Looking forward by looking back, starting with 2008

Canada 2008: Prime Minister Stephen Harper at a meet-and-greet. Photo: Andrew d'Entremeont

Parliamentary reporter Karl Nerenberg opens 2018 with a special historical series, which looks forward to the coming year in politics by looking back. In this collection of articles, we travel back through 50 years of history, one decade at a time. Read the full series, spanning 1968-2018, here.

Poet and memoirist Maya Angelou once wrote: "You can't know where you're going until you know where you have been." In that spirit, and while Canadian federal politicians are still far from the capital on their winter break, this writer proposes looking forward to the coming year by looking back a decade -- or two, or three, or more.

When the late 19th-century socialist and journalist Edward Bellamy chose "Looking Backward" as the title for his utopian novel, it was because he had his protagonist fall into a deep sleep and then wake up in the future. The novel's main character then looks backward to his time, a more primitive time more than a century earlier.

Here, in this space, we will look back not from the future but from the present, and we will do so a decade at a time, starting 10 years ago in 2008.

 Harper's first term was coming to an end -- but who knew?

As the year began, Stephen Harper was quite comfortably in power in Canada.

After winning a minority in 2006, the first prime minister elected as leader of the party that resulted from the merger of the Reform/Canadian-Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives had a caucus full of political rookies, many of them Reform Party populists.

Harper chose to assign most of his senior cabinet posts to folks with political or administrative experience. He called on Mike-Harris-Ontario and Brian-Mulroney-federal Conservatives such as Tony Clement, Jim Flaherty and Rob Nicholson, and MPs who had significant experience managing large organizations, notably Lisa Raitt. The friskier, more ideologically oriented Harper zealots, such as Jason Kenney and Pierre Poilievre, had yet to take centre stage.

At the beginning of the year, we did not know that Harper would precipitate an early election in October, even though his own fixed election law gave him two more years. Harper thought he could take advantage of a Liberal Party that was not hugely enthusiastic about its own leader's carbon tax policy. The Conservatives had demagogically ridiculed that climate change-fighting proposal as a tax-on-everything. They thought they could ride that ridicule -- paired with vicious personal attacks on Liberal leader Stéphane Dion's Mr. Bean-like personality -- to a majority. It did not quite work out for Stephen Harper, although he did increase his minority.

The Great Recession

As 2008 got underway we also did not know that before the year was out we would experience the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression. Hardly any respected economists had publicly made that prediction.

It turns out that decades of financial deregulation and benign neglect had given the wolves of Wall Street free rein to indulge in an orgy of greed, which produced such toxic financial instruments as bundled sub-prime mortgages. Wall Street's speculative house of cards collapsed in the fall of 2008, and the ensuing catastrophe forced the U.S. and other governments to fork over billions of dollars to the very culprits who had caused the crisis. Those massive taxpayer-funded give-aways saved the financial status quo and the obscene profits and executive salaries of the investment banking industry. They did nothing for the hundreds of thousands who lost their homes and livelihoods.

The crisis also produced a new economic policy consensus in the capitalist, developed world. The slavish dedication to balanced budgets at all cost was out; Keynesian stimulus spending was in. An emergency G-20 summit in Washington in November 2008 focused mostly on modernizing and tightening financial regulation, but it also committed all members to "use fiscal measures to stimulate domestic demand to rapid effect".

Fiscal measures meant government spending to create jobs and growth, a commitment with which Canada enthusiastically agreed. When the time came to actually do something, however, the Harper government welshed on its pledge, blithely indifferent to the severe and growing job losses in the country. Harper's finance minister, the late Jim Flaherty, produced a fall economic update that, in an act of near-delusional fiscal fantasy, forecast a small surplus. There was to be not a single dollar for infrastructure or any other kind of pump-priming spending. Professionals in the federal finance department invoked their right to non-self-incrimination when asked if they had authored that dishonest travesty.

To add insult to injury, Flaherty slipped in a non-sequitur of a measure to abolish the per capita subsidies to political parties. The Chrétien government had introduced public funding for political parties when it banned corporate and union donations. When he announced his fiscal update, Flaherty poked a stick in the opposition parties' eyes by declaring that the whole package would be a confidence matter. If the opposition voted down the update the government would fall.

The prorogation crisis

Harper and his team thought they had the opposition on the ropes. They reasoned that the opposition parties -- especially the Liberals, who had lost seats in the October election -- were cowed and dispirited and would not dare vote down a government mere weeks after it had won a convincing victory.

They miscalculated. The Liberals, New Democrats (then led by Jack Layton) and Bloc Québécois were so outraged by the government's arrogance they announced they would suck it up and vote against the fiscal update. Rather than precipitating another election so soon after the previous one, the Liberals and New Democrats proposed a coalition government, for which the Bloc pledged tacit support.

We have never had coalition government in Canada, with the exception of the Unionist government of Conservatives and break away Liberals during the First World War, and the mere idea seemed to scare many Canadians, especially at a time of grave economic uncertainty. 

But Harper was cornered. There seemed to be little he could do to head off defeat.  Then he came up with the clever tactic of proroguing the House (suspending its operation) mere days after it had convened following the election.

Now, if a coalition presented an unknown prospect for Canada, prorogation in such a circumstance had no precedent whatsoever in any parliamentary democracy.

In the end, though, Harper got his way. No governor-general would want to repeat Lord Byng's gaffe more than seven decades earlier of denying a prime ministerial request. In Byng's case, he had refused William Lyon Mackenzie King's demand for dissolution and a new election after King's Liberals had been defeated in the House. Instead, Byng invited Conservative Arthur Meighen to form a (very short lived) government.  During the election that followed shortly thereafter, King ran against Byng as much as against the Conservative leader, and won a healthy majority.

A temporarily chastened Harper; Trudeau enters the scene

Harper survived his brush with defeat a little more than 10 years ago. When the House returned in 2009, and his government presented a budget, it was chock full of stimulus measures and projected deficits for a number of years into the future. The plan to abolish federal funding for parties disappeared without a trace.

When Harper finally got his majority a little more than two years later, he quickly proceeded to scrap the party subsidies. That, however, was among the least of the outrages Harper's Conservatives committed to democracy and to sound policy during their majority reign from 2011 to 2015. 

By the way, one the few new Liberal MPs elected in the bruising 2008 election was the member for Papineau riding, a working class and largely francophone area in northeast Montreal, one Justin Trudeau.

The younger Trudeau's father, Pierre, had represented a rather different Montreal riding, Mount Royal, in the largely English-speaking west end of the city.  Choosing a riding where the Bloc member was well-ensconced, at a time when the Liberals were at a low ebb, was an early sign that the eldest son of the former prime minister was not averse to risk and quite capable of bold choices. 

Photo: Andrew d'Entremeont/Flickr

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