Damage done: How Harper has hobbled and maimed future governments

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The speech from the throne came down campaign-style last week, packed with candy and nuts to delight Canadian consumers. It left both opposition leaders and pundits criticizing the Harper government for its lack of vision.

These critics may well be right in the short term, but surely by now we should know to look at Harper’s actions with a wider lens. There are key elements in the speech that are more about tomorrow than today.

Indeed, the speech may represent just the latest piece of Harper’s long-term strategy to cripple the capacity of future federal governments to do much other than uphold a conservative status quo. He has long been laying a practical, political and legislative minefield for those who would dare to head down any more ambitious path.

Amongst the baubles that have most delighted right-wing commentators is the promise for a bill mandating balanced books on the part of future governments. This legislation, the speech states, "will require balanced budgets during normal economic times, and concrete timelines for returning to balance in the event of an economic crisis."

Balanced budget legislation has become common in the provinces, but critics have persistently and persuasively slammed the approach for distracting from the real economic issues; these laws draw focus to annual budgets when economists almost unanimously agree that what really matters is debt-to-GDP ratio.

So why is Harper, an economist who surely understands this basic point, proposing this legislation?

It may have less to do with the present than with the future. One does not envy a future government that would try to lift or soften this legislation to undertake national projects and public initiatives.

Could there be a more politically awkward and unpopular case for a future finance minister to try to make than that deficits are not always bad and that one’s own government need not be kept on such a short leash?

This is not the first time that the Harper Conservatives have set out to pin their successors to the wall.

The death of the long-form census undermines the ability of future governments to pursue smart and informed social policy, the equivalent to covering up the eyes and ears of the public service. Broken threads of data have guaranteed the illegibility of long-term trends, enfeebling the capacity of governments to make smart choices for future generations.

The same strategy is at play on the government’s fiscal flank. The cuts to the GST were roundly criticized by policy experts for blowing a hole in government coffers while doing little to alleviate the financial burden of individual Canadians. Once again, though, reversing this policy decision would require a serious expenditure of political capital by a future government from which it could be difficult to recover.

For a Conservative opposition, talking points on tax-loving Liberals and New Democrats will practically write themselves. Other areas of tax policy have been similarly warped. As Susan Delacourt has documented, the government has zeroed in on segments of the electorate that it needs for electoral success, bewitching particular voters with alluring tax breaks.

This micro-targeting, which has become one of the hallmarks of finance minister Jim Flaherty’s budgetary strategy, has meant substantial lost revenue for the treasury and miniscule tax savings for groups like volunteer firefighters and those who buy sports equipment and bus passes.

The strategy works now, but it will also pay dividends for the Tories long after Harper is defeated: any future government that strives to clean up the muddled tax code will assuredly get lambasted by opposition for picking on volunteer firefighters.

The prominent place held by resource development in the throne speech points to perhaps the most dramatic aspect of this government’s scorched-earth policy: the aggressive advocacy of further pipeline construction. Harper and his team are bent on getting Keystone XL underway before fall 2015 and they are, as Harper himself uncomfortably pointed out in New York last month, not taking no for an answer.

But Barack Obama’s hesitation to green-light Keystone speaks to the inertia of unsustainability that builds with such projects; each metre of pipe that goes into the ground is a further entrenchment of carbon fuels in North America’s economy. Even a Green majority would have a hard time turning off a pipeline.

Many of these debilitating manoeuvres by the government have slyly appeased the red-meat Conservative base: balanced budgets, regardless of their true cost, enjoy wild support in the west; the elimination of the long-form census played well with knee-jerk, right-wing libertarians; pipelines sell in Alberta; and rare is the conservative taxpayer who abhors a tax credit.

Taken together though, these measures show themselves to be more than just short-term vote grabs. Rather, they are political and legislative ropes around the wrists of future governments as well as blindfolds over their eyes. To the extent that reversal of these measures is possible, it would in many cases involve complex and counterintuitive policy explanations to voters, likely to devastate their champions in the polls.

Calling Harper a visionless incrementalist is currently a popular trope for the opposition parties and liberal pundits. However, they should not lose sight of the fact that Harper’s goal could be to handcuff and constrain government far beyond his own tenure. In that respect, he may turn out to be a visionary after all.

Fraser Harland and Mark Dance have worked for MPs on both opposition and government sides of the House of Commons through the non-partisan Parliamentary Internship Programme. Their political collaborations have appeared in The Toronto Starand iPolitics .

Fraser completed an MA in Political Science at the University of Victoria under the supervision of Dr. James Tully and is currently studying law at McGill. His work on constitutional reform has been published in The Canadian Parliamentary Review. He tweets at @FraserHarland.

Mark recently completed an MSc in Mind, Language and Embodied Cognition at the University of Edinburgh. He has been a columnist for the Halifax Chronicle Herald and has done editorial work for Lapham's Quarterly in New York City. His political commentaries have appeared in National Newswatch, The Ottawa Citizen, The Globe and Mail and elsewhere. His research on parliamentary reform was featured on CBC's The House with host Evan Solomon. He tweets at @MarkDance88.

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