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Harper: Racing Liberals leftward

When Stephen Harper was beginning his spectacular four-year rise from ex-member of Parliament to prime minister of Canada, he was at first jeered by the media as colorless and dull. I pointed out at the time that this was not necessarily fatal in Canadian politics. Surely our dullest and most colorless prime minister was Mackenzie King, and he survived longer than any other in that office.

But King was not just colorless. He was also the shrewdest, craftiest and in some respects most unscrupulous of the 22 men who have led the country since the Canadian Confederation in 1867. In the last two months, it has begun to look that perhaps Stephen Harper shares with King those attributes as well.

King, for instance, held fast to the dictum that getting office and keeping it must supersede every other consideration. Promises, principles, the national interest, even loyalties and friendships must never detract from that primary goal.

Harper has proven much the same. The principles of the old Reform Party, of which he was an architect and which helped propel him to the top, he has almost wholly abandoned. Instead of cutting government spending, he has raised it even higher.

Instead of pushing the federal government out of provincial jurisdictions, he has intensified the federal presence. He has repeatedly denounced the phenomenon of a “carbon tax” and last week he enacted one by regulation, meaning that it does not need to come before Parliament. Finally, instead of terminating federal “bribery” to keep Quebec in Canada, he has increased the scale.

All of this is aimed at a single goal – achieving a majority in the next election. Almost everything else has been cast aside.

Like King, he is the ultimate pragmatist. To win a majority, he knows he must substantially improve his party’s standing in Ontario, where they now hold about 39 percent of the seats to the Liberals’ 52 percent; and also in Quebec where Harper’s Tories hold 13 percent of the seats to the Liberals’ 16 percent. The separatist Bloc Quebecois holds almost all the rest.

His maneuvers to make gains in both provinces are masterpieces of craft, opportunism, deception, betrayal, stealth, perfidy and manipulation. Against all this, Harper could produce only one argument. It works, or certainly seems to. He’s staying well ahead in the polls.

By suddenly declaring Quebec “a distinct society within a united Canada,” for instance, he emasculated the whole basis of the Bloc Quebcois, sending its leader into a trembling rage. At the same time, he repudiated what has been a Tory principle for at least 40 years – that there must be nothing constitutionally recognized as “distinct” about Quebec society.

By mightily increasing federal payments into Quebec, he purchased the support of the provincial Liberal government – at the cost of outrage in his home territory, western Canada. But then what could the West do about it? Vote for the Liberals? They’d be infinitely worse. By putting its own Steve Harper into the Prime Minister’s Office, the westerners –and particularly those in Harper’s home province of Alberta – had effectually disenfranchised themselves.

As for Ontario, it was the hapless Stephane Dion, the new Liberal leader, who opened the opportunity for Harper there. Dion, confident that Harper was hog-tied to the interests of the Alberta-based oil industry and seeking to make himself champion of the environmental movement, hurled his Liberals into the war on global warming.

No doubt to Dion’s aghast amazement, Harper abruptly reversed his party’s position. Where before they had quietly scoffed at environmentalism and scorned global warming as baseless hysteria, they overnight re-painted themselves green and promised a made-in-Canada emissions control policy that would impose harsh controls on the oil industry, notwithstanding Alberta’s opposition.

This ploy had two goals. One was to steal the thunder of the Liberals and portray the Tories as intent upon assuaging the environmental anxieties of the Ontario voter. The other was to stir voluble protests in Alberta, so that Ontario would know that Steve Harper was no puppet of Big Oil.

On Thursday, Harper’s environment minister unveiled the great plan. It was tough enough to satisfy Ontario, but nowhere near as tough as the oil industry had been deliberately led to believe. So a serious anti-Harper rebellion in Alberta was thereby averted.

But the net effect was to remove Steve Harper from the role of western hero. Instead, he is being recognized as an extraordinarily smart western politician. In democracies, the heroic mostly perish and the smart survive. Harper is a survivor.