Who’s Afraid of Stephen Harper?

Monday 22 September 2008, by Judy REBICK

As the Liberal vote appears to be collapsing and the Bloc Québecois weakening in francophone Quebec, and the New Democratic Party is in a three-way race with the Liberals and the Conservatives in British Columbia, the threat of a Tory majority looms large. Anyone who cares about arts funding, women’s rights, international development, maintaining a foreign policy that is independent from the United States, judicial independence, peace or democracy should be very worried.

Stephen Harper may not be as far to the right as American Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin but he is a right-wing ideologue cut from the same cloth as Mike Harris, the last Tory Premier of Ontario. With a majority, Harris ignored all opposition- whether in the legislature or in the streets- and fundamentally restructured the province; destroying the welfare system, getting rid of employment equity, undermining workers’ rights, attacking teachers and instituting standardized testing, privatizing as much as he could and generally promoting policies to support his corporate buddies.

Harper is probably more of a social conservative than Harris, but he is keeping that hidden as long as he is in the minority. Because of his need to construct a majority through support in Quebec, it is unlikely that he will touch hot button issues like abortion and gay rights, which have stronger support in Quebec than anywhere else. But make no mistake, on other issues he will bring in a hard right agenda.

Harper has been masterful in finally recognizing Quebec as a nation, thereby gaining support in Quebec from the forces that have been mobilized by the right-wing Action Démocratique du Québec. As he has always favoured a radical decentralization of Canada, this symbolic act cost him nothing in English Canada given the lack of concern these days about Quebec sovereignty.

It has also allowed for the decentralization of power to all the provinces that has always been part of the Reform Party agenda in Canada. In fact, we can place some blame here on the federalism of the NDP, which while on paper supports the right of Quebec to self-determination, in reality has never done so.

No doubt the cry will soon go out for strategic voting to stop Harper, but the reality is that in this election it makes absolutely no sense. This is the kind of volatile election in which anything can happen. Given the weakness of the Liberals across the country, it might be difficult to know who has the best chance of beating the Tories in any given riding. The NDP is going up in the polls and Jack Layton scores higher than Stephen Dion as a potential Prime Minister. It would be tragic if strategic voting led to a strengthening of the Liberal Party, which while better than Harper can never be trusted to do what they say they will.

The solution to the Harper problem lies in a different strategy

There are two cleavages in this election: one is left vs right and the other is green vs grey. Supported by Alberta oil, the Harper Conservatives have no intention of seriously acting against climate change. All the other parties, Liberal, NDP, Green and BQ are serious about measures to fight climate change. Given the urgent importance of reducing carbon emissions and defeating the Tories, the best strategy would be for everyone to vote for the party of their choice and at the same time pressure them to form an alliance centred on climate change.

In 1980’s Ontario, the Liberals and the NDP formed an accord on four major issues to get rid of the Tories. It was the best government we ever had because the election promises were in writing and the government would have fallen if it had backed away from any of them. That is how we got Pay Equity in the province. If Harper falls short of a majority, the other parties can ask the Governor General to form the government based on such an alliance.

This is how the change of government would work if we had Proportional Representation, but there is no reason why it can’t work the same way in our system- if the political will is there.

Of course this is all moot in which case if Harper wins a majority, we should be very worried indeed.

Judy Rebick is a social justice activist, writer, broadcaster and speaker. She currently holds the Sam Gindin Chair in Social Justice and Democracy at Ryerson University.

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