Canada: Harper remakes country in his image

TORONTO, Canada — Prime Minister Stephen Harper marked the fifth anniversary of his coming to power Sunday by describing Canada as safer and more prosperous under his government’s watch.

Harper, who first became prime minister on Jan. 23, 2006, touted his government’s law and order agenda, insisting he will continue to implement policies that “stop coddling criminals and start protecting victims.”

“Five years later, I can tell you that we have made Canada more united, stronger, more prosperous and a safer country,” he told some 600 Conservative Party supporters gathered in Ottawa.

The speech, televised on Canada’s all-news cable networks, was delivered as the possibility of another election dominates the talk of political analysts. There is much speculation that opposition parties will join forces to defeat the national budget, expected in late February or early March, thereby causing Harper’s minority government to fall.

That would give Harper another shot at the prize that eluded him in the two previous elections — the trust of Canadians to form a majority government. Right now polls show Harper’s Conservatives scoring no more than the 37 percent of the popular vote that gave them their second minority government in 2008.

Canadians, it seems, aren’t persuaded by the kinder, gentler image the prime minister has tried to exude by donning wooly pullovers, replacing contact lenses with glasses and even taking to the stage to belt out rock tunes now and then.

Still, no Canadian leader of minority governments has managed to stay in power as long as Harper — a testament to his political skills and the weakness of opposition parties. (The Liberal Party of Canada, reduced to main opposition status after dominating Canadian politics historically, flounders with a leader, Michael Ignatieff, who has failed to spark interest with voters.)

During the past five years, Canadians have seen two sides of Harper: One is the pragmatic politician willing to tone down his party’s more extreme conservative impulses in the hope of winning a majority government; the other is the hyper-partisan accused of short-circuiting democracy and degrading political discourse with nasty personal attacks.

The result is a country that has moved perceptibly to the right since Harper’s coming to power, and a political culture that is more divisive and mean-spirited.

Last week, for instance, Harper’s party released “attack ads” that once again questioned the patriotism of Ignatieff. The ads note the many years Ignatieff spent living abroad, try to portray him as more passionate about the United States than Canada, and conclude with the words: “Ignatieff: He didn’t come back for you.”

Veteran political analyst Jeffrey Simpson described the ads as “degrading and disgusting.”

“What did anyone expect? The ads reflect the Prime Minister and the party he has made in his image,” he wrote.

On the economy, Harper need only compare Canada to the United States to claim a job competently done. Canadian banks weathered the recession without a bailout, the housing market is strong and unemployment is at 7.6 percent, compared to 9.4 percent in the United States.

Yet Harper also squandered a $12 billion budget surplus left by the previous Liberal government with a pre-recession spending spree and cuts to the tax on goods and services. Recession stimulus spending has since brought the deficit to more than $50 billion.

On the democratic side of the ledger, Harper twice shut down Parliament to get out of political binds — once to prevent the opposition parties from forming a coalition that would have ousted him from power, and again, in January 2010, to prevent opposition parties from learning what the government knew about Canadian soldiers allegedly handing Afghan detainees to Afghan torturers.

He has also concentrated power in his office. And, a new study ranked Canada dead last in an international comparison of freedom-of-information laws.

The policy side has been without major initiatives. Harper’s ideological bent has more often been displayed by initiatives he axed or turned his back on, such as a national child care program of the previous Liberal government, an accord to boost education and reduce poverty among aboriginal people, the Kyoto Protocol to fight climate change and funding for Toronto’s massive Gay Pride festival.

His government has toughened sentencing for some crimes, including possession of marijuana, which critics say will bloat the prison population at a time when the crime rate has fallen significantly.

It has also shifted foreign policy strongly in favor of Israel. Harper has the dubious distinction of being the only Canadian prime minister who tried and failed to win a seat on the U.N. Security Council — a clear sign of the international respect the country has lost.

He also tried — and failed — to get rid of the “long-gun registry,” a centralized system whereby owners of rifles and shotguns have to register their weapons.  In his speech Sunday, he promised to try again if he wins the next election.

A week ago, Harper also expressed his support for capital punishment — abolished in Canada in 1976. He said he had no plans to try and reinstate it in the next Parliament.

Harper may have to settle for another minority government next time around. But minority governments haven’t stopped him from slowly remaking the country in his image.