Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, sworn in on Feb. 6, 2006, marked its seventh anniversary in office last week. Here’s a quick quiz:
Name the five priorities it ran on in the 2006 election.
Accountability was the first one, arising from the sponsorship scandal that tainted the Liberal brand. The 2006 Accountability Act remains a signature piece of legislation, though hardly transformational.
Then, cutting the Goods and Services Tax from seven to six to five per cent. Each point deprives the government of $6 billion in revenue, or $12 billion a year, which might have come in very handy for Finance Minister Jim Flaherty as he looks for ways to balance the books again.
Then $100 per month in cheques for every child under age 6 per family, in place of daycare payments to provinces.
Also a wait-time guarantee in health care. That one never really got done. Wait times remain the biggest issue in the health-care system.
Finally, a crackdown on crime, still a work in progress these seven years later, as Justice Minister Rob Nicholson introduces a Victims of Crime bill, something for the Conservatives’ right-wing base.
The five priorities of 2006 were the entire basis of the Conservatives’ first throne speech and budget. Seven years later, there is no real road map. The Conservatives graduated to majority status in the 2011 election, but their agenda is largely transactional, dealing with issues as they arise.
Maclean’s magazine columnist Paul Wells and others have noted that Harper gets into trouble when he runs out of script, as he did during the fall sitting of the House. Last week, he had a new script in a spirited speech to the Conservative caucus.
This time Harper proposed not five priorities, but four — citizenship, crime, the economy and families.
On crime, he offered rhetorical red meat. “When it comes to keeping our streets and communities safe,” he declared, “we will not rest.” And this in the face of statistics indicating a declining crime rate.
On the economy, he spoke of “the dreams of Canadians for the prosperity of this land.” He added: “The economy is still Job One.”
Make no mistake: the Conservatives have replaced the Liberals in voters’ minds as competent stewards of the economy. There are two franchise players on their team — Harper and Flaherty, one of only two ministers still in the same post as in 2006, the other being Marjory LeBreton, the government leader in the Senate. Flaherty is now the ranking finance minister in the G7 and G20.
Flaherty is the Conservatives’ best messenger on the economy. But here’s the thing — Canada has a good story to tell on the economy.
While Flaherty often says that “Canada is not an island,” this country has come through the great recession in better shape than most in the developed world.
Canada’s banking system has been ranked the strongest in the world for the last five years running by the World Economic Forum.
The country’s fiscal framework is solid. Canada’s deficit as a percentage of GDP is only three per cent, compared to seven per cent in the U.S. and U.K. Unemployment in Canada, at 7.1 per cent, is the lowest in four years, and lower than the U.S. at 7.7 per cent. All the jobs lost in the recession have been replaced, and then some.
The consensus forecast for economic growth in Canada this year is 1.9 per cent — not spectacular, but still steady.
That’s the economic script leading up to the budget.
And it’s the economy, before all other issues, that will determine the fate of the Harper government in the next election in the fall of 2015.
L. Ian MacDonald, a former head of public affairs at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, is editor of Inside Policy, the magazine of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.
© Copyright 2013