September 3, 2008

Stephen Harper's Hidden Agenda (again)

CANADA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper is about to pull the plug on the 39th Parliament and plunge the country into an election because, according to his spokesperson, he could find "no area of common ground" with the opposition that would allow the government to move forward with its agenda.

But just what is the Conservative government's agenda? In his meetings with the opposition leaders over the past week, Harper reportedly played his cards close to his vest. He did not lay out a government agenda for the fall and seek opposition approval to move ahead. Rather, he posed rhetorical questions like (according to Liberal Leader St├ęphane Dion): "Do we have common ground about the orientation of the country?"

Perhaps Harper was simply holding back because he had already decided to have an election and didn't want to give away any of the Conservative platform in advance. In other words, instead of an agenda for a minority parliament, during the course of the election campaign we could see an outline of what Harper would do if he had a majority. (The polls say he is on the cusp of one.)

Then again, maybe not. There have been suggestions in recent days that Harper will run on "strong leadership" (see the TV ads that have already been launched) and against Dion (who has been called a weak leader in Conservative attack ads). As for what Harper would do in a second term, we might get no more than generalities.

Which raises the question that has often plagued Harper and the Conservatives: Do they have a hidden agenda?

Unshackled from the requirements of a minority Parliament to temper their policies, would Harper and the Conservatives return to their Reform roots and implement more tax cuts accompanied by deep reductions in government spending, outsource regulatory oversight, privatize the CBC, create a triple-E Senate and even adopt socially conservative stances against abortion and gay marriage?

While Harper has worked hard to moderate his party's image in recent years, there have been recent glimpses that the old ideas are still kicking around inside the government, including the cuts to arts programs and the shifting of some responsibility for food inspections from the public service to the industry.

In explaining the decision to go to the polls rather than face Parliament this fall, the Prime Minister's spokesperson said on Monday: "We are in uncertain economic times. There are a number of things that the government would like to move forward on."

The public ought to know what those "things" are before voting.

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