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Before the recent election, Brian Mulroney, on the outs with Stephen Harper, chided him for not having "one big idea." The disgraced former Conservative prime minister, always looking for a way to claw himself back into public favour, still wants Canadians to see him as a successful architect of public policy; he was looking for people to agree that his record was superior to what Harper was offering Canadians.
The big idea Brian Mulroney had for Canada was not the Meech Lake Accord, or the Charlottetown Accord, or the GST, or Free Trade. His one big idea, announced in his 1984 winning election campaign, was that public servants would get "pink slips and running shoes" when the Conservatives arrived in Ottawa.
True to his word, Mulroney began a systematic attack on the public service, mocking the ethos of service to the country in the process. His government undertook layoffs of employees, shutdown government policy and research operations, and farmed out thinking about how Canada should be governed to private consultants, and major business associations such as the Chamber of Commerce and the former Business Council on National Issues (Canadian Council of Chief Executives).
Finding,and naming senior officials sympathetic to his agenda of privatization, de-regulation, and free trade was the way Mulroney left his stamp on Canada.
Mulroney's plan to "remake the country so we would not recognize it" required diminished opportunities for career public servants. For instance, rather than follow the tried and true method of promotion on the basis of merit, Mulroney appointed a friendly Montreal lawyer to the key post of deputy minister of finance.
Stephen Harper has a similar plan to diminish the federal public service, and reduce its capacity to deliver programs to Canadians. Over the next three years, under the guise of balancing the budget, the Conservatives plan $11 billion of program spending reductions. Why three years, and not four, as previously announced? Because there will be an election in the fourth year, and Harper fully intends to reduce taxes, just before Canadians next go to the polls. The rationale that spending cuts are unavoidable in order to reduce the federal budget deficit is false, since the deficit was due to the recession, and to tax reductions that began in 2000 under the Liberals, and continued under the Conservatives.
The Conservatives, who won eight of the 12 Ottawa area seats in the last election, pretend that to achieve spending cuts, 80,000 jobs can be eliminated in the next three years through retirements and attrition. Not wanting to talk about people losing jobs, and their homes, and wishing to minimize attention to the planned reductions in federal employees, the Minister for the National Capital Region, John Baird, told the Ottawa Citizen that 80,000 jobs could be cut from the public service without any layoffs. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives estimates that no more than 40,000 jobs could be abolished through attrition, and at least another 40,000 employees will have to be laid off to reach the Conservative targets.
The Conservatives elimination of 80,000 jobs means 45 percent of the 178,000 federal public service positions will disappear. Though it remains to be decided where across Canada the cuts will come, obviously the overall negative impact on the economy on the national capital region of job losses of this magnitude will be immense, since most public servants are based in the capital area. It seems Ottawa has to become a ghost town for the Conservative ideal of small government to be achieved.
Stephen Harper calls his Conservative party, the "party of Canada". And, like Mulroney, Harper plays the nationalist card. The Harper government waves Canadian flags in the Arctic, at the Vancouver Olympics, and wants to put still more flags on prisons and F-35 stealth fighters.
Brian Mulroney was wrong, Stephen Harper does have a big idea, and it is much like his own. For Harper, Canada does not need much in the way of a Canadian capital, a Canadian government, a public service, or program that serve its citizens, to continue to be Canada.
Duncan Cameron writes weekly about Canadian politics and is the president of rabble.ca.
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