Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper likes to think of himself as a northern hemisphere variant of John Howard. He plays his politics tough, loves nothing better than a good wedge, and like Howard, has a nasty habit of dividing Canadians into those who are ‘ordinary’ or ‘mainstream’ and those who are members of the elite.

Harper has utilized the services of a number of Howard and Liberal Party advisers in the three election campaigns in which he has led the Conservative Party– 2004, 2006, and 2008. But like Howard towards the end of his time, Harper is suffering from capital H hubris and ideological obsession and it is this trait that is threatening to end his days as Prime Minister, despite being returned to office, to head a minority government, only two months ago.

While the Conservatives have 143 seats in the 308 seat House of Commons, the Liberals, and the NDP, both centre left parties, are now holding talks about moving a motion of no confidence in the Harper government and forming a Liberal-NDP coalition government. Why? Because of Mr. Harper’s refusal to do what most western leaders have done recently – introduce an economic package to stimulate a flagging economy.

Last Thursday Harper’s Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced that Canadians would have to wait until the next budget, due in March, for any stimulus package. In the meantime, the Harper government announced a series of cost cutting measures including ending taxpayer funding for political parties, which benefits the Conservatives because they raise three times as much as the other parties from private donations; placing restrictions on the right of public servants to strike; and limiting pay increases for public sector workers.

By Friday evening Harper’s government was on the ropes with the opposition parties threatening to bring it down as early as today. On Saturday, Harper sent one of his ministers out to the media with the message that the plan to stop political party funding would be taken off the table, but that didn’t appease the opposition. Nor did yesterday’s desperate announcement from Mr. Flaherty said he would bring forward the budget to January and that public servants right to strike would remain intact.

Mr. Harper has got form for putting ideology in front of pragmatism.

In a Howard style move during the last election campaign Harper announced massive cuts to arts programs – a move that backfired in Quebec, where government support for the arts is popular among voters.

As Jeffrey Simpson, a leading political commentator in Ottawa put over the weekend, Mr. Harper is simply “an economist with a tin heart and a politician who looks everywhere for political advantage.”

Have Mr. Harper and his advisers not understood one of the major reasons their dear Antipodean friend has disappeared from the political scene? An ideological obsession with industrial relations reform that manifested itself in Workchoices, and saw the very people who had supported Howard for four elections turn on him.

Peter Fray

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