Chris Hall: Cancelled convention gives Harper time to wade through flood of problems

Stephen Harper already stood knee-deep in trouble before floodwaters inundated downtown Calgary, washing out the Conservatives' policy convention in the prime minister's home base, Chris Hall writes.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper takes part in a photo opportunity on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, May 30, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

Stephen Harper already stood knee-deep in trouble before floodwaters inundated downtown Calgary, washing out the Conservatives’ policy convention in the prime minister’s home base.

Harper expected to be standing before frustrated party delegates last night to acknowledge that, yes, the past six weeks have been difficult, but no, the government remains firmly in control of its agenda despite a spring sitting beset by scandal and political distractions.

Instead, the prime minister remained largely out of sight in humid Ottawa — a town known for generating more heat than light — working this week on plans to re-invigorate and renew a government that’s given up ground.

Polls suggest a sharp decline in voter support for the Conservatives, while Liberal leader Justin Trudeau – so far – has defied every effort by the Conservatives to brand him as too immature and flighty to lead the country.

The expenses scandal in the Senate – the institution Harper and other westerners vowed to reform once in power – oozed into the prime minister’s own office, where Harper’s former chief of staff Nigel Wright inexplicably dashed off a personal cheque to cover Mike Duffy’s improper expenses.

Things aren’t much better on the legislative front. The government did get its budget through, and a number of significant crime bills. But the deficit remains obstinate and the trade agenda is stalled.

Negotiations with the European Union remain unfinished, with the Americans now starting their own talks with the EU. There’s still no White House approval for the Keystone XL pipeline, public opposition to Northern Gateway continues to build, and now there are daily demonstrations in Ontario against even the modest plan to reverse the flow of a pipeline known as Line 9 – to carry Alberta bitumen east to New Brunswick and beyond.

It’s not the way Harper intended to mark the mid-way point of his first majority mandate. But it’s also far too early to count the Conservatives out with two years to go before the next election.

Still in control

This is a prime minister who takes the long view, and there are signals inside the party of what he can and will do to re-brand both the Conservatives and his government.

Some of those moves are intended to put a new face on a government that will seek a fourth consecutive mandate in 2015.

First: Shuffle the cabinet in July.

Harper has not done a full-scale overhaul of his cabinet since taking power in 2006. This time, most observers believe he will, replacing long-time ministers who don’t want to run again, with younger, but seasoned MPs.

The theory here is that the renewal has to be complete if Harper expects to win a fourth term. The same old faces won’t sell new ideas. And too many cabinet ministers have not only been around the table for six years now, some of them remain in the same portfolios they first held.

Second: Re-tool the Prime Minister’s Office

This is perhaps most troubling for the prime minister. Since Nigel Wright’s resignation, the actions of senior advisors in the PMO have been both clumsy and heavy-handed at the same time. How else to explain using political aides to try to disrupt JustinTrudeau’s news conference on the Hill, or trampling the efforts of some Conservative MPs to discuss abortion during time allocated for just those kinds of statements before Question Period.

Some strategists complain privately that when Nigel Wright resigned, the PM lost the only person willing to tell him what he needs to hear. 

Some insiders believe Harper has to give backbench MPs more latitude to bring social issues to the floor of the Commons, knowing he has enough control of caucus to defeat them. Better to allow that freedom than to arouse resentment inside the ranks.

New Policies

The bigger challenge is to come up with new policy priorities to carry the government over the next two years.

The government has done well exploiting wedge issues – think scrapping the long gun registry and the Canadian Wheat Board – that distinguish Conservatives from the other parties.

The question is identifying those types of issues for the Throne Speech expected this fall. Here’s a sampling of what insiders are saying.

First: Do something about the Senate.

Conservative hard-liners insist anger over the expenses scandal is so deep that the prime minister can formally put abolishing the upper chamber on the public agenda. It won’t help the party in Quebec, but it will pit the party firmly against the Liberals and force the Quebec-based New Democrats, who favour abolition, to stand with the government.

Second: The economy.

Conservatives believe Harper remains the most credible leader on economic issues. But he has to finalize some of the initiatives the government has begun: the trade pact with Europe, and approval for at least one of the pipeline projects that will take Canadian oil to new markets. And the government needs to erase the deficit before the next election.

Third: Reduce the size of government.

Since the Conservatives took power, the federal public service has added 60,000 jobs. That’s entirely counter to the commitment to smaller government. Look for the government to push a more aggressive agenda of job cuts over the next two years, and to pursue plans requiring public servants to contribute to their pensions on a 50-50 basis with the government.

Those are some of the things Harper intended to speak about last night, before the Calgary convention was postponed to the fall.

Now he has time to work on changing the face of his government, while hoping the anger directed at the Conservatives recedes along with the flood waters in Alberta.