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Who's afraid of a big, bad Harper majority?

A recent Nanos poll showed that more Canadians are uncomfortable than are comfortable with the thought of giving Prime Minister Stephen Harper a majority government.

Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press

There are children in grade school today who weren't born when Canada entered the era of perpetual minority government. For seven years, federal politics has tottered through unstable parliaments, endless election speculation and legislation that doesn't get anywhere.

In that time, the House of Commons has become more powerful, as a Conservative government is forced to obtain the consent of at least one progressive opposition party before legislation can be passed. But the Prime Minister's Office has grown more powerful as well, as a mood of near-perpetual crisis strips cabinet members of their last shreds of autonomy. The political atmosphere in Ottawa is foul, and important national priorities languish, for lack of agreement on how to move forward.

A recent Nanos poll showed that more Canadians are uncomfortable than are comfortable with the thought of giving Prime Minister Stephen Harper a majority government. Nonetheless, the Conservatives believe they can secure that majority by targeting specific vulnerable ridings across the country.

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If they succeed, many fear Mr. Harper will impose a radical conservative agenda. He won't, and he couldn't even if wanted to. The truth is, ideology aside, Canada could use a dose of majority government right now.



Things get done

In 2005, the Liberals introduced legislation that would update the Copyright Act to take into account the arrival of the digital age, which had already been around for some time. Six years and three bills later, we're still waiting. At this rate, the digital age will be over before Canada gets a new act.

A majority government would allow the Conservatives to push through a copyright law, and much else: Refugee legislation would permit the detention of claimants who arrive en masse; senators would be elected to a single eight-year term; the gun registry would be toast. And maybe a majority would give the Conservatives the courage to take on some sacred cows: abolishing agriculture marketing boards that have left Canada frozen out of Pacific free-trade talks and stymied other trade deals; introducing an element of private-sector market discipline to public health care; forging closer trade and security ties with the United States.

But the Tories would need to be careful: Voters tend to punish governments that get too far ahead of the popular curve.



There is no secret plan

The enemies of Stephen Harper fear that he would be willing to get far, far ahead of the curve. They believe he harbours a radical social and fiscal agenda that he would unleash if given an opportunity: The right to abortion and gay marriage would be reversed; the Canada Pension Plan privatized; health care turned over to the corporations; the CBC stripped of its funding; safety and environmental regulations trashed - well, the sky would fall.

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Not likely, believes Reg Alcock, a Liberal who served in Paul Martin's cabinet as Treasury Board president and now teaches at the University of Manitoba's business school. "Canadian governments are elected to serve all Canadians," he observes, "and all of them tend to move toward the centre, because that is where the people are." Mr. Harper's paramount desire to make the Conservatives Canada's new natural governing party will always serve as the best check on whatever rabid-right tendencies he might harbour.

Even if a federal government did attempt radical reform, bureaucratic inertia would act as a drag on change. The provincial governments hold an effective veto on most federal legislation; proposals that both Ontario and Quebec strongly oppose rarely make it into law. And the Supreme Court of Canada acts as a final brake on any government that attempts to run roughshod over the Constitution.



Proof that Canada truly is conservative

A fourth Conservative government, this one a majority, would end the debate over whether Canadians have become more fiscally conservative. After all, it has been 16 years since Liberal finance minister Paul Martin vowed to eliminate the federal deficit "come hell or high water." He succeeded, and successive Liberal and Conservative governments honoured that pledge. The Conservatives resorted to deficit spending to fight the 2009 recession. But they are committed to returning the budget to balance earlier than would the Liberals or NDP, even as they continue to lower corporate taxes. A majority government would prove that promising to balance the books while keeping taxes low wins elections every time in fiscally conservative Canada.



Parliament declines

Critics complain that the powers of Parliament have declined in recent years. Bosh. Under successive minority governments, parliamentary committees, in which the opposition are in the majority, have axed unpopular legislation and brought cabinet ministers before the dock. The House has passed private member's bills opposed by the government. Speaker Peter Milliken forced the Conservatives to strike a deal on releasing Afghan-detainee documents at the risk of being found in contempt of Parliament. Little or none of this would have occurred under a majority government. If the Conservatives secure one, Parliament will revert to its former supine state.

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Good for the Grits, but bad for the Bloc

There aren't many Liberals who would welcome a Conservative majority. But the party, many believe, is in urgent need of renewal. After all, the Conservatives are in power partly because they have faced a string of weak Liberal leaders. The party has long been shut out of the West apart from greater Vancouver. It is in eclipse in French Quebec and Ontario beyond greater Toronto. It needs to rebuild and renew, from the riding associations in Saskatchewan to the leadership in Ottawa. Four years in opposition with no immediate prospect of returning to power would give the party time to rethink and regroup.

Mr. Alcock notes that the Conservatives remained out of power in Ottawa until they effected a generation change by choosing Mr. Harper, who was 44 when he became leader of the party. "It may well be that the time has come to find a leader who is more representative of the new generation of political leadership," he believes

With a majority, the Conservatives would push through legislation stripping political parties of public funding. This would be dangerous for the Bloc Québécois, which relies heavily on those subsidies. A diminished Bloc might bring Canada back to the three-major-party system that had long been the Canadian tradition. Historically, that configuration has also been good for the Liberals.



What about a Liberal majority?

Few ever expected Mike Harris to become premier of Ontario. And who would have predicted an African American would become President of the United States? Conventional wisdom usually reflects assumptions that are no longer true. Scenario: Michael Ignatieff catches fire on the campaign trail, eviscerates Stephen Harper in the leaders' debates and sweeps the Liberals to a majority government as a giddy electorate opts for radical change.

In which case, simply replace the word "Conservative" with "Liberal" and most of this story continues to apply. Unless, of course, the Liberal Leader has his own secret agenda …

John Ibbitson is The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau chief.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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