Back in the 1980s, a phenomenon known as “western alienation” was all the rage. Many westerners — and particularly Albertans — were feeling shut out of the federal political machine. Even when the Mulroney Progressive Conservatives were in power, there was somehow a feeling of, well… alienation. Our voices didn’t seem to count. That helped propel Preston Manning’s early Reform Party, of which one of the enduring slogans was “The West Wants In.”
Fast-forward to 2011. Stephen Harper — an original Reformer — has already governed with a minority government for more than five years. And now, with the solid backing of western Canada and most of Ontario, he has won the long-coveted majority in the House of Commons. In every respect, the West is in. Mission accomplished.
But as is often the case with lofty goals, once you’ve achieved the prize, there can be an enormous hole left by asking: Now what?
Like Stephen Harper, I’m a proud Canadian and also a Calgarian. So — from one Calgarian to another — here’s my own personal wish list of what I’d like to see from our prime minister, now that he’s driving with both hands on the wheel.
First of all, Prime Minister, prove there is no hidden agenda. Of all the horrible, overused, fear-mongering phrases used in Canadian political commentary, the labelling of the Conservatives as harbouring some “hidden agenda” is among the worst. Westerners are tired of being labelled socially backward hillbillies who would strip women of their rights, throw homosexuals in jail, force everyone to love Jesus and other crazy Palinesque kinds of things. Sure, a few vocal westerners lean this way (and there are plenty of folks in Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada who lean this way too). But they are not representative of Canada in 2011. So, Mr. Harper, shut down the lunatic critics by proving — once and for all — that you have no extreme social agenda.
Lead by example. Canada is at a crossroads in many ways: health care reform, pension reform, fiscal transfers to provinces and military identity are all issues that are surely going to arise over your next four-to-five-year term in Parliament. We can’t continue to naively throw more money at them and hope that a more-of-the-same approach will succeed. Western Canada can play an important role in energizing the debate on some of these issues, and creative thinking is desperately needed. The government that you now lead, along with the leadership of other western MPs, needs to rise to this challenge.
Balance the budget. This is one of the few areas in which all of the major political parties agreed during the campaign, so no one can accuse you of playing a partisan card here. Canada’s strong fiscal position is the envy of the industrialized world, and it will do heaps of good in placing us in a strong financial position in the future. Mr. Harper, you campaigned on eliminating the deficit in four years, so please make sure that happens.
Recognize good advice when it’s presented. Just because you thought of something doesn’t make it a good idea. The killing of the census long-form questionnaire irked so many Canadians, and there was a near-unanimous voice among policy experts asking you to reinstate it. Yet you cancelled it anyway, without ever really justifying why. Now that you have a comfortable majority, have the courage and decency to take the advice of other smart people in this country, even if it means you have to publicly change your mind.
Finally, sir, play nicely with others. Canadians hold our values dear as a society, and surely niceness is one of them. You would do yourself and western Canadians proud if you can set aside your more vicious partisan and controlling tendencies. Maybe if you must constantly fight for political life in a minority situation, a natural survival instinct kicks in. But with a majority in the House, please show some resolve to be more respectful of those who may think differently than you. Your magnanimous victory speech on election night was a good start.
Despite the evidence suggested by the electoral map, the Conservatives’ crushing victory in western Canada can be misleading. Not everyone in the West voted for the Tories. Nonetheless, Mr. Harper, you earned a majority government fair and square. You won seats in every region, yet you remain a westerner, and your Conservatives are perceived as a western party.
So, Prime Minister, you did it! The West is finally in. Now, go out there and make the West proud.