Canada’s cold new dawn

Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper is our version of George W Bush, minus the warmth and intellect

mardi 3 mai 2011

Prime minister Stephen Harper – Canada’s own George Bush – during a 2008 speech in Ottawa.
Photograph : Chris Wattie/REUTERS

Heather Mallick - Canada woke up to an election shock this morning. It was a self-inflicted jolt, and all the more painful for that. After three minority governments in seven years – all following inconclusive, forgettable elections that never gave the Conservatives the solid majority they were sweating for – a man of the hard right named Stephen Harper finally has his win.

He triumphed over Michael Ignatieff – known to the British as a fine writer, historian and BBC talking head – who had returned to Canada to lead the Liberals, often described as the country’s traditional party of government. Instead, Ignatieff got whacked, and the left-leaning New Democratic party did very well indeed, astonishing even themselves. To put this in British terms, the Liberals (New Labour) were humiliated, the New Democrats (the Liberal Democrats) came in a powerful second and a Canadian version of George W Bush, minus the warmth and intellect, is now prime minister.

What happens now is the full-scale Americanisation of Canada, hinted at over the past seven years by Harper – he fired people who talked too loudly about this – but not acted upon because Canadians have always valued their distinctiveness from the angry country in decline south of the border.

It doesn’t win votes to say you want to de-Canadianise Canada, long known as a bastion of free healthcare, destination of refugees and immigrants, and a place that worries about climate change. But Harper once sneeringly referred to Canada as a typical northern European "welfare state". He was born and raised in Toronto, but went to university in Calgary, Alberta. He made his political base in this western province, which has long felt sneered at : Harper has spent his political career redressing the balance.

Harper’s Conservatives will pass an omnibus law and order bill within 100 days to make jail sentences mandatory for many offences, and begin building super-jails, copying a system that even its authors, the Americans, have begun to abandon. The huge purchase of fighter jets from Lockheed Martin, which was an election issue, will now go ahead – Harper says it will cost $9bn, government auditors say $39bn – as will massive military shipbuilding.

The Evangelist Christian right is at the heart of Harper’s Conservative party, and after years of being shushed, it will now demand an end to a number of things, including abortion rights. Canada has no law against abortions, and they are available free.

Corporate taxes will be cut almost immediately, Bush-style. Political financing laws will change : parties now get money for each vote – but this will end under the Conservatives, whose plans also include loosening the section of the current law that sees corporations barred from donating to parties. Given further corporate tax-cutting and other Conservative measures, the party will have a huge advantage in terms of the amount it can solicit in corporate donations under a new political financing law.

Corporate donations were banned and replaced by individual donations (which get you a huge tax break). The Conservatives have now said they will end this rule, which until now worked massively in their favour. They are wonderfully organized in raising funds from individuals, as Stephen Harper’s lifelong mentor, Tom Flanagan at the University of Calgary, wrote in a book called Harper’s Team, outlining every aspect of the Harper strategy long-term.

Harper was enraged that the book was published because it was so frank, and not only on this issue.

The Conservatives are going to end this scheme now that they have a majority.

Harper himself is a famously strange man, and not in a mercurial way like Gordon Brown. Humourless and awkward in gait, he was once photographed shaking hands with one of his own children. This will be on full display in the summer as William and Kate undertake their first royal tour, of Canada. Harper has picked the dullest bits of the country because they are the parts he doesn’t hate. You will see the royals in places where everyone goes to bed at 6:30. You will see Harper’s wife look glum while William and Kate smile gamely.

And what of Ignatieff’s defeat ? Canada comprises cities separated by vast distances. It is a real achievement to lose the cities, and Ignatieff managed it. Again we feel the influence of Bush : the modern excoriation of intellect scared Ignatieff and he began droppin’ his gs and decrying all that was "partisan" – which is American for believing in something.

The triumph of Harper’s Conservatives is a revolution in Canada. Grumpy old men are happy but modernists, women, young people, immigrants, people fond of evidence-based policy will be much less so. It’s the beginning of a kind of war, conducted in a dull, quietly agonising way.

• This article was amended on 4-5 May 2011. The original said that Stephen Harper grew up in Calgary, Alberta. Owing to an editing error, a caption referred to "Ottowa". These items have been corrected. A prediction about the impact of planned Conservative party changes to Canada’s political financing law has been expanded to add detail about the nature of the planned change regarding corporate donations. This has been clarified.


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2 mai 2011 - Harper majoritaire

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