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Tony Abbott and Stephen Harper's maple-syrup mateship has a sour taste

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Sydney Morning Herald political and international editor

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Tony's Atlantic Crossing

Highlights of the PM's big trip as interpreted by Rocco Fazzari and Denis Carnahan. With apologies to Rod Stewart.

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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.

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?’’

<i>Illustration: Rocco Fazzari.</i>

Illustration: Rocco Fazzari.

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.

Tony Abbott with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa this week.

Tony Abbott with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa this week. Photo: AP

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.

41 comments

  • I imagine Tony loves Stephen because he is the only PM on earth with a lower approval than Tony, at about 25%. Tony has of course achieved his similar disaproval ratings in record time though. If they really could get together they might cumulate close to 50% appeal. Canaustradia anyone? Or they might get annihilated by just about anyone, Bill Shorten but Justin Trudeau easily.

    Commenter
    GOV
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    June 14, 2014, 2:41AM
    • The Neanderthal agenda of the far right on climate change is in full swing with Tony Abbott receiving his instructions from Murdoch prior to his meeting with Obama.

      Abbott would be far more comfortable in the Vatican than the Whitehouse with his hocus pocus beliefs in imaginary friends rather than the overwhelming scientific facts of climate change – Abbott is yesterday’s man!

      It is clear that the Neanderthal far right policies Abbot supports destabilise the political and social foundations of societies as currently being witnessed in Iraq – Terrorism has only increased since the Bush family and other neo cons waged war in the Middle East.

      Howard lied to the Australian public about the reason for going to War in Iraq and now phoney Tony is following in his footsteps, which makes a mockery of the rants from the journalistic void Bolt & Jones trying to justify the immoral behaviour of the far right.

      Commenter
      George
      Location
      East Melbourne
      Date and time
      June 14, 2014, 5:18PM
  • One other point is missing - Canada's various opposition parties are a bit of mess, like Labor. But Canada does of something unique in politics - Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.

    Commenter
    Sleuth
    Location
    London/Toronto
    Date and time
    June 14, 2014, 2:42AM
    • You wrote this for Justin or something? Harper a right-wing extremist?
      This description of Canada's government makes it sound like a fascist state. It is not. If it was, the world would be hearing a lot more about it. Governments do have to change things - evolve. Like Australia, we up here in the Northern Hemisphere are very much admired - and rightfully so. That is not changing.
      Compared to most of the world - and its southern neighbor - Canada has done very well economically for many years now . This is primarily due to its Free Trade agreement 25 years ago with the USA - which some Americans are now condemning. Regarding Harper, he is much dis-liked in the country and would have a tough time staying on as PM. But if he were to depart, his party with a new leader would very likely win a coming election. The socialist NDP could not win across the country and Justin Trudeau, the son of St. Pierre, would have no chance winning many Liberal Party seats in big parts of western Canada. Regarding today's Tory government, those people who are so worried about them shouldn't forget that in Canada, both its political-left and right are pretty close to the middle.

      Commenter
      go leafs go
      Location
      ottawa
      Date and time
      June 14, 2014, 5:03AM
      • Why is this political stuff always about 'Ying and Yang' and not bipartisan compromise and balance ? I can understand the response to social democracy being extreme fundamentalist conservatism, however it is becoming dangerous. Hitler's Germany arose out of the depression, the GFC seems to be provoking the same sort of idiocy in many countries. Personally I cannot imagine living without a progressive mindset. I don't want to revisit the past even though I sometimes enjoy a nostalgia kick. I certainly don't want the church running Australia.

        Commenter
        adam
        Location
        yarrawonga
        Date and time
        June 14, 2014, 6:13AM
        • But is Harper truthful?

          Commenter
          cambalong
          Date and time
          June 14, 2014, 6:25AM
          • With Yosemite Sam in residence just down the road, it is not surprising The Abbott is signaling "Be Prepared".

            Commenter
            Geronimo
            Location
            Yippee Yi Yo
            Date and time
            June 14, 2014, 7:24AM
            • So theres a plague of the brain-eating zombie-parasites in top echelons world-wide?

              Hmm...thought it was only here.

              Why do most of the leaders of the world today, appear as if they want to dismantle their countries stone by stone?.....seemingly in the name of budget worship?

              It appears to me that most sensible types can work out that to aim such destructive policies(canadias) at society(especially when it's done in some sort of weird secret way), is going to send society back to the dark ages?.....so why can't these pollies?

              Commenter
              Gobb
              Date and time
              June 14, 2014, 7:48AM
              • Two of the Abbott Government's love children with the Harper Government are:

                a. Secrecy and censorship

                b. The perception that the levers of Government are to benefit the Party and not the people. Not content with appointing politically correct and acceptable people to give an 'independent' audit for the budget, and to investigate unions and pink batts, they have even appointed the tame Gerard Henderson to be a literary critic. They have defunded advocacy groups that lobby against their policies.

                I am wrong, they are not copying Canada, but China.

                Commenter
                Ross
                Location
                MALLABULA
                Date and time
                June 14, 2014, 8:56AM
                • One of the Harper government's more exciting innovations has been to bar any researcher receiving Federal funding - which is, in effect, all of them - from talking to the media. Requests for interviews, comments, whatever, must be cleared by the relevant Minister's office - it's not always clear who that is, though, but it doesn't matter because the request is rarely approved. The ban has been rigorously enforced especially in relation to environmental impact research for controversial mining projects involving coal seam gas and oil tar sands.

                  I suppose it's easier to implement 'evidence'-based policy when the counter-evidence isn't open for discussion.

                  Commenter
                  Migraine
                  Location
                  Out of touch with reality in Canberra
                  Date and time
                  June 14, 2014, 8:58AM

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