Harper’s Leadership: Not so secure, not so pragmatic, not so proven

Stephen Harper.

The strategic, pragmatic, secure, proven leader.

Adjectives, repeated by journalists, conservative politicians and supporters during his nine-year tenure as Canada’s prime minister.

Adjectives, some of which, aptly describe his Machiavellian gamesmanship in the art and science of politics.

Adjectives and a positioning, in contrast to his administration and its implications for Canada.

Risk

Economy

From the time he prorogued Parliament, Act I, Stephen Harper pursued a high risk, low reward economic plan, focused on one industry.

One industry in need of a low-cost transportation method to move landlocked oilsands bitumen to refineries in the United States and markets overseas.

Calling himself a friend to this one industry, Harper proceeded to expunge environmental and waterways regulations and standards. In cahoots with Canada’s security agencies, the federal government spied on any parties objecting to oilsands expansion, and obstructed any and all attempts at legitimate carbon pricing.

He also used hundreds of millions of public dollars to advertise the virtues of Alberta’s oilsands in North America and Europe. Under cover. At least until recently.

In spite of this grand strategy, Harper’s ace industry now faces considerable headwinds: disinvestments in the oil patch by pension funds; renewed calls by scientists and environmentalists to leave the bulk of oilsands in-ground; and, as a result of plummeting oil prices, mounting financial losses for energy and supply chain companies.

Yet, as of today, not a shovel in the ground for any of those proposed pipeline projects.

While the overall Canadian economy did outperform that of our neighbour’s through the early, post-Recession Act 1 years, the results said more about the effects of the financial crisis on their economy, than the actual growth of ours. That growth in Canadian GDP was never matched by a recovery in full-time jobs – rather a growth of the precariously employed in non-industrial segments.

Today, our economy has a structural deficit. Much broader in scale than simply soft energy and commodity prices. Tea-leaf readers fail to see previous industrial growth, predicated on a low loonie, doesn’t presage future growth. The supply chain for American businesses now revving their engines, increasingly turn to Mexico for low-cost, quality-engineered parts or finished goods.

Five consecutive months of negative GDP in 2015 suggest Canada is now in the midst of a recession. Act II during Harper’s reign.

An astute, strategic leader might have used periods of growth to build a Canadian economy based on a broader, diversified basket of industries. Through joint federal-provincial investments in research, science, technology, and agriculture, Canada could have nurtured growing core competencies in specialized, high-skill, high reward industry segments better suited for tomorrow’s economies.

Canada could have established regional export hubs in each province to assist small and medium sized businesses navigate the emerging markets beyond our immediate neighbour.

Harper, that ostensible strategic economist, rode the wrong horse, at the wrong time with a game plan found wanting.

Law

The Conservative government has a particular knack for hastily written ideological laws that do not meet the Canadian Charter’s threshold. And, as we’ve heard from Mr. Perrin’s testimony during the Duffy trial, run contrary to consultation and advice sought from its own lawyers.

Several of these laws, have subsequently been overturned by the Supreme Court of Canada: prostitution, assisted suicide, senate reform, time-served sentencing, Aboriginal title, healthcare for refugees, and mandatory minimum sentencing for gun crimes.

One can only surmise the Fair Elections Act, Bill C-51, Bill C-24, the human smuggling laws, amongst others, will, in time, meet the same fate.

Add in a growing number of lawsuits brought by First Nations and environmental groups opposed to pipeline construction missing social license, you can appreciate the tally to defend nine years of non-pragmatic laws will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Tax, as Foregone Revenues

Global businesses demand and generally receive preferential tax treatments.

Desperate to improve Canada’s standing, the previous Liberal government began the march to lower federal corporate tax rates. The baton passed to Harper’s Conservatives, who reduced it further to the current 15%.

As we’ve come to see, scant amounts of the added dollars to the bottom lines of these corporation, trickled down to Canadian citizens. Hoped for investments in jobs, equipment, training and productivity, never truly materialized. Much of those tax savings either sit as cash on corporations’ books waiting for improved market conditions, or was used for share buy backs and dividend payouts to shareholders.

On the personal income tax portion of the Conservative platform, Harper created a myriad of boutique tax credits, one for each voter segment targeted: firefighters, public transit users, child fitness participants, TFSAs, income-splitting for seniors and wealthy families, fitness club members, and on and on.

Add in the two-point elimination of the GST, and the Conservatives stripped approximately $46 billion in annual revenue from the public’s coffers.

Approximately, as they are loathe to offer any transparency into what these tax cuts or credits are actually costing Canadians. Whether they are even tracking these numbers is a question best asked of the next Finance Minister.

Interestingly, the timing of the GST reduction, income splitting for non-seniors, enhanced TFSAs and universal child care benefit, all directly preceded Recessions Act I and II of the Canadian economy. Recessions the Conservatives didn’t see coming, or rather, hoped for a soft landing.

But, if you looked below the surface of the global economy in 2007-2008 and again in 2014-2015, you noted several months of declining GDPs, growing job losses or jobless growth, trade deficits, muted demand, heated housing markets fueled by subprime or liar loans, and increasing illiquidity in equity markets.

Fiscal prudence and the desire to mitigate risk might have dictated holding off on previous campaign promises. At least until Canada was on surer footing. But Harper was more interested in campaigning for his base after its 2006 win and now, ahead of the 2015 election, than in governing prudently for all of Canada.

That $46 billion in foregone revenue could have paid down the debt, or, today, stimulated an economy stumbling on weak legs.

And in case readers missed the nuance, that’s a substantial spend for a government that warns of opposing parties’ tax and spend platforms.

Security, an Expansive Notion

The Conservative party promotes itself as the only option for Canadians concerned about security.

They insist neither the NDP, nor Liberals capable of making requisite and difficult decisions in support of our military in overseas missions, and with security agencies tasked in keeping Canadians safe domestically.

They insist their decision to participate in the joint war against ISIS was and is the only viable option. The only option that will keep jihadist forces from penetrating Canadian lands or, from radicalizing impressionable youth.

Time will determine whether a combination of strategies, including humanitarian relief, a multi-disciplinary effort to build more inclusive communities in Canada, or even boots on the ground in the Middle East, will make up the moving parts of the ISIS solution.

But security is not defined by terrorism alone.

Security is an expansive notion that serves other areas of daily life Canadians may take for granted.

When a crisis such as Lac Mégantic challenges a core tenet, that your federal government and its partners are acting in your best interests, you begin to notice cracks in Harper’s argument.

You realize daily life, increasingly, has become less secure under this expanded definition, for Canadians here and abroad.

Infrastructure

It’s been well documented Canada’s roads and bridges are crumbling. Exceedingly, public transit systems are operating beyond their intended capacity, and social housing is unable to support the growing numbers of low or no-income Canadians desperate for housing.

The municipal infrastructure deficit alone, stands at $171.8 billion (The Canadian Infrastructure Report Card 2012) and counting.

A deficit the federal government helped create when it downloaded more fully the costs of public services to provinces, who in turn passed it onto municipalities.

A deficit keenly felt by Canadian businesses unable to compete with more robustly supported business centres in other countries, where access to superior public road and transport systems, facilitate shipments of products to markets in a just-in-time era.

While Harper’s Conservatives finally ponied up to the infrastructure trough, to the tune of $5 billion in annual funding, their program requires provinces and or municipalities to first match those funds, before projects are approved.

And it helps if your project just happens to reside in a Conservative riding.

Infrastructure spends, as most economists will tell you, are smart recessionary times investments.

Quick facts:

  • The Conference Board of Canada reported that for every $1.0 billion invested in infrastructure spending 16,700 jobs were created. Many of these tend to be beyond the initial construction openings, for business located in the immediate region
  • 1/2 of all productivity growth in Canada between 1962-2006 is attributed to investment in public infrastructure
  • GDP was boosted by more than a multiplier of one and up to 3.42, when the investment in infrastructure occurred during recessionary times (Auerbach & Gorodnichenko, 2010)

Food

The Maple Leaf Foods listeria and XL Foods E. coli crises were found to have occurred as a result of the Conservative government’s harsh cutbacks, of food safety inspectors at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Generally speaking, you don’t hear of too many food safety scares with Canadian food processors or agribusiness. But, as multi or bi-lateral free trade pacts open our borders to countries whose food safety standards may be lax in comparison, disinvestments by CFIA can augment health risks.

And that’s before the effects of climate change force agribusiness to re-imagine seeding, growing, processing and shipping food domestically and internationally.

The current Canadian food safety system, under an industry-regulate-thyself Conservative regime, is no match for the future requirements of an expansive food industry. Investments in research and science will be crucial to not only feed Canadians in increasing drought and severe climate conditions, but to increase its relevance as an export segment.

Transportation

When manufacturing of many consumer and industrial goods moved to Asia, Canada’s ports and railroads became a critical conduit to a lean, just-in-time distribution network. Using its enhanced clout, the railroad industry spent the better part of two decades lobbying both the previous Liberal and Harper’s Conservative governments to relax operational standards and federal regulations for rail transport.

Unfortunately, they also chose to allow the aging railway infrastructure necessary for the distribution network as well as growing oilsands and chemicals outputs, to grow decrepit.

And, in the case of dangerous goods, no one at Transport Canada thought it necessary to revisit the definition or classes of a growing number of dangerous goods. Nor to factor in the quadrupling of denser, more oilsands bitumen or bakken oil, transported by rail through densely populated urban areas – the leadership of which was left unaware of the danger traversing their communities.

In 1978, we were lucky to make it through the Mississauga train derailment without any loss of life.

On July 6, 2013, forty-seven Canadians died at Lac Magéntic.

A catastrophic price for risky, negligent decisions by both a Transport Canada that learned little over that 35 year period, and private rail companies more committed to shareholders than the safety of the communities in which their rails pass.

Some revisions have been made since the Lac Mégantic accident. But we cannot keep up with the growing volume of oilsands bitumen in need of an alternative to un-built pipelines. And, with little history as to affects of its corrosiveness, for science to properly judge which standards and regulations are commensurate, and which are deficient.

Environment

As previously noted, when armed with a strong majority, the Harper government methodically and systematically rewrote and degraded Canadian environmental and waterways laws. They also de-legitimized and politicized the environmental review process for pipelines, sacrificing the land rights of thousands of First Nations communities, and the safety of millions of Canadians living along possible pipeline routes.

Harper stacked the The National Energy Board, a caricature of its former self, with energy industry allies – the latest of which was a paid Kinder Morgan consultant who actually authored and submitted a 203-page Kinder Morgan report for its Trans Mountain pipeline, to the NEB for approval.

Conflict of interest in plain sight, a much used Conservative tactic.

Incredibly, this same NEB also just announced it is willing to accept a Shell proposal for offshore drilling that includes a containment plan, with a 21 day response time to cap any sub-sea blowouts.

Twenty days longer than the previously lax American Environmental Protection Agency, mandates.

Previously, as in under Republican governance. Kindred spirits of Harper’s Conservatives.

Canadians and global onlookers must ask themselves whether the NEB is even credible operating under a Conservative government?

Of note: earlier this year, in pre-campaign mode, the Conservatives began to distance themselves from any pipeline projects approvals, suggesting concerns and questions should be directed to the pipeline companies themselves.

Nothing like the bitter taste of failure. Or, restatement of Conservative Party history.

Employment

The temporary foreign workers (TFW) program was originally established to help meet a growing number of unfilled jobs within the caregiver, nanny, agricultural and highly skilled segments.

The notion of a skills gap was born.

At the behest of the corporate community, the Conservatives expanded the TFW program exponentially, leading to a record number of foreign workers entering Canada, usually at lower wages – at the expense of experienced Canadians capable of fulfilling many of those roles.

Jason Kenney used, what was later found to be, false and unsubstantiated data to back this purported skills gap. Frankly, it sounded more like a branded, previously agreed-to joint campaign, between the Conservative government and corporations in its labour-be-damned efforts.

The Conservatives essentially paved the way to higher unemployment rates, (especially for youths, blacks and Aboriginals), and safety concerns when you consider the language barriers between labourers working alongside each other in dangerous condition. In the case of the Husky Sunrise plant, it was uncertified labourers untrained in handling dangerous equipment, causing an explosion.

Add in the 15% less pay employers were permitted, post 2008, and the higher eligibility requirements for unemployment insurance. The joint Conservative-big business campaign suppressed labour wages and created insecurity in Canada during one of its worse fiscal periods.

Now, a more progressive-oriented leader might have pivoted towards individual Canadians during Recession, Act 1 and worked with provinces and cities to establish programs like the anchor institution model, across Canada.

Anchor institutions are those entities physically attached to local communities, with little possibility of moving. Think universities, hospitals, libraries, community centres, banks. The model hinges on those anchor institutions training and employing local hires for their own staff, and supporting local small business in any procurement, for new projects. The anchor institutions thrive when local communities do so.

Imagine the impact this model could have had on youth, Aboriginals, blacks, LBGT, new immigrants.

Imagine each of these Canadians not requiring unemployment insurance, food banks, repeated stops within healthcare system, social housing. Imagine them establishing strong roots in this community and paying forward.

Housing

In Harper’s early years of 2006-2008, mortgage credit expanded by 30% (Brian Clifford, B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association), while the aggregated average national home price grew by 10% (Canadian Real Estate Association).

Conservatives, in pursuit of a second economic engine, changed mortgage rules: increased maximum amortization period to 40 years; offered zero percent down payment options; and historically low interest rates.

And before you could say subprime loan, a national real estate casino arose, where Canadians could collectively gamble on a piping hot housing market.

Gambles, multiple bids, super sized real estate prices all securitized by various Harper government agencies, including the Canada Housing Trust.

Yes, the amortization rules have since returned to a maximum 25 years. And homeowners must again include a minimum five percent down payment for loan eligibility, but the real estate casino continues to churn out winners.

And losers.

It pits Canadians against global investors looking for safe havens for their investments. CREA has suggested investors only represent 5% of all home purchases in Vancouver and Toronto, but keep in mind their statistics rely on reporting from property managers – with no real mechanism to collect foreign purchase data, never mind statistics do not include single dwelling homes.

The real estate casino allows real estate agents to profit enormously from limited land options for single dwelling homes, as a result of urban commitment to denser growth, and in the case of Vancouver, geography.

During Harper’s tenure, the aggregated average national home price grew from $276,953 in 2006 to $441,945 in 2015, a 59.6% increase (CREA).

Incomes for middle and lower classes, have barely keep pace with the rate of inflation over that period.

Remember the losers mentioned above? They include those that are counted under a national 7% unemployment rate, and a 50% precarious employment rate in the GTA/Hamilton region. Add in double digit youth unemployment and astronomical student education debt, the proliferation of liar loans and dubious lending institutions.

Oh, and do not forget near zero federal funding in social housing.

Canada is on the cusp of a correction which will siphon billions of dollars from Canadians wealth. A correction that will only add weight to the unaffordable housing crisis already befalling the under 35 age cohort. A correction Canadians already saddled with 163.3 debt to equity ratios (30 percentage points higher than 2006), are ill-prepared to face.

Healthcare

While Harper committed to maintaining the spending increases the previous Liberal government set out, de-funding of healthcare commences now.

In limiting healthcare spend to that of inflation, he is in fact, underfunding it at its most crucial time: aging population facing a tsunami of Alzheimer’s-like degenerative diseases; more complex and chronic conditions inherent with growing obesity; unaffordable prescription drugs, with many Canadians opting not to fill doctors’ scripts; yet-to-be-understood effects of climate change on health; and a population that continues to grow.

National leadership is needed to amass provincial counterparts, scientists, healthcare providers of every ilk, researchers, academics and managers with specialized training, to share and improve best practices and efficiencies.

Pharma-care is a pipe dream in comparison to the hard work that remains in salvaging a universal public healthcare system bogged down by the lack of leadership, fresh ideas, cooperation, and dedication to universality.

Hard work to turn Health Canada into a functioning, contributing agency, from one that today, pales in comparison to other nations’ healthcare regulatory agencies.

Hard work that unwinds the wrong-headed cuts in science.

Yes, that word. That word in all its iterations.

Science must be nurtured alongside innovation (federal report by advisory panel on Healthcare Innovation) to return our public healthcare system to respectability.

We are more than a decade behind other G20 nations. Coming in at number 30 on World Health Organization’s 2000 Ranking of nations’ healthcare systems should have given us all pause in 2000.

Canada’s collective health security diminishes each year under a Harper’s here’s-the-money-do-with-it-what-you-wish tenure.

Geopolitical Security, Counter-terrorism

Canadians should be afraid. Very afraid.

We should be looking over our shoulder. Looking closely at anyone in our midst who seems to be acting, talking, thinking, writing unusually.

In Harper-speak, that means brown people. Of the Muslim faith. Wearing abayas, hijabs, niqabs, or burqas. Gathered in or around mosques.

In Harper-speak, only he and the Conservatives are capable of providing safety to all Canadians. From those very unusual, dangerous people.

Ironically, you could argue Harper’s leadership on foreign policy and global security files has had an enormous, detrimental effect on Canadians’ security. Domestically and internationally.

Eschewing our historical integrity as a middle power noted for diplomacy, Harper’s Conservatives pivoted to a very narrow, bull-in-a-china-shop approach. Predicated on a Five Eyes’ (United Kingdom, Australia, United States, New Zealand, Canada) global surveillance alliance that exposes Canada to hotbeds of violence and conflicts abroad.

Early on, he reduced foreign aid and diplomatic support to our traditional African partners. He assumed a harshly pro-Israel stance that wouldn’t permit for international, or Canadian, scrutiny of any Israeli decisions. Harper’s actions cost Canada a much coveted two-year Security Council seat at the United Nations in 2010, to Portugal.

Portugal.

Closing our embassy in Iran in 2012, meant we could not distract or smooth Arab Nations’ ruffled feathers, while the United States negotiated its nuclear agreement with Iran.

On Canadian soil, Harper divided the many segments of Canada’s multicultural map, while playing up to its traditional base: ill-advised racist demonization of Muslim Canadians under the guise of citizenship pledges; promises of safekeeping Canadian lands and peoples from barbaric ISIS jihadists the world over; suggesting mosques as venues of youth radicalization; and upping the crazy notch, Conservative Senators demanding certification of imams.

Harper checked off every box in how-to-create-insecurity in a complex geopolitical world.

The cherry on the icing of the Conservative cake, came when Harper used ISIS and the two separate attacks by Canadians (lone wolves) on members of Canada’s security forces in the fall of 2014, to corral Liberal party support in passing Bill C-51. A bill that incinerated privacy, freedom of expression, freedom of movement, and freedom of association rights embedded in the Charter of Rights. A Charter Trudeau’s father created.

Machiavelli couldn’t have played that any better.

If that wasn’t enough, Harper now wants to ban travel to any regions where ISIS operates. Never mind that Zehaf-Bineau’s shooting spree occurred after he was prevented from traveling to a terror zone.

Facts. Oft ignored. Or, when challenged with questions…premise of which, rejected.

Some have argued Harper has yet to make a valid case for either Bill C-51 or his latest double-down-on-fear policy. I have yet to hear a valid explanation how security agencies, pre C-51, were able to stop teens enamoured with ISIS, before they left Canada; yet other teens, from the Montreal region, made it out, post C-51.

Perhaps these communication or surveillance gaps have more to do with the $598 million in cuts to the RCMP. Or, in the form of lapsed spending Conservatives inflicted on all ministries, on the way to a balanced budget promised its base.

If Canadians are as susceptible to heinous terrorist acts on our lands as Harper would like us to believe, one would expect Harper to offer the necessary financial support our security agencies require, to keep Canadians safe.

Unless.

Unless, it’s all part of a campaign to ignite nation-wide fear.

But that would mean we would actually have more than just the two incidences in Canada. That would mean we would have to ignore the greater number of cases of right-winged attacks on Canadian soil, compared to jihadists attacks, in recent history.

That would mean we would have to ignore, policies enacted by this government might actually be contributing to Muslim youth concerned about Canada’s direction, becoming intrigued by ISIS.

Democracy

When it appeared Mr. Harper would lose the confidence of the House of Commons, he did the previously unthinkable.

He prorogued parliament.

And so began Harper’s assault on democracy.

Over the course of his reign, Harper incrementally undermined Canadians’ rights, privacies, freedom of speech and dissent.

And that was before Bill C-51.

Voices-Voix, a non-partisan collective of Canadians and more than 200 Canadian organizations concerned with the decline of democracy in Canada, catalogued 102 cases where the Harper government attempted to silence dissenters or advocates, free speech, equality and transparency.

Their comprehensive report is a worthwhile read. From silencing voices of marginalized communities and public servants, to limiting the compilation and dissemination of knowledge, Voices-Voix thoroughly itemizes how Harper used policy and Canadian security forces to remove obstacles perceived to be inconsistent with their partisan governance.

All Canadians, independent of when they or their ancestors came to Canada, did so because of the values Canada stood for. Those values are under siege by today’s government.

Democratically, Canada has never been less secure.

Over the next two months, when you hear Mr. Harper pointing to low resource and energy prices globally, as cause for Canada’s soft economic numbers, consider Mr. Harper chose to continue Canada’s reliance on its natural resource and energy sector.

He chose, knowing commodities are cyclical in nature, and that downturns are to be expected.

He chose, knowing hyper-focusing on an industry whose growth often came at the expense of other industries that relied on a weaker loonie, meant he was really shuffling the money around from one region in Canada to another.

You might also let him know that while security from geopolitical wars or violence is necessary, security is multi-faceted.

Security is, safe, reliable, plentiful and affordable food and water.

Security is, natural environments that sustain plants, animals, oceanic and human life in a healthy and liveable manner.

Security is, accessible, available, predictable-funded healthcare and public transportation.

Security is, social housing, purpose-built rental and cooperative housing, publicly funded nursing homes, and accessible housing for the disabled.

Security is, meaningful, full-time work (if so desired) that allows all Canadians self-respect, hope and dignity.

Security is, affordable education, pursuit of arts, music, sports, and healthy minds.

Security is the community and nation of immigrants, refugees, First Nations, gays, LBGT, disabled, seniors, youth, brown, black, yellow and white. All living, with the knowledge their human rights and privacy are protected by the Charter, and the government entrusted with protecting it.

That’s the measure of risk and security entrusted with a Prime Minister.

That’s the measure by which a Prime Minister will be chosen in October.

By that measure, Mr. Harper’s actual record proves he’s not the safe, secure, strategic leader he claims to be.

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Published by

Caroline Kalaydjian

In 2005, I left the corporate arena to assist small and medium sized businesses capture their vast potential. I encouraged owners and managers to incorporate agility, creativity, productivity and efficiency throughout their business operations. Today, I marry my concerns for (ethical) business, politics, socio-economics, youth advocacy, poverty, social justice, and geopolitics with my first and longest love, that of writing. Both as a freelance business storyteller, on Business Architect, and in everyday analysis on this site, I hope to shed light on the converging threads that bind society to the every-day impact of decisions made in the public and private realms.

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