Compromise and conflict under Harper

Sixty per cent of active Canadian voters rejected Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Yet there he is, managing Canada.

The “60 percenters” can modify Harper’s hidden agenda, which is in plain sight.

Job No. 1 for Harper is weakening the power of parliamentary government while strengthening the prime minister’s power to command and control and slashing social programs.

He is aiming at the weak-government target just as steadily now as he did when he was a leader of the far-right-wing Reform and Alliance. He tried to kill a national campaign for cheaper and more readily obtainable medicines. Stopping federal work on a national pharmaceutical strategy (NPS) was one of Harper’s moves as a minority prime minister.

Luckily for patients who need medicines, the provinces met in August 2010 and went ahead on their own with planning. They created a flexible new federation, overlying the rigid, rusted-up federal structure.

Even without Ottawa’s participation, NPS seems tricky but achievable. What will it take to persuade Harper to offer co-ordination and startup money?

Encouragement by the NDP opposition might do it. National pharmacare, including reduced prices through mass purchasing, might save $10 billion a year, the NPS draft documents suggest.

Harper wants weaker government and cheaper social programs. Jack Layton wants to make public health care increasingly efficient and sensitive.

Lower health care costs through bulk purchase of medicines could be the middle ground where both sides agree, because the action lowers the cost of health care while conferring a public benefit.

This particular conflict could be diplomatically settled, but the policy gulf between Harperism and the majority of Canadians remains wide and deep.

Majority opinion favours public health care, and mainstream expert analysis shows how public care can be upgraded; but Harper continues to trash popular and scholarly input and encourage provinces to privatize.

So how did a parliamentary majority of Conservatives get elected? Mainly because of Harper’s clever electioneering, with its false “trust me” message implying that Conservative management kept Canada’s banks and economy safe from U.S.-style panic. In fact Canada’s greater financial stability was determined long ago by stricter regulation, a policy that runs counter to Harper’s “free market” preference.

This is how the political landscape looks from where I sit: The “60 percenters” can survive the Harper years comfortably if they regroup their forces and fight the battles they can win while increasing their public-opinion strength and pushing for the election of NDP provincial governments. The NDP has proven itself since Tommy Douglas’s day (despite occasional fumbles) as the party of practical problem-solving ideas and projects.

Moving toward money saving national pharmacare is one such project. Rigorous, doctor-centred research aimed to devise new medicines and test the effectiveness of present day drugs is another. Dr. Iona Heath, president of Britain’s Royal College of General Practitioners, suggested in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that physicians should once again play a key part in pharmaceutical research, as did Frederick Banting, the discoverer of insulin.

It would be useful for the NDP to push for such public enterprises and, as part of an “overcoming Harperism” strategy, try to recruit the creative politicians who may be a majority of the Liberal caucus, and help them cut loose from corporate lobbies.

Shrink-and-slash, Harper-style, is part of a continuing struggle over the share of the wealth generated by the centuries-long revolutionary explosion of mechanical and electronic technology.

Charles Dickens joined that struggle when he wrote A Christmas Carol as a parable dramatizing Britain’s neglect of the working poor. In the 21st century, Harper is Canada’s Scrooge.

—G.E. Mortimore is a Langford-based writer. Think About It runs every second week in the Gazette.



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