One of the common accusations against Tony Abbott is that he wants to ‘‘Americanise’’ Australia.
But this week we learnt that he has a different model in mind. He twice described Canada’s prime minister as an ‘‘exemplar.’’ Said Abbott: ‘‘I have regarded Stephen Harper as an exemplar of a contemporary centre-right prime minister.’’ And speaking to Harper at their joint press conference in Canada’s capital, Ottawa: ‘‘I’m happy to call you an exemplar of centre-right leadership.’’ He also called him a ‘‘guide’’ and a ‘‘beacon.’’ If so, perhaps Australians should look at Stephen Harper’s Canada for vital clues to the future of Abbott’s Australia. After eight years as Canada’s prime minister, Harper ‘‘bestrides Canadian politics, a principled economic and social conservative who is reshaping the nation’’ according to John Ibbitson of Canada’s Globe and Mail.
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He’s also created a deep fear among many Canadians, again in Ibbitson’s words: ‘‘Is this prime minister determined to dismantle the progressive state, built up over decades?’’
Canada’s opposition Liberal Party, the centrist party that ruled the country for so long it was called the natural party of government after holding power for 70per cent of the 20th century, has called him a right-wing extremist.
The best riposte, as Benjamin Disraeli liked to say, is a majority, and that’s been Harper’s. He began his prime ministership leading a minority government. Yet when his government was brought down on a no-confidence motion in 2011, he stormed back into power with a majority, 166 seats in a 308-seat House, to govern in his own right.
He routed the Liberals, reduced to a 34-seat rump, and turned them into the third force in the parliament, a novel experience for Canada’s oldest federal political party. Even the Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff, lost his seat.
Harper’s political success is even more impressive because he was in power for a couple of years before the global financial crisis, yet managed to ride it out in office. Canada suffered less than the US, but its giant neighbour dragged it into recession nonetheless.
Canada is a good laboratory for Australians to observe. Its population is 10 million larger than Australia’s. It is the world’s 10th economy and Australia is the 12th . But the two Anglophone, resource-rich multicultural federations are more alike than they are different. Or, as Abbott said, ‘‘no two countries on earth are so similar.’’ The Abbott-Harper relationship is much more than the ‘‘bromance’’ of media simplification. It’s the latest version of the learning relationship that began when an up-and-coming Harper studied the successes of John Howard.
A grateful Harper invited Howard to address a joint sitting of Canada’s parliament, the first time an Australian leader had done so since John Curtin in 1944.
It is a shared project of conservative political and ideological advance, openly acknowledged. So openly, in fact, that it jarred.
The public celebration of Abbott and Harper’s shared political identity this week was something you’d expect at a party convention rather than at a press conference during an official prime ministerial visit to a foreign country. Was Abbott in Ottawa to represent Australia or the Liberal Party? Or can’t he tell the difference?
The eight-year record of Abbott’s role model breaks into five main parts. Harper’s style of governing has been probably the most controversial element of his prime ministership.
He’s been ruthless in his control of the parliament. He has persuaded the governor-general to prorogue parliament as a tactic to prevent the opposition forming an alliance against him and to allow himself time to build his own support.
Harper guards information jealously and punishes officials who openly disagree with him. Official secrecy is ‘‘worse than at any time in the last 25 years,’’ according to a director of Democracy Watch, Duff Conacher.
Harper created a Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO), a non-partisan analyst, much like Australia’s. But his government declines to give anyone, including the PBO, basic budget details.
The Harper government announced $C5 billion in spending cuts in the national budget last year, but would not specify how they would be achieved, even when the budget bills were presented to the parliament. In a remarkable turn of events, the Parliamentary Budget Officer felt obliged to file applications under the Access to Information laws, and pay the $5 fee like any member of the public, to try to work out the effects of the budget.
Second, Harper has redefined Canada’s federation. He is devolving power and responsibility from the federal level to the 10 province-level governments. Without warning, his government in 2011 delivered a 10-year plan to scale back planned increases in health grants to the provinces after 2016. The effect would be to save the federal government $C21 billion. Abbott’s first budget declared a similar surprise scaling back of anticipated health grants to the states.
With Canada’s peculiar French-speaking problem called Quebec, Harper initially empathised with its separatist cause. But the moment he no longer needed the votes of the Quebecois to win, he has allowed their cause to wither with neglect.
Third, Harper has pursued a program to advance social conservatism. His government enacted an omnibus crime bill that raised the age of sexual consent from 14 to 16 and toughened the maximum penalties for many crimes, especially crimes involving drugs or sex.
He said in a 2003 speech, before taking power, that the real work for the conservative movement lay in confronting ‘‘the social agenda of the modern left.’’ Interestingly, however, he drew the line at revising abortion laws. ‘‘I will not make abortion a plank in [the party] platform,’’ he said. He has counselled moderation and prudence on the social agenda in the cause of preserving unity in the conservative forces: ‘‘Conservatives should pick their battles carefully and make their arguments skilfully. They should focus on policies where there exists a degree of consensus across conservatives of different stripes.’’ Fourth, Harper has been determined to reduce the size of government and the role of the state. This agenda is, by now, very familiar to Australians in its principles and even some of its details.
The overarching aim is to return the federal budget to balance. Harper promises to eliminate Canada’s deficit, now $C17 billion, by next year, and is on track to do so.
But, in another measure with Antipodean echoes, he also plans to offer tax cuts, a season of plenty to follow after the season of austerity. It is, of course, timed with elections in mind, in both countries.
This was actually the subject of Harper’s university economics thesis – the effects of elections on government finances – so the student has become the practitioner.
Partly Harper’s smaller-government agenda has been about the social engineering of changing Canadians’ work ethics, cutting unemployment benefits and emphasising retraining. Partly his agenda is about making social welfare payments sustainable, with measures such as increasing the age pension eligibility from 65 to 67, although here Abbott is ahead of Harper by moving it from 67 to 70.
Partly it’s about creating ‘‘pro-business’’ conditions, cutting corporate taxes, removing environmental protections, striking new free trade agreements. And, going considerably further than Abbott, Haper’s government has formally withdrawn from the Kyoto treaty system for binding cuts to carbon emissions. And partly it’s just about cutting, with some 20,000 public service jobs going, for instance. He has not raised Canada’s GST; he has lowered it.
One feature of Harper’s prime ministership is that he has learnt to moderate some of his early ideology. Two episodes stand out. In the onset of the global financial crisis, Harper had insisted that there was no place for government to stimulate the economy.
But as the crisis gathered force and disaster loomed, Harper agreed to a stimulus package of government spending. It was relatively modest; with the IMF urging countries to enact stimulus measures worth 2 percentage points of GDP, Harper introduced a stimulus half this size.
Still, it was a concession, as he admitted: ‘‘We will have to be tough and pragmatic, not unrealistic or ideological,’’ he told a party convention.
The second episode was in foreign policy. Canada would project democratic values and freedoms abroad, he insisted, and publicly welcomed the Dalai Lama over the furious objections of Beijing. But Harper’s values wilted in the face of Chinese economic power; now, if he meets the Dalai Lama, it’s in private.
Harper’s emphasis on fiscal prudence, growth and jobs are the chief reasons for his electoral success. ‘‘The No.1 priority for this government, I don’t have to tell you, will continue to be jobs and the economy,’’ he says.
Yet in spite of his rhetoric, Canada’s performance on growth and jobs has been persistently disappointing in the post-crisis years. Economic growth fell short of budget forecasts in each of the past five years.
Canada’s economic growth in the four years since its recession has averaged 2.35 per cent, according to the OECD. That’s very close to America’s 2.25 per cent and it’s behind Australia’s 2.6 per cent.
Canada has outperformed Australia on the measure of unemployment. Canada went into the global downturn with unemployment of 6 per cent and today it stands at 7, while Australia went from 4 to about 6 today.
But Canada’s performance on unemployment is no better than the average for the developed countries. It seems a great deal of political activism for a scant return in growth and jobs. There must be lessons for Abbott to learn in Harper’s failures at least as much as his successes.
Peter Hartcher is the political editor.