Stephen Harper has ridden the wave of Western ascendancy
Tasha Kheiriddin April 6, 2012 ,National Posthttp://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2012/04/04/tasha-kheiriddin-stephen-harper-has-ridden-the-wave-of-western-ascendancy/Stephen Harper: Transformational Prime Minister.
Those are five words that no one would have thought to string together seven years ago. But his government’s latest budget, as well as his trip to Washington this week, reveal an agenda that could profoundly change the nature of this country — even if it’s not the “hidden agenda” that Canadians have been told to fear.
For years, the left has crowed about a Conservative plot to make Canada a bastion of social conservatism and small government. There are a few nuggets to support their claim. For example, this April the government will be allowing debate on a private member’s bill that could open the door to limits on abortion. But, even if they are introduced, such limits would be subject to a non-whipped vote in Parliament, with no guarantee of passage.
Instead, the real interest of the Prime Minister appears to lie less in transforming the country’s morality and finances, and more in shifting the geographical axis of power from central to Western Canada.
His latest budget bets heavily on resource extraction, namely oil and gas, as the economic engine of the country. Environmentalists, get out of the way: Make too much noise opposing the Northern Gateway pipeline, and Revenue Canada will pull your charitable licence.
Unemployed Canadians, move “where the jobs are” — i.e., the oilfields of Western Canada. Universities partner with the private sector to produce research with practical applications — like that done at the Centre for Oil Sands Innovation at the University of Alberta, whose founding sponsor is Imperial Oil.
This week in Washington, Mr. Harper went a step further: Playing the role of Canadian nationalist, but not in the peacekeeping, medicare-loving, politer-than-you-Americans stereotype we have come to expect from our prime ministers. Instead, he talked tough, essentially telling Barack Obama and the American public that if they want our oil, they better approve the northern portion of the Keystone XL pipeline, or we’ll sell it to the Chinese.
If things go Mr. Harper’s way, he will accomplish the ultimate aim of Preston Manning’s Reform party, and then some. Back in the 1980s and ‘90s, Reform’s battle cry was “the West wants in.” Shut out of decision making, with Ottawa favouring central Canada on everything from procurement to public service appointments, westerners rebelled, and formed a new party to make their voices heard. That party ultimately folded back into (some would say subsumed) the federal Tories, at just the time that demography and economics favoured the West’s ascendancy.
Indeed, Mr. Harper did not engineer this power shift; he is riding a wave that has been cresting for the past decade. As Ontario’s manufacturing sector erodes and Quebec loses demographic clout due to slower population growth, head offices have migrated to Calgary: According to Calgary Economic Development, in 2010, 114 called the city home, up from 78 in 2000.
The 2011 census revealed that Saskatchewan went from negative to positive population growth, up from -1.1% between 2001 and 2006, to 6.7% between 2006 and 2011.
Manitoba’s rate of population growth doubled since 2006. At the same time, Ontario’s rate of population growth was the slowest since the early ‘80s.
Despite these numbers, Mr. Harper is still taking a gamble. He needs three elements to make his plan work. First, the world price of oil needs to stay high. Second, Canadian environmentalists need to be kept at bay: While Ottawa can change approval processes, it cannot control the court system, which is likely where groups will head to stall development projects. Third, political polarization needs to continue, with the NDP attracting leftist support while the Liberals stay squeezed in the middle, siphoning off anti-Harper votes.
In this, Mr. Harper has an ally in new NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, who represents the party’s best chance of keeping its Quebec seats, as well as building a “New Labour”-type centre-left coalition.