The term “populism” in Canada today doesn’t refer to a distinct, significant political movement. Our major parties are believed to be either too big or too old to represent radical opposition to the status quo. Rather, the term is used only to describe crude politicking.
Populist rhetoric is intended to appeal to those millions of innocent Canadians who are gently and unrelentingly exploited by entrenched centers of Canadian commercial and political power. It’s not taken seriously, however, for three reliable reasons: its utterances are usually piece-meal, its proponents usually sell out, and its intended targets are extraordinarily sophisticated.
Stephen Harper’s rhetoric, however, just could make a difference.
It’s a slim, but noteworthy, complement to describe Stephen Harper’s Throne Speech and its emphasis on consumer frustrations as populist. The National Post’s aggrieved editorial led with the witticism: “Populism from the throne.” This was echoed by former Liberal leader Bob Rae’s stern assessment: “This is not just about catering to consumerism. It is vastly more cynical than that.”
Columnist, Andrew Coyne, however, was in too great a hurry to find fault when he said: “The bit about prohibiting differential prices between the US and Canada … is simply bananas.” As the best we may have as an Ottawa economics pundit, Coyne misspoke and, more seriously, may have missed an important story.
The actual text said, “Our government will take further action to end geographic price discrimination against Canadians.”
“Further action” may mean not much. However, “end” is a profoundly significant departure for a Canadian government, Liberal or Conservative.
Stephen Harper’s economics aren't so rusty that he needs to be instructed that the Government of Canada can’t “prohibit” price differentials in a working market economy — even if he’s hiding a Marxist agenda.
Coyne should stretch his imagination for a minute. Persistent price differentials in comparable consumer markets on both sides of the Canada-US border can effectively be ended if Canada decided to eliminate the border: to enter into a Currency and Security Union with the United States.
This may be political "bananas" to Coyne, the political pundit. But it’s impeccable market economics.
Certainly, elite interests in Ottawa and elsewhere would object and marshal highly sophisticated — as well as self-serving and obsolete — objections. Nevertheless, Harper has already stepped away from a cornerstone of Canada’s self-denying nationalism by even suggesting that Canadians needn’t feel poorer when they’re shopping north of the 49th parallel.
Harper doesn’t have the body language or temperament of a genuine populist. But he’s not an old Tory either. On institutional reform, on trade, on provincial rights, and on foreign policy, he’s still an Alberta reformer — a pro-American, economic liberal.
He must have known that the Throne Speech would be called gimmicky and piecemeal. The question to Harper watchers and his opponents is whether he decides to turn that stark sentence into the One Big Idea missing in that exhausting speech.