Monday, May 9, 2011

A little free advice for the new government

Prime Minister Stephen Harper promises he will use his new majority to govern on behalf of all Canadians, not just the 40 per cent who voted for him. Assuming he intends to do what he says, what could he do to reassure the 60 per cent who supported candidates and parties on the left of the Tories?

The list is long, but here are a few suggestions, offered gratis.

First, scrap the jets — those 65 F-35 stealth attack aircraft that the parliamentary budget officer calculates will cost $450 million apiece or $29.3 billion for the lot (the way the cost is spiralling in the United States, the final figure may be closer to $40 billion).

The decision to buy the planes — taken without any competition among suppliers, public tender or parliamentary approval — was a huge mistake. It was made to satisfy the Pentagon and to pander to those right-wing Conservatives who labour under the illusion that shiny military toys will somehow keep us safe in a world of terrorists and suicide bombers.

The Harper government couldn’t admit its folly during the election, but now that it is secure for four years, it could order a review of Canada’s military priorities, then announce that deficit reduction must take precedence over absurdly expensive military hardware.

Give the generals a budget — say, $10 billion over 10 years — and tell them to go into the marketplace and find aircraft that will serve or complement Canada’s real needs: long-range coastal patrol (two engines would be nice; the F-35 has only one); search and rescue; assertion of Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic; support for Canadian ground forces in regional conflicts like Afghanistan.

There are cheaper planes out there. If the U.S. military establishment doesn’t like it — and it wouldn’t — remind Washington that, appearances sometimes to the contrary, Canada is still an independent country.

Second, come clean with the public about the cost of all those new prisons the Tories want to build. Is it $2.1 billion for construction, as has been reported? Will the new jails (assuming inmates can be found to fill them) boost the government’s annual operating costs for prisons from $4.4 billion to $9.5 billion, as Kevin Page, the parliamentary budget officer, estimates?

Once the facts are public, ask Parliament to consider whether the interests of justice and public safety are really served by slapping so many Canadians into the slammer. The debate could be very instructive.

Third, declare the government’s support for that troublesome priest, Kevin Page, and announce he will be reappointed as the Parliament’s spending watchdog when his first five-year term expires in 2013.

Fourth, reinstate Linda Keen, the nuclear watchdog, as head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, a position from which she was fired for the worst of all reasons: a government that didn’t know what it was doing (about isotopes) needed a scapegoat.

Fifth, restore the long-form census.

Sixth, get serious about open government. Instruct ministers and bureaucrats that requests for documents under the Access to Information Act will no longer have to be sent to the Privy Council Office for vetting, a system that gives the prime minister a veto over the release of inconvenient information.

I could go on, but these six items should be enough to get the new majority government started.

Will it take my advice? I’m not holding my breath.

The expectation in Ottawa is that Harper will spend the first two years of his mandate solidifying his base by promoting measures that cater to the right: attack crime; cut social spending; reduce more corporate taxes; pretend environmental issues don’t exist; shrink or eliminate support for women’s organizations and other “progressive” groups.

In this scenario, at about the three-year mark, Harper would move toward the centre with budgets and legislation designed to attract moderate voters who might otherwise vote for the NDP or Liberals (if they still exist).

It’s smart, cynical politics. It might work. I’m afraid he doesn’t need my advice.

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at

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