in the past two centuries. Alberta’s oil can be a boon for our economy as well as the bane of our existence. For those who travel to the United States, our dollar is no longer the mighty dollar it used to be back in 2008 when oil was nearly $200/barrel compared to now (2015) when it’s worth probably only a quarter of this. If Harper is ousted in October, he will be remembered for his lack of measures to support the economy when the oil bubble burst. He should not have banked his political fortune on a sector that is so vulnerable to global winds of change. But I am not certain if another person had been in power at a time when oil was $200/barrel, he or she would have done anything differently or wanted to be seen as anything other than a full supporter of a strong and prosperous sector. Politicians mostly think in the short-term unfortunately.
Despite his questionable record on transparency, Harper remains popular with many immigrants and the middle-class. Harper’s pragmatism has proven to be popular among them. The NYT author failed to mention the successful introduction of the TFSA (Tax Free Savings Account). To those not familiar, anyone over 18 can open an account in which they can deposit up to X amount of money per year (this X may or may not change every year), which can be used for tax-free investing (only if you follow certain rules). The purpose of the account is to help people save and grow their money. This can assist those who do not have a pension plan or anyone who needs an emergency fund. Rather than waiting until 67 for government pension, why not start growing savings at 25 and avail yourself of the power of compounding without worrying about taxes? Instead of growing money in a bank with a measly interest rate (and still being taxed), this account can be used directly for investing in the stock market where the returns are higher. I have heard arguments from both sides and even from those who want the government to cancel this account altogether. Those on the other side argue that again Harper’s conservative roots are showing by favouring the rich who can stash away at least $5000/year. By encouraging people to save and paying less taxes on their savings, Harper is eroding the tax base that can otherwise be used to support a social safety net. Or so the argument goes. On the other hand and it’s my argument, what if by encouraging people to save, you can be less dependent on the government and take responsibility for your own life? Government can divert resources to more urgent issues. Is the ability to save $5000/year really beyond the reach of ordinary people? $5000 isn’t exactly a king’s ransom these days, but it can go a long way toward planning for an emergency or retirement. I believe the TFSA is an important savings tool for ordinary working Canadians. This is not an insignificant achievement of Harper’s party in the last 10 years.
I say his record is mixed. Harper has never pretended to be anything other than a politician. Political decisions are never perfect. Every decision is open to interpretation. The NYT author correctly points out he has not been a terrible Prime Minister. I would venture to say he is a very competent leader. He has led the country relatively unscathed through the Great Recession of 2009. I am just not sure if any other leader would have done anything other than running a deficit to stimulate the economy. There are areas that could have been handled differently. But, the author could have provided some context in his indictment of the party. He could have also balanced the article with concrete examples of changes that have also benefited a large number of Canadians.