Photo: flickr/Stephen Harper

There was a time when journalists and political commentators at least pretended to eschew so-called horse race coverage.

Politics is more than a sporting event, they would say. You watch a horse race, your horse loses and life goes on (unless you had placed a big bet on that steed).

Politics, on the other hand, has real consequences for you, your family, your community.

It is not just a game. 

Or, at least, commentators and pundits used to claim to believe that.

Today, that pretence has pretty much disappeared, if you were to judge by the recent slew of election year prognostications in Canada’s media.

All the chatter has been about tactics, strategy, image, positioning and — of course — what the polls tell us. 

What happened in the elected Parliament, over the past three and a half years, is of scant interest. And what the various parties stand for, what they might be expected to do if elected or re-elected, is of even less interest.

And so, today and in the coming days we will not talk about how Harper might continue to exploit the new concerns over security, how Trudeau might give himself a touch more gravitas, or how Mulcair could bend over backwards even more to show how moderate he and his party have become.

We’ll leave that politics-as-horse-race-and-show-biz pseudo-analysis aside, and take a look at the choices Canadians will have when they vote this year.

Conservative record of flouting democracy

Let’s start with Stephen Harper and his Conservatives.

They have a record, accumulated over more than eight years in power.

It includes gutting environmental oversight of mega projects, balking at any serious policy options to deal with climate change, turning their back on refugees, and flouting parliamentary democracy with omnibus legislation, while weakening electoral democracy with the oxymoronically named Fair Elections Act. 

And that is just a small part of it.

The Conservatives also pushed forward the age at which Canadians can receive Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement; forced harsh minimum sentences on the provinces which, for the most part, run the criminal justice system; abolished the long gun registry; and imposed political imperatives on science in a manner that reminds folks familiar with them of Communist regimes of the Cold War era.

With the election looming, though, Harper’s Conservatives don’t talk much about their record.

Now, Harper wants his story to be Mr. Nice Guy, not Mr. Tough Guy.

He got rid of the abrasive Julian Fantino in Veterans Affairs and replaced him with a much friendlier face; met face-to-face with Ontario’s Premier Wynne; and, on Wednesday, his Immigration Minister, Chris Alexander, announced that Canada will take in 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next three years.

Until that announcement, the government had been playing its habitual passive-aggressive game on the Syrian refugee issue. 

Does Canada still insist on only taking refugees from religious minorities?

When it looked like the government was falling well short of its pledge to take in 1,300 government-assisted and privately sponsored Syrian refugees by the end of 2014, Alexander used mathematical legerdemain to confuse the issue.

He cited figures that lumped together Syrian asylum seekers who had made their way to Canada on their own with the sponsored and assisted refugees whom the government had committed to admit.

At the same time, toward the end of last year, in response to desperate pleas from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the government reluctantly said it was willing to take in a new batch of Syrians.

But that willingness came with a qualification the UNHCR could not accept.

Canada would only take in Syrians from “minority” religious groups. Muslims, who make up the overwhelming majority of the millions of Syrian refugees, need not apply. 

It is not clear whether or not Wednesday’s announcement means the Conservatives have dropped that impossible condition. Thus, it is not clear whether or not the 10,000 Syrians Canada is prepared to admit will come from among the millions now under UNHCR protection. 

If the Canadian government sticks to its religious requirement, it has not said where it will find the 10,000 Syrian refugees, or how it will select them without UNHCR coöperation and assistance. 

Still, in making this announcement at the beginning of this election year, the Conservatives are showing their softer, more human side.

Almost everything they have done on the refugee file, up to this point — from their punitive reform measures (Bill C-31) to the curtailing of health care for refugees — has been nasty and negative. 

We licked the recession, ergo we are good stewards of the economy

For the most part, though, as the election approaches the Harper Conservatives want to portray themselves as sound economic managers, and nothing much more. 

We got Canada through the worst recession since the 1930s, they tell us.

They may have done that after adopting stimulus spending and deficit financing they had rejected months earlier; but they did it with much fanfare, with many photo-ops featuring giant cheques.

Now that the recession is behind us, the Conservatives have reverted to offering what they call ‘small’ government and lower taxes.

For corporations, the taxes are already lower all around. (And if profitable corporations decide to hoard that extra cash, rather than invest it in ways that create jobs, that seems to be their business entirely). 

For individuals, however, the Conservatives have only offered targeted fiscal measures of the sort that drive most economists, whether of the right or left, around the bend.

Most recently we have had the promise of income-splitting, which is primarily a means of achieving a greater measure of equity among relatively high-income earners.

We might expect other targeted tax measures in the next budget, Finance Minister Joe Oliver’s first. Or, maybe, the Harper team will promise little and sit on its laurels. 

Still the Harper government has no choice but to base its argument for another term on its record in office.

Whatever efforts Harper and his colleagues might make now to portray themselves as benign, pragmatic managers (aided and abetted by some in the media who seem to have very short memories), voters must consider that record, and decide if they want more of the same.

It they were to choose the Conservatives, voters would get more Parliament-defying omnibus bills, more stifling of disinterested science, more hostility to any serious environmental measures, and more pointless, counter-productive, and unnecessarily harsh criminal legislation.

If all of that constitutes the sort of policies you would like your federal government to pursue, you know who to vote for: Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.


Karl Nerenberg will continue this multi-part series on the choices for the 2015 federal election, discussing the Liberals, the Greens and the New Democrats. 

For part two of this series discussing Justin Trudeau and the Liberals, click here.

For part three of this series discussing Thomas Mulcair and the NDP, click here.

For part four of this series discussing Elizabeth May and the Greens, click here.

Photo: flickr/Stephen Harper

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...