Stephen Harper has been taking a lot of flack from his right-wing base. The red-meat eaters say he's a lousy excuse for a conservative. But, on this one, the base is off-base. On fiscal matters, the Prime Minister may have demonstrated a liberal side. In these tottering times, most every leader is doing that.
But look at the other indicators. Check the law-and-order fixation, the leisurely approach to the green file. And look at the record on foreign policy – Mr. Harper has surely earned his hard-line stripes. Previous Conservative governments showed some progressive strains abroad. Not these Regressive Conservatives. With Russia, with China, in the Middle East, they harbour old confrontational attitudes. There's no new outreach as there is in Washington, no new thinking for new times.
A month ago, there was that soft-sounding summit with President Barack Obama. It was barely over before the Conservatives tried to get Cold War juices flowing, accusing Moscow of encroaching on Canadian airspace with their bombers. Since the flights were in international airspace, the anti-Red rhetoric fizzled.
Mr. Obama is trying a more reasoned approach with Moscow, as he is with Tehran. In Iran's case, he has opened the doors to dialogue and diplomacy. Not so Team Harper.
With regard to the hellhole at Guantanamo, Washington is moving to shut its doors. Conservatives in Canada – witness the case of Omar Khadr – have hardly had a bad word to say about the place.
Traditionally, Canadian governments pursue disarmament. A good question is whether there's ever been such silence on nuclear proliferation and arms stockpiling as we've had from Team Harper. It's like it's not a problem.
Much has been written about our exceedingly slow boat to China. The PM can't seem to shake off old attitudes. He has yet to even visit the Middle Kingdom, despite its gigantic stature in the world economy.
In the Middle East, Ottawa has often taken a commendable pro-Israeli tilt. But our government has never been entirely one-sided. The Harper Conservatives have ended that tradition, becoming practically more pro-Israeli than Israel. They make no effort to bridge the Middle East divide. In the House of Commons this week, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon sneered at Liberal critic Bob Rae for making a stopover in Syria on a recent trip. Mr. Rae, a supporter of Israel, was trying to gain an understanding of other points of view. Mr. Cannon should try it some time. Couldn't hurt.
In their most recent Jurassic Park vignette, the government barred George Galloway, the gadfly British MP, from entering Canada. This move found even some of the PM's most ardent supporters opposed. It followed an entry ban in January issued against William Ayers, an American advocate of violence in the 1960s who has since become a distinguished professor of education sought after by dissertation committees at Canadian universities. The Harper government continues to deport American conscientious objectors to the Iraq war.
On Afghanistan, the PM is showing some well-advised flexibility, and Defence Minister Peter MacKay has earned some plaudits. But, by and large, Ottawa is ignoring causes for which it would usually be engaged. Africa is largely forgotten. In Darfur, the International Criminal Court is pursuing a sitting head of state in connection with genocide. But as former justice minister Irwin Cotler points out, Canada – a force in creating the ICC – has shown little interest. The same, he says, is the case in Rwanda, where our foreign assistance for the indemnification of the horrors of 15 years ago has been cut.
The Conservatives are in the midst of slashing the foreign affairs budget by $639-million from 2007 levels, while increasing spending on the military by $2.4-billion. If their creed is that guns trump diplomacy, it is being well-heeded.
Criticism comes not only from opposition parties but from the likes of a former Conservative foreign minister, David Emerson, who cites our failures to appreciate and exploit Canada's place in the world. While other Conservative governments, particularly that of Brian Mulroney, showed a more open-minded side, today's government keeps its eyes wide shut.
On fiscal matters, it may be that our PM has become more moderate. But as for world affairs, there's clearly no need for his party's hard-liners to be rolling over in their caves.
On the world stage, it's the Regressive Conservatives
In the Middle East, Ottawa has often taken a commendable pro-Israeli tilt. But our government has never been entirely one-sided. The Harper Conservatives have ended that tradition, becoming practically more pro-Israeli than Israel.