The Polarizing Centre

There’s probably some incomprehensible new physics that explains how a thing can simultaneously cluster around a median point while polarizing rapidly. But in the realm of politics, it’s a bizarre and seemingly impossible state of affairs.

And it’s happening.

In policy terms, modern Canadian politics has almost always been centrist. And that’s where it still is, six years after Stephen Harper took power.

That’s true even if we restrict the inquiry to the last year, when the Conservatives wielded the unchecked power of majority government. Just look at the major policies: Declaring the future federal health transfers will grow at six per cent a year for several years, then three per cent a year; pursuing a series of international free trade agreements; gradually raising the age of eligibility for Old Age Security from 65 to 67; restricting eligibility for Employment Insurance for frequent users if jobs are available. And so on.

However you feel about these changes, they hardly amount to a sharp right turn.

And notice what’s not on the list? None of the basic building blocks put in place by the Liberal governments of Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau and loathed by hardcore conservatives ever since. In fact, the Harper government has explicitly supported multiculturalism, bilingualism, universal health care, and, most recently, a woman’s right to choose an abortion.

And yet, there’s a widespread perception among critics of the Harper government that the prime minister has broken with the centrist tradition, spun the ship’s wheel hard to starboard, and intends to crank it even further. This prime minister is a dangerous radical, they say.

Why? One possibility is that I’m wrong and his policies really are radical. And will get more so.

On the latter point, I can’t respond. I can’t read Stephen Harper’s mind. But neither can the prime minister’s tremulous critics.

As for the government’s actual policies, I’d suggest taking a closer look.

Raising the OAS age of eligibility to 67, for example, has been portrayed as a far-right attack on old people. But that’s difficult to accept in light of the fact that the same change has been implemented in many western countries, including Germany and other northern European countries with the world’s most generous and comprehensive welfare states. EI reforms? On these pages, Andrew Coyne did a marvellous job of showing how the Conservatives’ changes are very modest, even timid, compared to reforms proposed by past Liberal governments and expert commissions. Free trade? It’s really just an extension of a policy drive begun by Brian Mulroney and continued by the Liberal governments of Jean Chr├ętien and Paul Martin. Health care funding? Not hard to imagine a Liberal government doing pretty much the same. Budget cuts? The Conservatives have insisted over and over that they’re not remotely as serious as the Liberals’ mid-1990s surgery, and they’re right.

Now, I don’t want to overdo this. Open the environment file and you certainly find policies that abandon the centre – a fact underscored by the four former fisheries ministers, including two Conservatives, who joined together to blast planned changes to the Fisheries Act.

But important as the environment is, it’s only one piece in a very large mosaic. And I suspect that if you had asked Harper’s critics, during the minority years, what his most radical policy would be one year into a Conservative majority, the answers surely would have been more dramatic than “gutting the Fisheries Act.” So let’s keep things in perspective.

No, what’s creating the perception of a radical Conservative revolution isn’t what the Conservatives are doing. It’s how they are doing it.

The obvious illustration is the government’s mammoth Bill C-38, which is theoretically the budget implementation bill, but is in reality a vast number of pieces of legislation that have nothing to do with each other, or the budget. Piling most of the government’s legislative agenda together in one bill ensures scrutiny will be kept to a minimum, which is in keeping with the government’s unprecedented use of time allocation and closure to shut down parliamentary debate.

This naturally arouses suspicion.

And then it turns out that, buried in the bill, is a single sentence: “The Fair Wages and Hours of Labour Act is repealed.” The government didn’t mention this in the budget. It didn’t talk about it at all. It just slipped that needle into the haystack that is C-38.

Is it wise to repeal “The Fair Wages and Hours of Labour Act”? Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know. I don’t know much about it. Few do, I suspect. But people who hide things usually have a good reason for hiding them, and so it’s hard not to think this unbelievably sneaky behaviour shows the government is trying to get away with something rotten.

How many other needles are in that haystack? No one can be sure.

And the Harper government does this sort of thing all the time. When the government announced changes to the environmental review process, it provided the usual press release, a press conference, and a technical briefing for journalists. And in all that, there was no mention that the reforms included giving cabinet the power to overrule the National Energy Board’s conclusions on projects like the Northern Gateway pipeline. That appeared only as a single sentence in a backgrounder document. As usual, there was a case to be made for the change but rather than make it the government behaved as if it could just slip it through when no one was looking.

Now, combine this sleazy behaviour with the government’s ceaseless drive to lock down information (Environment Canada scientists who attended a recent conference on the Arctic in Montreal were warned not to talk to reporters). And add the government’s relentless efforts to avoid parliamentary accountability (it recently refused to detail its cuts to the Parliamentary Budget Officer on the grounds that to do so would violate union contracts, even though the union is urging the government to hand over that information).

And add its refusal to consult (it didn’t talk to Atlantic Canada premiers before introducing EI changes). And add its determined efforts to shut down knowledge production (farewell long-form census; goodbye National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy). And add its extreme positions on peripheral but symbolic issues (Israel) and its truly weird take on some trivial matters (celebrating the War of 1812 and the Boer War).

And finally, add the government’s almost pathological bullying of anyone who dares to disagree.

Add all that up and what happens? The government looks extreme. And it appears to be trying to pull something off. So when it unveils a major policy, like OAS reform, it is perceived through that filter, and the policy looks much the worse as a result.

Net effect: Policy is still generally centrist but politics is increasingly nasty, bitter, and polarized.

If you had asked me five years ago, I would have said that’s impossible. But there it is.