The Firewall From the Other Side: The past and future of Stephen Harper’s agenda

It didn’t take long for the new Liberal government in Ottawa to start undoing the changes Stephen Harper made to the way the country is run over his nine years as prime minister. Many of these changes were in the tone and style of governance: Trudeau unmuzzled scientists, said nice things to public servants, promised more access and openness to journalists. From coast to coast to coast, bowling scores are up sharply, and mini-putt scores are way down.

Trudeau also took a few quick steps to reverse some of Harper’s key policies. Most notably, he immediately reinstated the mandatory long-form census, barely in time for the 2016 survey. Interestingly, the minister who oversaw the cancelling of the mandatory census, Tony Clement, could not bring himself to criticize Trudeau’s move last week, saying that in retrospect “I think I would have done it differently.”  (On a related note: Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose has come out in favour of an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women. We may discover that not a single member of Harper’s cabinet supported anything they did).

Yet as Paul Wells (the country’s most insightful chronicler and analyst of the Harper years) has argued at some length, Harper’s agenda was to a large extent about simply being in power. The longer he was in power, the longer Canadians had to get used to the idea of a Conservative government, and to get used to the changes he had made, to the point where they would eventually seem like just part of the furniture of the world. And so while it might be all champagne and high-fives in the salons of High Laurentia right now, it will take more than a census and sunny ways to roll back the clock on the Harper decade.

And so for the Liberals and their supporters, they key to undoing the Harper agenda is understanding just what that agenda was in the first place. And here’s a hint: It wasn’t social conservatism. It wasn’t militarism. Nor was it to merely torment the Eastern swells (though that was probably seen as a pleasant after-effect). No, to see what Harper was up to, and to grasp how effective he was, it’s necessary to go back to the most important document he wrote before become prime minister, the infamous “firewall letter”.


The firewall letter was conceived in the aftermath of the 2000 federal election, in which Jean Chretien won a third majority principally by convincing Ontarians that Albertans were untrustworthy.

Addressed to Alberta premier Ralph Klein and signed by six people (including Harper and his then-key advisor Tom Flanagan), it was a plea for Alberta to take charge of its own future and 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 take 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.”

According to Tom Flanagan, the idea behind the letter was entirely Harper’s. Yet it is worth noting the contrast between the inflammatory anti-Ottawa rhetoric and the actual demands, which are, looking back, extremely mild (the effect of implementing all of them, aside from the question of transfers, would be to make Alberta more like Quebec than Saskatchewan, though even these relatively mild demands were ignored by Klein.)

If you’re Stephen Harper, you would draw a number of conclusions from this episode. For starters, you would take note of the fact that the great mass of Canadian opinion – even inside Alberta – had little time for explicit talk of provinces building firewalls. Albertans are amongst the most patriotic people in the country, and it is little wonder that a pitch suggesting they should act more like Quebecers did not go over so well.

More importantly, Harper also probably realized, even as he was drafting the letter, how little the province could do, using its own powers, to protect itself from the sorts of things that Liberal Ottawa was inclined to do. Because here’s the thing: To someone with Harper’s ideological convictions, what is truly offensive about Liberal-run Ottawa is not that it controls the Mounties or the CPP or collects Alberta’s income tax. It is that it is inclined to use its capacities to engage in large-scale, centralized social planning (or social engineering, to use the invidious terminology).

And so Stephen Harper probably realized that to properly protect Alberta from an “aggressive and hostile” – that is, socialist – federal government, he would have to go to Ottawa. There, pulling directly upon the levers of federal power, he could build a firewall from the other side. And it could be a far stronger and more effective firewall than you could ever build from Alberta, while having the virtue of being pitched as a principled and patriotic vision of Canada.



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.

But these sorts of tactical forays only work as long as the Conservatives are in power. To build a more long-lasting firewall, one that would persist and endure during years or decades of non-Conservative rule, it would be necessary to make more fundamental changes to the way Ottawa works and to its capacities.

There are three main pillars a Canadian federal government needs if it wants to engage in centralized, large-scale, long-term, social planning, policy development, and execution: Data, expertise, and money. Data in the form of the social and demographic makeup of the country and the relevant long-term trends. Expertise in the form of informed research and evidence-based policy. And money, to either pay for programs directly, or by using the spending power to bribe and cajole the provinces into adopting national policies, standards, and services.

And so the corollary is: If you wanted to permanently hamstring the feds’ capacity for centralized social planning, you would have to kneecap all three of these pillars.

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 Statscan 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 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, 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 $12billion 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. This is Harper’s Ottawa Firewall in a nutshell.



As long as Harper was in power, this firewall against centralized social planning was bound to be highly effective. The question is, what remains of this agenda with a Liberal majority in power in Ottawa?

The long-form mandatory census is back, just under the wire. Another missed census in 2016 would have gummed up the data for generations, but as it stands, it looks like the 2011 asterisk will remain just that.

The scientists have already been unmuzzled. The public servants have been asked for their advice. The policy shops are staffing up and stocking the shelves and will be ready for business soon.

But what about the money? This is where things get tricky for the Liberals. Their commitment to running three relatively small deficits to build infrastructure and kick-start growth caught everyone in the chattering classes off guard, and turned out to be a political winner.

But the promise was to return to balance by the last year of their mandate. That is, they accepted the basic premise of balanced budgets at more or less current levels of federal revenues (their tax plan calls for additional revenues of just $3 billion). This isn’t enough, and there is not enough economic good weather in the offing for Ottawa to grow its way to good times.

An Ottawa with lots of data and lots of policy ambitions but no money is going to be pretty ineffectual. Paul Wells calls it “flat-tire federalism”. At some point, the Liberals are going to have to tackle the revenue problem. Without money, without the fiscal capacity to get things done, all the data and expertise and policy advice is just squiggles on a page and vibrations of air molecules.

A federal government that is nicer, less controlling, more transparent but still broke is not one that has much capacity to bother the provinces with socialist schemes. And if that’s where things remain, then Harper’s long-term victory will be cemented, regardless of who is in power.



The Firewall From the Other Side: The past and future of Stephen Harper’s agenda — 8 Comments

  1. It sounds like what you’re saying is that Mr. Harper wasn’t the Prime Minister of Canada, but rather he was the Prime Minister of Alberta or maybe even the Prime Minister of the Tar Sands. As evidenced by the last vote, maybe that’s how a lot of non-Albertans came to see him. When oil prices collapsed, he had no response, a one-trick pony then, and the trick primarily benefited one province.

    I know almost nothing about long-term policy planning, but people aren’t completely stupid. I am given to understand that in the 1950s to 1970s, taxes were generally higher than they are now, but middle class lives improved more than they did subsequently, and so far as I can tell, rich people do ok too. So a properly framed strategy that tells Canadians, “Hey if you want this or that, GST needs to be 6%, and really rich people should give something back”, might work. We shouldn’t assume that it wouldn’t. It’s not as if the other plan made lots of people happy, or we’d have voted Harper back in.

    • The period of the 1950s through the 1970s has a lot more to do with the aftereffects of World War 2 than any other factor. The massive spending on the war effort shocked the economy out of the great depression. A massive conflict damaged Europe and Asia, while leaving North America relatively untouched. The revived economy, the comparative advantage of North America, and the baby boom drove the economy from the ’50s through the ’70s. The boom faded out in the ’70s as Europe and Asia recovered and the comparative advantage disappeared. Objectively, the country is materially better off now than it was in the postwar period. People just don’t *feel* that way due to changes in relative wealth.

  2. I’d be okay with a GST increase.
    To me it would be worth it just to be rid of Mr Harper.

  3. I think you’re correct that Harper sought to inhibit future social engineering, but I think you’re incorrect in attributing it to a desire to protect Alberta. Harper’s philosophy was that government should play a smaller role in the life of Canadians, and that individuals could do a better job of looking out for their interests than the government. That’s a fairly common conservative philosophy (Thatcher, Reagan, etc.), and it’s not surprising that it’s found a home in a relatively conservative province like Alberta. The imputation that those policies are driven by parochial Albertan interests tends to validate John Ibbitson’s thesis of a Laurentian elite that regards anything other than their own ideas as illegitimate.

  4. Social engineering, with a bunch of mandarins in Ottawa pulling the strings? No thank you. Let’s have more decentralization, power to the provinces.

  5. DATA is spying on us, the census isn’t spying so the Liberals reinstated it. Respecting private information given, not stolen through our cell phones, tablets, and computers.

  6. Raise the GST 1 point, offset with large monthly tax credits to low and lower-middle class persons and institute an additional 2% luxury tax in consumer goods priced above $5000. There aren’t enough rich voters to kick you out for something like that and you would get more of their money where they use it. Also close some loopholes on the upper end and scrap some of the unfair boutique tax cuts (truckers lunches?) An extra $14 or $15-billion would be easy to find with little political fallout.Keep business taxes fairly low to encourage foreign investment and voila…Canada is looking more and more Swedish every day. Then implement one big juicy national social program the would be political suicide to chop — like national childcare or free 2 years of post secondary to encourage students to go to technical colleges and learn trades — just to tick off Harper. The latter policy could steal some of the college educated blue collar vote away from the conservatives.