Governments operate on two distinct tracks. In one track, they make decisions according to an ideological architecture. This is developed by the party elite, elaborated during the election campaign, and either refined or even jettisoned upon taking power. Governments also operate on another track, which involves making decisions ‘on the fly’ in response to rapidly-changing circumstances or urgent problems that require solutions. Governments that follow the first track but ignore the second track, risk being derailed by emergent or unexpected circumstances and problems that refuse to fade away. Governments that follow the second track exclusively, risk losing coherence and becoming bogged down in compromises that prevent bold action when needed on deep-seated and longer-term issues.
Whatever one might think of their ideological architecture, the Harper government’s program of action since achieving a majority has been rigidly and ideologically focused on the first track. Conservative governments often tout their superior fiscal management and efficient governance, but when problems are ignored because of ideological short-sightedness, then this sacrifices the ability to be functional, efficient and fair.
The government’s single-minded pursuit of the purchase of F35s for the military is a good example. In the face of disappointing progress on its development, buyers like Turkey, Australia and Britain have delayed or reduced their orders. Not Canada, at least not yet. Where is the urgent need to spend millions of dollars on military hardware? What pressing requirement is driving this purchase? With Canada standing down in Afghanistan and few urgent threats to national security looming on the horizon, the only explanation is ideological.
With a continuing budgetary deficit and the economy showing signs of weakness, the government is forging ahead as well with its tough on crime bill, which involves building more prisons, without releasing any information about its impact on the budget. This is despite the fact that violent crime in Canada has been on the decline for the last thirty years, and the American experience has proven that increasing incarceration rates have actually increased the crime rate in that country.
The elimination of the gun registry similarly exhibits a puzzling and almost obsessive focus on problems that don’t need fixing. All the evidence points to a decline in gun homicides since the introduction of stricter gun control in 1995. Whatever information has been gained will be lost as the records are destroyed, to what end? Given the willingness to spend on defence and in other areas, it does not seem that the savings (which are relatively minor) justify the loss.
Meanwhile, it took a housing emergency in Attawapiskat, only one of several Northern communities facing serious problems this winter, for the government to take remedial, and (as it turns out) heavily delayed, action. This is despite the fact that Auditor General Sheila Fraser identified serious problems in May 2011. In her report, Fraser described the ‘unacceptable’ discrepancy in government funding of education, housing, and services for First Nations. These structural problems remain persistent and call for more than band-aid solutions.
Electoral politics do not explain these decisions particularly well, given that the Conservatives have a secure majority in Parliament and the Opposition parties are in disarray. The first track (the ideological one) tends to dominate when other problems do not make headlines or intrude in unpleasant ways on the government’s radar. Deflection and diffusion can work to a point, but the underlying problems of poverty, discrimination, and environmental destruction continue. These problems are not usually spectacular, but they are urgent. Ignoring them has costs. These costs will continue to mount up, in increased health care spending, crime problems, pollution, and other social ills, until such time as the government is unable to ignore them. This neglect is ultimately self-defeating.