Thinking Government

To accompany the new edition of Thinking Government: Politics and Public Administration in Canada published this summer, author David Johnson completely revamped the book’s website. The open access site,, now includes self-study short answer and multiple choice questions for students, further case studies and topical discussions, PDFs of figures and tables from the book for use in lectures, and Strategic Reports by Professor Johnson posted each semester tying current events in Canadian politics to the study of public administration.

The second of these reports follows below. Visit to read the first report, “The 2011 Federal Election,” or to browse the chapter-by-chapter resources available.

See Thinking Government: Politics and Public Administration in Canada, Third Edition, to purchase a copy of the book.

New Leaders and New Power

By David Johnson, Professor of Political Science, Cape Breton University

Politics, government, and public policy are all about continuity. As you study politics and government you can find long-term patterns of behaviour, policy approaches, and ideas that serve as strategic anchors for parties and governments. Thus the importance of knowing the ideological orientation of parties and governments, and the long-established policies and programs which governments inherit, like the Canada Health Act, official bilingualism, and the Charter of Rights.

But politics and government are also about change, and we saw this focus in August. The death of NDP leader Jack Layton was a shock to many people, and the outpouring of emotion at his state funeral was a fitting tribute to someone who devoted his life to serving the public interest.

And now, federal New Democrats must engage in the hard work of finding a new leader.

What type of person does the NDP need at the helm? Without getting into an assessment of personalities, certain basic requirements come to mind when thinking about the types of qualifications the next leader should possess.

First off, the person needs to be fluently bilingual. This is now a core requirement of any federal party leader who seriously desires to become prime minister. And given the remarkable breakthrough of the NDP in Quebec in the last election, the need for a bilingual leader who can communicate with Quebec caucus members in French, as well as appeal to Quebecois voters in their mother tongue, is essential.

And given the importance of Quebec to the NDP, the next leader needs to be someone who can maintain and increase NDP support in Quebec. This would mean a leader comfortable with advancing elements of a Quebecois nationalist agenda within federal politics while promoting to Quebecois the benefits of Canadian national unity and the role of a strong federal government in developing social and environmental policy.

Meanwhile, this leader also needs to be seen by English Canadians as someone they can trust to lead this country, someone who will promote the interests of Canada against Quebecois separatists, and who sees the virtue of a strong federal presence in this country in contrast to parochial provincial interests.

And the leadership requirements keep coming. Any federal NDP leader needs to be a pragmatist. Someone who is capable of managing the inner machinery of the party, of building the grassroots of the party organization, and recruiting the team of candidates, party workers, policy analysts, communication specialists, and campaign managers who will take the party into the next federal election.

As head of the official opposition, the NDP leader must also be pragmatic in developing a party platform and set of core policy and program objectives that will resonate with a majority, or at least a strong plurality of Canadians in the years leading up to the 2015 election. Within the Canadian constitution the official opposition is a government-in-waiting, with all that entails. The moderate centre has always shaped Canadian federal politics, so the NDP now has to show that it has a moderate yet progressive policy and program message deserving of support. And it will be the leader’s responsibility to develop and fine-tune that message.

Yet, any NDP leader needs to balance pragmatism with principle. The NDP is a social democratic party with strong elements of democratic socialism within its heart and soul as a social movement. NDP leaders have always had to balance the requirements of being a political party seeking electoral victory with being a social movement advancing progressive left-of-centre ideas and ideals for building a more compassionate and equal society. This balancing act is never easy. If done poorly, if the social movement facet overwhelms the interests of the party, then electoral oblivion is all too often the result.

But if this balancing act is done well, if the appeal of social democratic pragmatism can be married to the values and spirit of democratic socialism, then electoral success can be achieved, as witnessed by NDP election victories in various provinces. Such NDP success has never been seen at the federal level. But 2015 beckons.

And finally, the next NDP leader has to be a great communicator and defender of NDP values and policies. He or she needs to be capable of clearly explaining and promoting New Democrat policy and programs to an electorate that historically has been ambivalent and even skeptical of NDP ideas and policies.

The Return of Parliament

While the NDP is busy looking for a new leader, however, the government will be busy implementing its agenda, with the help of its newly-minted majority power. Over this autumn we will get a good feel for the Conservative majority government led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Given his new majority, the prime minister knows that he has the numbers to win every vote in the House of Commons between now and the next federal election in the fall of 2015.

This gives Stephen Harper great power, as well as stability and comfort. Unlike his first five years in power when he was facing a minority parliament that could have defeated him on a moment’s notice, the prime minister now has the luxury of majority support in the Commons, meaning that he can devote more time to thinking about long-term policy rather than short-term electoral advantage.

And in terms of policy, we already know a good deal about what to expect from the Harper government over this fall session. As the prime minister promised in the spring election, his Conservative majority government will move quickly on their “tough on crime” agenda, including increasing penalties for offenders, making criminal sentences longer, getting tougher on parole eligibility, building more prisons, eliminating the long-gun registry, and reintroducing draconian “anti-terror” legislation allowing for lengthy preventative detention of those suspected of terrorist activities.

In last spring’s budget the government also announced it will begin the phase-out of the per-vote subsidy for federal political parties beginning this year. By 2015 all federal parties will bear a far greater responsibility for funding their activities through their own fundraising.

The prime minister has also announced that a clear focus for the government will be economic management. As the world economy confronts perilous times, with the Euro-zone facing sovereign debt crises of fearful magnitude, and the United States struggling to cope with a massive national deficit, debt, stagnant economic growth, high unemployment, and political gridlock, the international community may well be facing the advent of another recession.

And should the “R” word become reality, governments in Europe and the United States will be in a less effective state to address a recession than they were in 2009 since they have less fiscal capacity now compared to then. Stimulus packages totaling hundreds of billions of dollars will be unlikely forthcoming, meaning the effects of a recession will be more long-lasting and deeply felt.

Canada is better suited than most countries to cope with current and future economic uncertainty given our stronger fiscal position, but the effects of tougher economic times will be felt by Canadians through reductions in federal government services. This fall the Harper government will continue its strategic operating review, requiring all departments and Crown corporations to reduce program spending by 5 to10 per cent. The government is seeking total spending cuts of $4 billion per year for the next few years up to a total of $11 billion by 2014. It remains to be seen where these cuts will hit hardest.

And beyond these initiatives, the government will have a number of other files to address: enhancing Canadian foreign trade and coping with increased American protectionism; negotiating a border perimeter agreement with the United States; managing the transition to a training role for the Canadian military in Afghanistan; dealing with a Palestinian bid for statehood recognition at the United Nations; eliminating the marketing monopoly of the Canadian Wheat Board; and addressing ongoing international concerns that Canada is not taking global climate change seriously.

But as the Harper government works to manage these numerous policy files, it will likely face a less than focused parliamentary opposition for the simple reason that both New Democrats and Liberals will be busy with their own internal party politics. The NDP will be busy with their leadership race and the Liberals, under interim-leader Bob Rae, will be working to rebuild their party from the grassroots up, with much attention necessarily being devoted to developing an internal party fundraising system capable of sustaining the party for the long-term.

So, as Parliament once again gets down to work, we will witness the true face of the Harper Conservative government. To many Canadians it will be far more conservative than they would like. To others, it likely won’t be conservative enough. But to the prime minister, it will be exactly the way he wants it. Because in this 41st parliament, he holds all the aces.

David Johnson

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