Challenges Ahead for the Canadian Government in 2014
Challenges Ahead for the Canadian Government in 2014

News Analysis

OTTAWA—The year that passed has been both exciting and difficult for the Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, making the year ahead likely definitive in terms of the party’s fortunes in the 2015 general election.

The government is facing a credibility crisis that has hit it in polling numbers harder than anything before, though a relatively successful economic performance has preserved the Tories’ most critical claim on power.

And despite the challenges facing the Conservatives, the NDP hasn’t seen its own fortunes rise as a result.

Instead it was the third-ranked Liberals, benefitting from the popularity of their newly minted leader Justin Trudeau, who have seen the biggest turn in public approval. 

That has been buoyed almost entirely by Trudeau’s appeal: neither policy ideas nor a significant change to the party structure can be credited for the Liberal resurgence. (Trudeau is, however, promising open nomination for all ridings in the next election).

And that makes Trudeau as much a liability as an asset. A major controversy or a few more questionable comments—like his apparent admiration for China’s murderous dictatorship—could reverse the party’s improved standing in polls.

That’s a problem for any party, but both the Conservatives and NDP have more experienced leaders and fleshed-out platforms to shore up their leaders’ credibility.

But for the Conservatives, that credibility has been shaken hard for the first time since Harper took the helm of the new party. 

Connections between the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and the ongoing Senate expense scandal can be blamed for a fall in the polls that has become significant in recent weeks. 

Cracks Appearing

But other controversies are more longstanding, including the government’s determination to push resource development at what critics say is the expense of the environment and scientific evaluation.

And Harper’s once-lauded control over his caucus has also shown cracks as Conservative MPs begin to challenge party policies and the authority of caucus leaders like Government House Leader Peter Van Loan.

Those internal fractures remain small at the moment, and no Tory MP is voicing anything but support for Harper’s leadership. But even before Edmonton-St. Albert MP Brent Rathgeber quit the party over its lost commitment to government transparency, backbench MPs were already chafing against restrictive controls on caucus. 

There is no indication the PMO will be loosening its grip on caucus in the next year, which could mean Tory backbenchers could be convinced to speak more boldly on their own priorities. 

The Conservatives have remained firm on basic economic policies, including keeping federal taxes at their lowest levels in 50 years, and have made a point of touting their economic performance at every opportunity. 

There are some challenges on the economic front—including questions over an investment deal with China and unknown details of Canada’s free trade deal with the European Union—but the Tories can count their fiscal performance as a strength. 

Critics may question whether particularly low corporate taxes have translated into the economic benefit promised, especially as many companies sit on hoards of cash in the face of an uncertain global economy, but no one has managed to displace the Conservative’s credibility on the economy.

Recently the government has also moved forward on a consumer agenda that was once the populist purview of the NDP. If it proves successful, broad economic policies on trade and taxes will be buttressed by success on kitchen table issues like cable packages and cellphone contracts.

Showdown with Unions

One of the biggest challenges the government could face is what looks to be a brewing showdown with organized labour. The Conservatives are in the midst of an austerity program that has it looking for ways to make the public service more efficient while trimming its workforce. 

While that effort isn’t controversial on its own, the government has paired it with broader measures aimed squarely at limiting the power and influence of unions in general.

Public opinion could be on the government’s side if sharp words come to major protests or job action because unions are largely concentrated in the public sector. That means private sector workers aren’t entirely supportive of tax dollars going to government workers with better benefits than their own.

But those sympathies could change if critics of the government can frame the debate more in terms of record high executive salaries and bonuses, or a widening gap between the average wage earner and Canada’s wealthiest companies and individuals.

The biggest challenge for the government is the biggest challenge for every government around the world—a shaky global economy. While the global outlook looks marginally more stable for 2014, for Canada high public and private debt, a lack of private sector investment, and political gridlock in the U.S. Congress are unsettling. 

That economic uncertainty might help the government justify its zealous support for resource development and tough-guy stance toward unions. 

On the other hand, as the economy becomes less of an issue, other matters become more important to Canadians. If the Conservatives can’t ride on their economic credentials, concerns over governance, the environment, or social programs like healthcare could become harder to deal with. On those fronts, opposition parties might have better traction.

  • Canukistani

    I think this article touches on a number of important points. The possibility of a Liberal resurgence under Justin Trudeau certainly adds interest to how the next election will play out.

    The performance of the last few Liberal leaders has been abysmal and I think that, as much as anything, has kept the Harper government in power He’s deeply unpopular with many but the choices have been pretty poor so he’s clung to power. Although their popularity is growing, the New Democratic Party is still a little too far left to get enough support to win outright and there just hasn’t really been a Liberal alternative that seemed credible.

    Many see Trudeau as a shining savior, but a lot of that is just the magic of the name for those that supported his father during his early years when times were good. They need to remember that he’s not his father.

    Trudeau is quite young and inexperienced. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though, when you consider the kind of experience that seasoned politicians often have. The experience that seasoned politicians have in garnering perqs or being manipulative or reneging on promises isn’t a virtue. But that inexperience has also led him to made a number of inartful, to be generous, comments that I’m sure will be used against him in the next election.

    To me his success in the next election, if he is successful, will be at least as much a measure of anti-Harper sentiment as it will of positive support for Trudeau. If he can manage to use the negative feelings that much of the electorate has for Harper and offer a just few good ideas of his own he could well win. He does have to avoid making more of the kinds of amateurish mistakes he’s made at the same time though and that’s an unknown factor.

    • DDS

      I think a minority government is a distinct possibility …but with the Sona trial…the Del Maestro mess…and more revelations in the ongoing Senate scandal …anything could happen at this point.

      • Canukistani

        I think you’re right about that. Hard to see any kind of majority coming out of this mess. I’m just hoping that the right guys are at the helm.

        Trudeau just may be ok with a bit of seasoning, but as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing at all that would make Harper palatable.

        • HeyJude

          OK, Canuk..counting on you to educate your neighbor to the south. It looks very much to me like your conservative party is very much like our right wing (austerity, no tax increases, fight unions) without all the religious nonsense thrown in, and being anti family planning, anti gay marriage, etc. Is that correct? And, is this Trudeau related to those Trudeau’s of the past? Thanks for posting this link.

          • Canukistani

            The picture you have of our “Progressive” Conservative party seems pretty accurate to me. They do have some of that religious nonsense, but it’s not usually as evident as it is with your Republicans.

            In the past the mainstream of our Conservatives would have been close to the most moderate of your moderate Republicans and maybe still a bit to the left of that on some issues.

            The current Conservative party, which is really the merger of the old Progressive Conservatives and a smaller splinter group that was formerly known as The Reform Party. They were farther to the right on most issues and, being more militant, they’ve pulled the Cons to the right.

            It’s similar to what the Tea Party did to the Republicans, but in a slightly milder form. I’m sure that many of our Cons would now be pretty close to what passes for a mainstream Republican down there.

            Justin Trudeau is Pierre Trudeau’s son. He’s young and inexperienced and, to me maybe a little reluctant to play the role he’s been thrust into, but he does have the name.

            The name Trudeau here is to many, if not most, Liberals here like the name Kennedy is to Democrats. At least I think the correspondence is pretty close from my vantage point.

            That name will take him a good way toward the office of PM, but at some point, he’ll still have to perform. I’m not sure he’s ready for that. He’s made a few amateur gaffes and been a little too quick to speak a time or two and that’ll probably cause him some problems.

            If he was seriously going to try for the PM’s office, I always thought he’d be better to wait a few more years and gain a little stature on his own rather rely too heavily on just the name.

            On the other hand, Stephen Harper has dug himself in pretty deeply with many unpopular things he’s done since coming to power. He is arrogant and high-handed even with members of his own party and has been hovering around the edges of a number of scandals.

            That sets the stage to make the next election greatly interesting to us Canucks. Either we continue down this road to nowhere or we manage to get turned around.

          • HeyJude

            Thanks for taking the time to explain all that, make a much more clear picture overall for me. Best of luck getting turned around, I hope we can in the coming elections too. Ours depends on getting rid of the Tea Party wing of Republicans, IMO. I’m not sure we have any real moderates left, but until they override the TP it’s going to be ugly.

          • Canukistani

            You’re quite welcome. Many of your compatriots have no interest at all in what goes on up here so it’s nice the help someone who does get a better grip on what’s happening here.

            I hope you can get those Tea Partyy people shoved off the raft too. From up here they look completely loony and most of us don’t understand how anybody can take them seriously, even themselves. They looks like a nightmare version of our least favorite cartoon characters to most of us.

          • HeyJude

            The thing that has confused me was your progressive conservatives being more to the right than your regular conservatives. Progressive sounds as if they should be more to the left, so matching the wings to the policies didn’t seem right. LOL
            Hey, from down here the TP doesn’t look any better to us….they ARE loony and a nightmare. They’ve set us back by at least 100 years, it is pretty disheartening to see the amount of damage and dismantling they have been able to do. They really are in the minority but have run roughshod over everyone. :-(

          • Canukistani

            The name change happened a number of years ago and it was done to be just as confusing to us. We’ve had to live with them though so we learned pretty quickly that a stinkweed by any other name would be just as fragrant.

            They are progressive in the same way that W was a compassionate conservative. I don’t think there’s any such animal, at least not after an election.

            I don’t understand how more people don’t realize that while governments of the left might mess up, governments on the right always seem to.

            As far as I’m concerned, if we do have to go down in flames at some point I,’d rather do it in the kinder gentler way that the left views the world than in the super max way that the right seems to favor.

          • Plum Dumpling

            “I don’t understand how more people don’t realize that while governments of the left might mess up, governments on the right always seem to.”
            This is correct and statistically and scientifically supported by the work of Bob Altemeyer. His paper, The Authoritarians, is available free online and very readable for a psychology paper. It is worth reading for the World Game section alone. Authoritarians vs. nonAuthoritarians. The Authoritarians had us in a World War within five years. Priceless reading if you want to understand right wingers.

          • Canukistani

            This was a feeling I had based on my own observation and I was unaware that there was actually a study to back this up. Thanks for this info!

          • Plum Dumpling

            You are smart so no surprise. I thought you would like some academic support. It is a quick read if you ignore the foot notes. Guy has a wry sense of humor.

          • Canukistani

            I would, indeed. I like books and studies and acedemic papers and documentaries unlike some who are on the other side of the political spectrum.

            I have this feeling that I can sometimes learn something of lasting value by using them in the way they were meant to be used. At any rate, I prefer to do that rather than enjoying the momentary warmth those fine people over there would like me to feel by burning them.

            I suspect you share that feeling as well.

          • Plum Dumpling

            Yes I do. I am starting a literacy project in my city. I do not know if I can make it work, but I am going to try.

          • Canukistani

            That’s a great task to be undertaking. As we well know, literacy changes everything. I wish you all the good luck in the world and the greatest success with it!

          • Plum Dumpling

            Thank you. It is a thing worth doing.

          • HeyJude

            Great recommendation, Plum…will look into it. I’ve seen snipets of the same kinds of studies..fear motivation is the overriding factor in being authoritarian, etc. The brain comparisons, both in size, electrical activity in certain areas, and the psychology of it does show there are real and demostrable differences in being conservative or liberal.

          • Plum Dumpling

            Altemeyer is the research base for Conservatives without Conscience by John Dean. I have been reading in this field for awhile. Altemeyer is one of the best.

          • Plum Dumpling

            P.S. I have seent those studies too. And they are interesting. What I like about the Altemeyer stuff is he approaches it from a behavioral stance. I know more about psychology and behavior than I know about biology/medicine.

    • takawalk

      I will be back, but just thought I would drop by and Book Mark it. After all you did post it. Gotta be worth a read.

      • Canukistani

        Thanks for the kind words. These might just be the maunderings of an over-the-hill archivist and student of the world though. Better bring a pillow.

  • AskandTell

    What are Canadians thoughts on Thomas Mulcair? He also had a meet and greet in DC and agreed with the environmental concerns Americans have about Keystone.

    The US and Canada are growing closer every year as our politics and corporations are intertwined. It’s important that Americans understand Canadian politics especially when projects such as Keystone directly affect citizens. There are also positive partnerships; both countries have been blackmailed by Pharma paying more for drugs than any other country on the planet. Being unified in changing laws could bring down drug costs.

    • Canukistani

      In the absence of other Canuck voices I’ll take a crack at this one If I may and try to supply some context.

      Mulcair and the New Democratic Party have a number of problems that make it doubtful they’ll be able to form a government anytime soon. One of Mulcair’s big problems is that he follows Jack Layton as leader.

      Layton was very dynamic and charismatic and was able to invigorate his party and find bold ways to challenge his opponents. He was also able to draw new people into the party by speaking very passionately and persuasively on many issues. Had he lived he may have succeeded in finally bringing the NDP to power for the first time in our history.

      Mulcair, at least by comparison has all of the charisma of Bob Dole. Some of his positions may make a lot of sense, his stand on the pipeline for instance, but he seems so lackluster most of the time that not many are listening.

      As a party, the NDP has always been on the left of the Canadian mainstream. For example, a number of years ago, when Canada was in some financial difficulty, several NDP members seemed to be seriously suggesting that all we had to do was print more money and the problems would vanish.

      Also, with a 3 party system (ignoring the real fringes), the Liberals, being in the middle, and a little to their right, are able to plunder their better more centrist ideas and pass them off as their own. In order for the NDP to appear speak with its own voice it has to champion its less centrist ideas. They are not in an easy position.

      • AskandTell

        Thank you Canuk for the wonderful summary of Mulcair. I was in Canada the week of Layton’s passing so understand when you describe him as dynamic and charismatic. Your comparison of Mulcair to Bob Dole is wonderful. I had that sense studying his picture and analyzing his words. Charismatic as Nixon.

        Republicans love affair with Ronald Reagan I believe has much to do with his charismatic manner.

        • Canukistani

          The value of charisma to a politician can’t be overstated. Without that I don’t believe that Reagan would have had nearly the following he did. So much of politics is appearance and manner rather than policy and wisdom.

          BTW, in case you haven’t looked downthread here in a bit I’ve offered a thought or two on other areas of our political landscape in Caukistan that might be of some interest.

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