Canada’s national unemployment rate is at a tolerable 7.2 per cent and, as of March, 82,000 mostly full-time jobs have been created, according to Statistics Canada. The Bank of Canada is still holding its interest rate at one per cent, which has done wonders for the local real estate market, and from the outside looking in Canada’s economy still appears to be the envy of the developed world. So why can’t our prime minister get any love?
It’s been one year since the Stephen Harper government won its majority, during which time it has continued to manage the affairs of the country in a manner that has built confidence internationally.
Yet, at home there is a lot of grumbling about the style as well as the substance of this Conservative government and its leader.
For one, there was the matter of the Harper government’s response to the housing crisis in the Attawapiskat native community in northwestern Ontario. The fed’s initial response was less a recognition of the emergency of a people at risk of freezing to death from lack of adequate shelter, and more of blaming the community and focusing on money issues. The crisis even came to the attention of the United Nations, which did not look kindly on the government’s response.
Then came the revelation that under federal defence minister Peter MacKay’s watch, the real cost of the F-35 fighter jets was deliberately underestimated by some $15 billion in order to make the purchase more palatable to Canadians. So far, no heads have rolled as a result.
If the Conservative Party were still heading a minority government it would not have been able to steamroll its way through that controversy, or the other embarrassments of some of its ministers.
Another marker of the Harper style: He went offshore to drop the news that the age for pension eligibility would be moved to 67 from 65. A response to a declining revenue pool to maintain the Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security payments is surely necessary given the wave of baby boomers reaching retirement age in the next decade, but the manner in which Harper brought this matter into the public sphere is quite troubling.
Now, he and his finance minister, Jim Flaherty, have placed before Parliament a 400-page omnibus budget bill that deals with a lot more than just the budget, as it contains a host of conservative policies the government has wanted to deal with before but could not in a minority situation, policies affecting the environment and the defunding of advocacy groups the government does not like, for example.
Flaherty has also handed the provinces a budget for healthcare without debate.
So, while the Canadian economy has not suffered under Harper’s leadership, the focus on business over social infrastructure and the emphasis on moving Canada further to the right, have left a significant sector of the Canadian population cool to Harper and his vision. He continues to lag in popularity polls, consistently staying at somewhere between 30 and 40 per cent.
Harper’s seven years as prime minister, six in a minority position, has much to do with the malaise of the Liberal Party which still seems unable to find its footing despite a valiant attempt by its interim leader, former Ontario NDP premier, Bob Rae. The setback is also why the federal New Democrats, the official Opposition party, has gained public confidence equal to the Conservatives and are considered a viable alternative by many who are uncomfortable with the direction of the Conservatives.
With new leader Thomas Mulcair, a former Liberal, the New Democrats are becoming the de facto Liberals.
At the end of its first year of a majority government the Conservative Party may get a passing grade, reluctantly, and mostly because of its handling of the economy. But Canadians are far from being impressed with their behaviour.
Fortunately for him, Harper has three more years to build the love.