When Stephen Harper first appeared as a prime ministerial candidate, his opponents charged that he harbored a secret agenda, and the strategy helped Paul Martin’s Liberalsdefeat the fledgling Conservatives in the 2004 election.
Seven years later – five of them with Harper as prime minister – Canadians decided they liked Harper and his party enough to give him a majority, but the accusationsof a hidden agenda still haven’t disappeared.
So what can Canadians expect from their new government? While the short-term outlook seems clear enough – an omnibus crime bill, a re-introduction of its defeated budget – the long-term picture is a bit murkier.
“That’s the $64,000 question. I think we’ll have to see – it’s not clear,” says Keith Banting, a professor in Queen’s University’s department of political studies and school of policy studies and Queen’s research chair in public policy.
Banting says he would be surprised if Harper were toreintroduce social issues like abortion or same-sex marriage. “My guess is they will focus more on economic issues…that it’s going to be more economically conservative than socially conservative, but that’s just a guess,” he predicts.
Antonia Maioni, associate professor in McGill’s department of political science and director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, agrees that it’s hard to say what path Harper’s government will take in the long term. “Strangely enough, even though the Conservative party has been in power for many years, we certainly don’t know what its legislative ambition is as a whole,” she says. “And that’s where it’s going to be interesting, to see to what extent some of the kind of fiscal or social conservative policies that some critics of the Conservative party are worried about, whether or not those worries willcome to pass.”
Maioni notes balancing the demands of its base and the expectations of its new Ontario supporters will pose a challenge for the Conservative party; in order to ensure its long-term survival, it will have to respond to the its base without alienating middle-of-the-road voters.
Banting says that the party will change in response to the influx of Ontario members. “It cannot be as full-shaped by the experience of the western wing of the party, which has stronger roots in the Reform movement. So that rebalancing process internally is going to take some time, and it’s going to be interesting to watch,” he explains.
In the short term, the Conservatives have said that they will introduce legislation that will amalgamate unpassedcrime bills, as well as bring back last March’s budget.Harper also promised to carry on with the controversial purchase of fighter jets, as well to gradually pay down the deficit and return to balanced budgets within a reasonable amount of time, adds Harold Chorney, a political science professor at Concordia University.
The Conservatives, of course, aren’t the only ones who will have to incorporate a new base of supporters; while the grabbing of official opposition status away from the Liberals was a historic victory for the NDP, that party will also have adjust to its new political reality.
“They’ve obviously got their task cut out in terms of…developing internal coherence, developing a…large number of political novices into an organized, effective opposition, so I think they’ll have a lot of work internally for a while,” Banting says.
Maioni adds the NDP will also have to adjust to the fact that they’re now the voice of Quebec voters. “They also have to deal with integrating this new Quebec voice into a caucus that is much more pan-Canadian, and rooted elsewhere in Canada,” she says.
Canadians may have chosen to maintain the status quo by electing a third Conservative government, but the fact that it now holds a majority of seats means that the rules of the game have changed.
A majority allows a party a much greater amount of freedom than they would have in a minority, notes Chorney.
“Having a majority means never having to say you’re sorry. It’s essentially a benevolent parliamentary dictatorship, and it doesn’t have to be that benevolent either,” he says. “If you have someone who really doesn’t want to stay longer than the four-year term … then you’ve got a potential for a fairly radical government, because they can run roughshod over Parliament.”
Despite their increased legislative power, Banting says there won’t be any great changes in the governing style of the Conservatives, arguing that even in a minority situation, they governed as if they had a majority. “I can’t see any reason to assume it would be any less centralized, I can see no reason to assume they would be any more forthcoming with documents…. [that] they would suddenly have a big burst of faith in evidence-based empirical analysis shaping policy,” he says. “So I think their style has emerged pretty clearly.”