If you really want to know what the Harper years were all about, Andrew Potter writes, you have to go back to the letter which Harper and Tom Flanagan sent to Ralph Klein in the aftermath of the 2000 election:
Addressed to Alberta premier Ralph Klein and signed by six people (including Harper and his adviser at the time, Tom Flanagan), it was a plea for Alberta to take charge of its own future. The goal was for Alberta to carve out a place for itself in Confederation, using its existing constitutional powers, that would insulate the province from an “increasingly hostile government in Ottawa.” The letter’s proposals included creating a provincial pension plan (like the QPP); a provincial police force (like the SQ or OPP); collecting its own provincial income tax (as Quebec does); forcing Senate reform back on to the national agenda; and taking over complete provincial responsibility for health care.
Apart from this list, the letter demanded that Klein do whatever he could to reduce the transfer system that saw Alberta send $8 billion a year to other parts of the country. In its concluding paragraph, the letter says, “It is imperative to take the initiative, to build firewalls around Alberta, to limit the extent to which an aggressive and hostile federal government can encroach upon legitimate provincial jurisdiction.”
When Klein refused to take their advice, Harper decided to go to Ottawa and build the firewall from there:
Once you realize that Harper’s agenda was to build a firewall around Alberta from Ottawa, a lot of what he did while in power starts to make more sense. More specifically, a lot of what seemed like high-level ideology is revealed as simple tactics. A case in point is climate change. It is one thing to insist (as Harper rightly did) that Canada should not go it alone on emissions reduction. It is something else entirely to indulge in barely concealed denialism. But once you realize that any comprehensive deal on emissions that would actually do anything worthwhile would involve leaving a lot of oil in the ground in Alberta, forever, then denialism becomes more comprehensible.
To protect Alberta, Harper had to shut down three sources which were essential to the proper functioning of the federation:
Data: It wasn’t privacy, as Tony Clement said, or freedom, as Max Bernier argued, that was the real rationale for killing the mandatory long-form census. It was to throw a whole lot of noise into the demographic signal that the census had been giving for decades. That is also why Statistics Canada as a whole was gutted over the course of the Harper years. Without accurate data, social planners are flying blind.
Expertise: No government in living memory has been as hostile to experts and to evidence as the Harper government. But as Laval economist Stephen Gordon recently argued, it wasn’t all forms of expertise and evidence that gave the Tories hives – plenty of their economic initiatives were rooted in the best available evidence. What the Tories were allergic to was expertise that steered the evidence in directions they didn’t want to go – “committing sociology,” in Harper’s wonderful turn of phrase. That is why scientists were muzzled, policy shops were shuttered and bureaucrats were ignored.
Money: Here is the meat in the sandwich. When it comes to social planning, the ultimate source of Ottawa’s power is the spending power. And this is where Harper had his greatest success. By the end of his tenure as prime minister, Ottawa’s spending, as a share of GDP, had fallen to levels not seen since the middle of the 20th century. And the spending that does remain is overwhelmingly devoted to either just keeping the lights on or takes the form of transfers to the provinces and individuals.
Harper’s policy genius here was the two-point cut in the GST, which currently costs the federal treasury about $12 billion a year. Harper’s political genius was the creation of an all-party and pan-Canadian consensus around the virtues of a balanced budget at that historically low level of federal spending.
No data, no experts and no money. Starve the beast, but make it blind and deaf at the same time. This is Harper’s “Ottawa Firewall” in a nutshell.
Justin Trudeau has moved immediately to restore data and expertise to government. Finding the money to make government function will be difficult, because neo-liberalism isn't dead. But it's beginning to look like Rachel Notley -- who introduced her proposals to deal with climate change over the weekend -- is very much in favour of tearing down the firewall.