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Why a Harper minority still has teeth

Inside Harper's penchant for governing by policy

SLAP ON THE WRIST. In January, Harper will get either a slap on the wrist or a pink slip. But if he passes his budget, he can continue to use the powers of his job to make Canada more conservative — without ever introducing another bill. Credit: Xtra.ca file photo

If the Conservatives can survive key confidence votes in January, their government could last all winter. That means several more months of policies, regulations and appointments the prime minister never has to run by the opposition.

Legislation be damned. Prime Minister Stephen Harper can reshape the country without ever introducing a socially conservative bill, according to academics, activists and opposition MPs.

“If the Conservatives can’t do it by legislation, they’ll do it by regulation or policy,” says New Democrat Paul Dewar. “They’ve used policy and the executive branch to bring in all kinds of Trojan horses that are ideological.”

That’s because the prime minister is the head of the executive branch, which has broad powers over policy, priorities and appointments. Those powers are unchecked by votes in the House of Commons, even with his chastised minority.

The problem is, says Dewar, Canadians don’t widely understand the powers of the executive branch.

“The country is going through a massive civics lesson, and in a way I’m glad we’re going through it,” he says.

One of the prime minister’s powers — the ability to make political appointments — became a hot topic after cabinet appointed 25 people, some with close Conservative ties, to pension tribunals and employment insurance boards the day after finance minister Jim Flaherty’s unpopular economic update.

The two boards represent some of the hundreds of posts — from judgeships to boards that oversee reproductive health research — that are appointed directly by the Prime Minister’s Office. Add to that 18 senate seats up for grabs, and Harper’s power to influence politics without introducing laws comes sharply into focus.

Even though it’s legally within Harper’s power, the orgy of appointments — in the face of a dodged confidence vote — is dubious, says coalition agitator and lesbian activist Ariel Troster.

“It does appear Harper has the power to do so, but does he have the moral authority to do so?” she says.

Troster wants to see a confidence vote in the House of Commons. She says appointments should be put off until Harper has shown that he can pass muster in the House.

But Harper’s unlikely to wait — and political appointments are just part of the picture. The job of prime minister comes with “tremendous power” that extends well beyond appointments, according to University of Victoria political science professor Dennis Pilon.

“When you are the government, there are an extraordinary number of levers you can pull,” says Pilon.

The prime minister also sets Canadian policy on an international stage, Vancouver gaybourhood MP Hedy Fry says. She points to Harper’s failure to sign the 2007 UN declaration of the rights of indigenous peoples — it’s another example of the prime minister’s powers that are unchecked by MPs.

While all prime ministers and their cabinets have the same toolbox, the challenges that face minority governments make the policy path an easier road to hoe than ramming legislation through a combative House of Commons.

In fact, many of Harper’s most controversial moves have been done through policy, which doesn’t require the approval of Parliament, and can continue even during a prorogued Parliament (see sidebar).

All of which makes the stakes for a coalition government higher than most people imagine. Troster says she hopes a Liberal-NDP coalition government will “correct some of the more egregious” policies of the last three years.

“Given the choice of having the Liberals get in bed with the Conservatives or the NDP, I’d rather they got together with the NDP,” says Troster.

That appears to be same political arithmetic Stéphane Dion was doing in November.

But with Toronto MP Michael Ignatieff named the interim and presumptively permanent leader of the Liberal Party Dec 10, Pilon says the odds of a coalition government have changed.

Ignatieff — and the Liberal elites that back him — have more in common with the Conservatives than the NDP, Pilon says. Since taking over the Liberal Party, Ignatieff has been signalling that he’s willing to work with Harper on a January budget that would be palatable to the Liberals. And that, judging from Harper’s CBC interview on Ignatieff’s first day, is just fine with him.

“It is in the interests of the government to find a consensus, certainly among the federalist parties and certainly among the two major parties, to find things we can agree on,” Harper said at the time.

But friendliness between Harper and Ignatieff will do little to smooth out the policy kinks Harper has introduced over the last three years. It’s something the Liberals will have to hold their nose to support, says Toronto MP Maria Minna. Minna is the Liberal Party’s Status of Women critic.

Shrinking the role of Status of Women has been one of Harper’s most flagrant uses of the powers of the PMO and cabinet. That included closing 12 of the 16 Status of Women Canada offices and removing the word “equality” from the department’s mandate.

Harper has been “hitting women broadly and quite aggressively since he came to power,” says Minna.

The Conservatives’ latest gambit was a challenge to pay equity contained in the fall economic update. If Harper and Ignatieff can agree on an economic agenda, it’s unlikely that something like pay equity will stand in the way of the budget passing.

“My concern right now is that with the huge downturn in the economy, the average Canadian isn’t listening to these kinds of issues. Canadians see it somewhat esoterically,” says Minna. “And Harper knows that.”

Fry looks at things differently. If the opposition’s beef is with social policies, Harper should be defeated on one of those policies, not a budget bill. But it is up to Harper to decide whether non-money bills are matters of confidence.

“There is no instrument to do so other than on money bills,” she says. “I don’t think that the opposition could or would abuse its powers.”

She supports Ignatieff’s oft-repeated pledge for “a coalition if necessary, but not necessarily a coalition.” Still, she laments the coalition’s failure to quickly and effectively sell the idea of a Liberal-NDP coalition to Canadians in the face of Harper’s “untruths.”

What Fry’s comments underline is the importance of the budget. If Harper can find a way to please the Liberals, then it’s unlikely that the Liberals will defeat them on another matter for several months.

And that means more policy and cabinet directives with little oversight by MPs.