It may have been a while since Parliament last sat, but things seemed pretty much back to normal last week as MPs returned to the House after nearly three months of prorogation. Opposition critics questioned the government aggressively and were consequently met with the same glibness and condescension that has become characteristic of the Conservative government. Same old story.
One might have expected to experience a sense of anticipation surrounding the federal budget—a document that allocates billions of dollars for public expenditure, which is meant to set the national course for years to come, and which undoubtedly represents the most important moment in the annual parliamentary cycle. Furthermore, given that the Prime Minister’s pretext for his highly dubious prorogation was that his government needed time to “recalibrate,” it was reasonable to expect an ambitious budget, or at least one that addressed major national issues in an interesting manner.
Not really. The rationale behind this unbelievably boring document is that reducing the federal deficit is the primary concern of the government. And certainly, the deficit is a major issue that needs to be confronted. In addition to the billions spent on economic stimulus, an aging generation of baby boomers is expected to greatly reduce the federal tax pool and, once retired, will need major investments in pensions that will further deplete government resources. In response, the Tories have proposed to radically shrink the size of the federal government by freezing salaries and departmental growth. They’ve refused to hike taxes and have instead lowered corporate taxes to their lowest rate in at least 10 years.
There’s a real logic to this kind of policy—it’s predicated on a particular notion of “growth” which it assumes happens from the top down and not from the bottom up. The only problem is that “growth,” of this kind usually relegates its benefits to a select few, while doing nothing to combat deficits or fund social programs to help those who really suffer during a recession. Slashing the deficit by shrinking government also gives small-c conservatives something scrumptious to chew on. (Who needs a government anyway when there are nice, friendly corporations who care about public welfare and the environment?)
Perhaps as a distraction from this drab and unimaginative document, the Conservatives threw in a little motion to amend the lyrics to our national anthem to make them more “gender neutral.” Unsurprisingly, the most angry reactions came from the party’s own base, with the proposal prompting a small grassroots insurrection on Facebook and in the blogosphere. Two days after announcing it, the PMO cancelled the plan, releasing a statement saying the government had “gotten the message loud and clear” that there was no desire among Canadians to change the national anthem. It’s likely most of the Conservative caucus, including Harper himself, would have been against such a move, but, being the shrewd tactician that he is, the Prime Minister successfully controlled the news cycle for a couple of days and deflected attention from his lacklustre budget. His only sacrifice was a minor, and quickly forgettable, squabble with a tiny portion of his base.
Yet one burning question remains unanswered. The small issue of the Afghan detainee memos, demanded by a majority of MPs in Parliament in December, is yet to be resolved. In delaying the release of these memos, the Prime Minister is not only disobeying a direct order from the country’s democratic representatives, but is hinting strongly that the government has evidence that will seriously injure their credibility when made public. There seems to be no other explanation for a move that could result in members of the government being held in contempt of Parliament. During the parliamentary break, former Conservative chief-of-staff and Harper mentor Tom Flanagan made headlines when he criticized the explanations given by the government for its prorogation during a CBC interview. “The government’s talking points don’t have much credibility. Everyone knows that parliament was prorogued in order to shut down the Afghan inquiry,” he said. Last week’s developments, which have seen the Conservatives increasingly on the defensive about releasing the documents and desperately trying to downplay the issue, lend even more weight to this argument.
Though not much has changed since December in the House’s daily proceedings, at least on the surface, the government now sits about 12 percentage points below its comfort zone in the national polls. It also faces two sustained efforts by all three opposition parties—one to check the powers of the Prime Minister’s Office by regulating the rules of prorogation, and another to secure the release of un-redacted versions of the documents concerning the Afghan detainee issue. For the first time since the early days of December 2008, the Conservatives find themselves in some very hot water.