Harper's three tests

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Does he have what it takes to pass?

The prime minister mishandled the Mulroney file, just as he is about to face the three tests that will determine whether or not he can win enough seats to hold on to his job, come the expected Spring election.

The Conservatives won the most seats in the last election because they were not the Liberals. Without Jean Chrétien, a leader able to keep party scandals from undermining support for his government, Harper collected the “throw the corrupt politicians out” vote, and the Liberals lost power.

As even Harper strategist, Tom Flanagan has recognized, Canada is not an ideologically conservative country. So the prime minister, who wants to be re-elected, must prove himself to be a moderate on the issues that most matter: climate change, Afghanistan, and the economic disruption caused by the credit crunch and the yo-yoing dollar.

Canada's performance in Bali at the upcoming UN conference, designed to update and replace the Kyoto accord with a new set of international commitments on climate change, will be closely monitored by environmental NGOs as well as the opposition leaders. If the Harper government is seen as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution, it will fail the green test. On no other issue have ideological conservatives been more wrong than the environment. Obviously no government can back the existing rate of expansion of the Alberta tar sands, and expect to be getting credit for understanding the threat to survival posed by global warming.

Harper seemed to know what to do about the stink surrounding former Conservative Prime Minister Mulroney: ask David Johnston, University of Waterloo president, and twice a former law dean, to make a recommendation to the government. Instead Harper panicked and directed Johnston to set the terms for a public inquiry, likely to cost millions, and go on for months.

The public undoubtedly wants to find out how Mulroney could have accepted $2 million in public money — because he was wrongly linked by the Justice Department to lobbyists collecting fees for the Airbus sale to Air Canada — when it turned out he had accepted $300,000 in cash from Airbus agent Karlheinz Schreiber. But, irrespective of what emerges, the public inquiry is going to tie Harper to Mulroney in the public mind, and the Conservatives, not the Liberals, will be on the defensive on the corruption issue. This defeats the purpose of the Harper strategy from day one: Canada's New Government, they had branded themselves, not the same old friends of Mulroney.

With fresh allegations emerging about Canadian complicity in torture in Afghanistan, and two more soldiers dead over the weekend, the heat is on the government to show that Canada has a plan for that embattled country, other than to continue to take orders from the U.S. Hiding behind the “it is a NATO mission” will not get Harper past the Afghanistan test. So far the government is allowing the military to make policy. The war-making stance will hurt them in Quebec, and elsewhere.

The Conservatives have taken a laissez-faire approach to the upsets in the credit markets, and the wild fluctuations in the value of the Canadian dollar. Arguably, they have already failed the economy test for people in the manufacturing heartland of Ontario and Quebec. The Minister of Finance has no strategy for dealing with the devaluation of the U.S. dollar, and the Bank of Canada feigns indifference.

While Canadian banks write off losses from dealing in U.S. sub-prime mortgages, working people are losing jobs. As the U.S. economy slows down, the higher Canadian dollar trims profit margins on diminishing Canadian exports. The high Canadian dollar makes it easier for foreign imports to displace Canadian production. A public sector led economic strategy is needed, and the Conservatives will never provide it.

The best Harper can hope for is that the Mulroney inquiry will so capture public attention that the inability of his government to meet the challenges presented by climate change, the Afghanistan invasion, and the shrinking manufacturing economy will go unnoticed.

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