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The next step: Challenging Harper's agenda

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Having underestimated the acuity of the Canadian people, the Harper government has been placed on the defensive. While the mainstream media cheered them on and their pollsters reassured them that they were on a winning path, Stephen Harper and his ministers blithely assumed that Canadians were not interested in the Afghan detainees scandal and the environment, and that they couldn't care less about the prorogation of parliament. The accepted narrative of recent months was that Stephen Harper was on the cusp of a majority and all he had to do was to trigger an election while appearing not to want one.

Now, however, there is a full-scale political revolt going on in the country. Canadians are mad as hell about the decision to prorogue parliament. They see it for what it is, a blatant maneuver to stop the questioning of government ministers about the Afghan detainee issue.

In the eyes of Canadians, Stephen Harper is a dictatorial leader, who does not respect the role of parliament in our political system. Even during a minority government, he is incapable of sharing the reins of power with the members of the other parties in the House of Commons.

Now that the people are against him -- the Conservatives received the support of only 33.1 per cent of voters in the latest Ekos poll -- Harper's next move will be to try to divide the opposition parties and put the popular movement that opposes him in the ditch.

He's going to make the case that it is now time for the government to shift gears on economic policy -- to abandon stimulus for severe cuts to government spending. For Harper, this will not be a surprising development. He will be returning to type. He was always unenthusiastic about stimulus. He believed instead that economic recovery ought to be achieved by slashing government programs and cutting taxes.

It was a tell-tale sign of where this government's heart really lay that Finance Minister Jim Flaherty went on proclaiming as late as the end of October 2008, after the federal election was over, that Canada would not have to run a deficit to cope with the economic crisis. By then the stock markets of the world had crashed and the U.S. government (with George W. Bush still in the White House) and that of the UK had undertaken massive programs to bail out failing firms and reflate the economy.

The Harper government's stimulus budget last winter -- a half-hearted one at that -- was a political ploy to stave off defeat in the House of Commons. Now that the stock market has recovered, although not to the highs on the eve of the crash, the Conservatives want to return to their small government ways. They want to take the road favoured by the re-energized, right-wing Republicans south of the border.

Just as the free-market economics of the political right got us into the economic crisis in the first place, Conservatives in Canada and Republicans in the U.S. now advocate policies that will prolong it, and that run the risk of making this a double-dip recession.

What we are going to see when the House of Commons reconvenes in early March will be a Speech from the Throne and a budget that lay out an austerity program. The Harper government will declare that the battle for economic recovery has largely been won -- a claim that is palpably false -- and that it is now time to abandon stimulus for cuts.

That's where the opposition comes in. The Liberals and the NDP need to challenge the core of Harper's policy agenda. When they go back to work on January 25, they need to come up with a set of proposals to continue the stimulus required to create jobs so that the recovery involves more than Bay Street. Beyond that, they should point to a broad set of policies to refashion Canadian economic policy, so that the country can adapt to the realities of a world in which the United States will, of necessity, play a less central role. Those policies need to abandon the Harper government's singular attachment to the petroleum companies and the dead-end concept of Canada becoming an "energy superpower" on the strength of growing oil sands production and exports. The new agenda will have to centre on environmental sustainability, on nothing less than the rebuilding of our cities and transportation systems for a world in which climate change and Peak Oil are the compelling realities. Such an agenda carries with it the promise of job creation. It can place Canada at the centre of the establishment of the green global economy of the 21st century.

The opposition parties should challenge the Conservatives to take up this approach, thereby making the minority parliament work. Should the Conservatives refuse to do so, the Liberals and the NDP should vote no confidence in the government. That would trigger an election, but it would be an election forced by the unwillingness of Stephen Harper and his ministers to adopt an agenda that would allow all of the parties in the House to have a genuine say in the shaping of government policies.

Such an election would be worth fighting. Stephen Harper would lose it.

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