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Talkin’ Harper Cabinet Blues

Canadian Politics

Council of Canadians Chair Maude Barlow has described Stephen Harper as “the staunchest right-wing ideologue ever to occupy the Office of Prime Minister.” Not surprisingly, Harper’s dark-blue Tory cabinet looks rather like George W. Bush’s Canadian dream team, with its stamp of social conservatism and punitive predilections, as well as its enthusiasm for deep integration with the U.S., for plumping the military and for all the mantras of neoliberal policy: free trade, privatization, castrating the public sector. Here’s an unrepentantly selective profile of several key players.

From Harris to Harper

They may be cool to combating climate change, but it seems the Harper government has an environmental bent after all, at least when it comes to cabinet appointments: three members of Harper’s lean, mean cabinet team have been recycled from the regime of former Ontario premier Mike Harris.

Canada’s new Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty, will be remembered as the member of the Harris government who advised jailing the homeless as an act of compassion. “Living on the streets is not an option,” he said. “Call it tough love if you will. It will be illegal to live on the street, it will be illegal to live in public places and in the parks.” His respect for Aboriginal people appears to be on a par with his tenderness toward the homeless. In 1992, he urged the Canadian government to stop wasting money on the federal bureaucracy that only serves the health-care needs of Aboriginal peoples in order to increase provincial health-care funding destined for “real people in real towns.”

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Dealing another injury to democracy – even by his own standards – Harper also appointed Montreal lawyer and businessan Michael Fortier, an unelected Conservative Party organizer who will be named to the Senate, as Minister of Public Works and Government Services. During the campaign Harper stated, “To become a Minister, you have to be elected.” So many tergiversations, so little time….

Foreign Affairs

Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay has the distinction of having been the last leader of Canada’s old Progressive Conservative party, prior to carrying it into the 2003 merger with the Canadian Alliance – the formation Mackay had previously declared anathema, saying he would sooner quit politics than join it. In proceeding with the fusion, he also reneged on a written agreement with PC leadership rival David Orchard, which included an interdiction on merging the parties in exchange for Orchard’s support.

As foreign affairs minister, Mackay has promised to maintain Canada’s traditional role in the UN, but to take “a more decisive position.” What, in practice, does this mean? Perhaps there’s a clue in the fact that Mackay issued the statement just after Canada had voted against a resolution condemning Israel for its treatment of Palestinian women – the same resolution on which it abstained last year.

When it comes to backing U.S. belligerence, Mackay has not yet been quite as outspoken as Harper, who, together with Stockwell Day, wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal condemning Canada’s failure to support the invasion of Iraq. However, Mackay is anxious to repair the damage to U.S.-Canada relations, which he sees as resulting from Canada’s decision to abstain from the Coalition of the Willing.

Interestingly, Mackay did not choose Washington as the destination of his first official trip abroad. Instead he went to London, where he told reporters that Canada may have lost its focus in trying to “do too much” and be “all things to all people.” He also said he did not foresee Canada taking on a more active military role in Iraq.

What can we expect with this lot at the helm of our government? As long as the Conservatives remain a minority, their hand will be stayed to a considerable degree, giving the 60-odd per cent of Canadians who did not vote for them no immediate cause for alarm. But this quick review of their individual records suggests there is every reason to stand on guard.

This article appeared in the May/June 2006 issue of Canadian Dimension (Fighting Harper).

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