Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Stephen Harper: Nasty But Inconsequential

If you're a fan of Stephen Harper, please move along. I hope that's not rude. It's just that right now I want to talk to people who wish, as I do, that Stephen Harper would try his hand at another line of work. Something better suited to his talents and temperament. Tax auditor, perhaps. Or Mafioso. Something of that sort. Here's the thing, my fellow non-fans. Your loathing of Stephen Harper is so intense it's distorting your judgment. You assume your feelings are proportionate to the threat Harper poses and so you see him as an evil genius deliberately and steadily changing everything you love about your country. The whole political spectrum is shifting to the right, you fear. Stephen Harper is making Canadians more conservative. Lots of people make this case. None more prominently than Lawrence Martin, author of Harperland and Globe and Mail columnist. "The inculcation of the conservative mindset," Martin wrote in the Globe, can be seen in "an anti-tax-hike mentality so strong that the Liberal Party fears to even daintily mention the prospect of raising taxes." It can be seen "in the rejection of Liberal national programs such as universal daycare, the Kelowna accord and the green shift." It can be seen in the fact that security, "a conservative staple," is now "a paramount issue." Put it all together, Martin concludes, and "the rightish trends are many and undeniable." "Undeniable"? Wrong adjective. "Illusory" is closer to it. Jean Chretien's Liberals had one majority government after another but they didn't implement a national daycare program, the provisions of the Kelowna accord, or a carbon tax. If failing to embrace these programs proves Canada is lurching rightward, then Canada lurched rightward back when Stephen Harper was a disgruntled nobody muttering about fire-walls. As for that other evidence, it's not really "evidence" so much as a claim about what the evidence shows. Are Canadians so much more anti-tax than they were in the past? Is security now a top concern? These are questions for popular opinion surveys. But the people who think Stephen Harper is turning Canada into Mordor seldom produce survey data. Which is a shame. Because the numbers look darn good to those of us who don't want to live in Mordor. First, there's voter intention. Over five years of Conservative government, support for the Conservatives is pretty much where it's always been. One-quarter of Canadians are bedrock supporters. Another 10 per cent lean in that direction. And that's it. Never say never, but it looks an awful lot like Stephen Harper is going nowhere. So what about values and policy positions? There isn't a definitive data set. So I called around. The first person I spoke to was pollster Frank Graves at Ekos, who looked at responses to a variety of standard social conservative positions, such as opposition to marijuana decriminalization, over the five years of the Harper government. There was little change. And what change there was tilted in a liberal direction. Next, I contacted the Environics Institute, home of pollster Michael Adams. As luck would have it, they've just put together a big package on Canadian politics and society. It will be released later this month but they let me have an early look. We all know the prime minister's take on taxes. "I don't believe that any taxes are good taxes," he famously said. Do growing numbers of Canadians agree? Hardly. In 2005, 72 per cent of Canadians said taxes "are mostly good," while 22 per cent said they're "mostly bad," and 5 per cent said "both" or "it depends." In 2010, the numbers were essentially identical. Inequality is another defining issue. In 2010, 16 per cent strongly or somewhat disagreed that government "should reduce the gap between rich and poor." That's up by a whisker from 2006, when it was 12 per cent. But it's essentially the same as the 14 per cent recorded in 1999, the glory days of the Chretien Liberals. As for social issues, there's been a huge jump in support for gay marriage. Support for legal abortion is also up substantially. Of course what really counts is money and so, since 1994, Environics has asked Canadians whether the federal government should spend more on 21 issues. Between 2006 and 2008, support for spending more on "liberal" priorities like child poverty, education, health, and job creation was high and steady. Between 2008 and 2010, it did tend to drop modestly. Support for more education spending, for example, went from 77 to 70 per cent. Is that evidence of a conservative shift? I doubt it. In 2008, the economy tanked and the budget went into the red for the first time in more than a decade. A little retrenchment was to be expected. The same pattern can be seen in support for conservative spending priorities, after all. And in absolute terms, conservative spending priorities have much less support. In 2006, 39 per cent of Canadians said the government should spend more on the justice system; in 2010, only 24 per cent did. In 2006, 44 per cent of Canadians wanted more money spent on the military; in 2010, that was down to 26 per cent. In 2006, 38 per cent of Canadians wanted more money spent on domestic security; in 2010, 28 per cent did. On the entire list, only one budget item saw its support grow significantly (from 24 per cent to 30 per cent) during the five years of the Harper government: Arts and culture. Yes. Really. It's possible the prime minister really is Sauron spreading eternal shadow across the land. But we can't believe that simply because it's what our gut tells us. That's how the Dark Lord and his minions think. We're the rational ones, remember? For a rational person, evidence determines belief, not the other way around. And the evidence to date suggests Harper has failed to implement most of the conservative agenda, failed to push the political spectrum to the right, and failed to make Canadians more conservative. He has done institutional damage, true, but that can be repaired. If Stephen Harper were to quit today, he would be remembered as a nasty but inconsequential prime minister. And we would all wish him better luck in his next career.