Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Stephen Harper’s heartless abstractions

In the first half of that first majority government, a Canadian prime minister can truly express himself.

Stephen Harper’s actions this year confirm that he’s not merely a micro-manager, vetting press releases, hoarding votes, and fattening files on his enemies. Rather, he has a few stubborn ideas about the country and that he’s prepared to use his political capital to advance them.

Opposition attention focuses largely on Harper’s ruthless means: the use, for instance, of an elephantine omnibus bill and a majority of votes in the House of Commons to get his way. Thomas Walkom of the Toronto Star stands out by taking on what actually drives him.

“When Stephen Harper’s Conservatives talk about protecting the economy, they are speaking of an abstraction . . . .

“But the real economy is not an abstraction. It is people’s jobs and wages. It is our livelihood. It is how we get by.”

Walkom suspects that Harper has real people on his mind too—corporate executives and market analysts, for sure. However, Walkom is onto something: Harper does appear to be very serious about a number of abstractions.

Here are three propositions that seem to guide his government: protect Canada’s economy, but don’t drive it; don’t do health and education policy for the provinces; and Washington is Canada’s over-riding foreign policy concern.

The federal government, he’s demonstrated, shouldn’t refuse to rescue the economy when it’s in a crisis. He’s closer to Obama as a reluctant Keynesian than to Paul Ryan Republicans. He participated in bailing out GM and Chrysler corporations in the midst of an unprecedented crisis, but offered nothing to help two troubled high-tech giants (Nortel and RIM) after the recession had bottomed out.

Harper hopes he’s transferred sufficient $billions to the provinces that their electorates and social policy stakeholders will concentrate on their management, not their advocacy in Ottawa. In foreign policy and in social policy, he’s quite prepared to disappoint numerous constituencies in Ottawa, across Canada, and in the world.

Those who believe that a federation’s central government must be more creative than its provinces or states and cities; that creative government is, by definition, always interested in what’s interesting; and that Ottawa can conduct itself abroad as if Canada is a significant power in its own right will eventually mount a powerful challenge to the Harper majority.

You can reject his abstractions with abstractions of your own. However, it would be foolhardy to complain about abstract thinking per se.

The West has had many leaders who were relatively free of abstractions. They loved the game and were affected by the faces of every supplicant. However, we're finding that living in their future is no abstraction.

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