Harper goes to New York

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One might think that, sitting in the heart of the ornate glass building from within years-long financial ruin was hatched, surrounded by the architects of disaster, Stephen Harper might have a bit of a public relations snafu on his hands.

What’s more, Harper’s opening remarks to the financial bigwigs at Goldman Sachs were underwhelming, at best.

“I don’t want to convey that the country is without challenges,” he began.  An aging population, a skills shortage, a lack of export markets.”

But things aren’t all bad.  “Let me begin by noting our job performance-”

And then his powerpoint didn’t work.  Oh, jeez, a more cynical reporter might just draw some metaphors from this innocent snafu.

When the Prime Minister got his powerpoint working, however — a slick, economics-for-beginners guide through all the upsides of Canada’s economy — it became clear just how good of a hand that Harper is holding.

Job growth: good.  Wages: better.  Debt: not so bad.  Trade: really good.  Business environment: damn good.

In what may as well have been a pyrotechnic show to close his set, Harper blew up the myth that Canada is just on the brink of a housing bubble.  He virtually bragged that the cataclysmic financial devastation caused by the cowboys at Goldman could never happen in Canada, thanks to some stringent mortgage rules.

By the time that the question and answer began — led by Wall Street Journal honcho Gerry Baker — Harper was in a form that the Prime Minister so rarely finds himself in.  He was funny, engaging, detailed, and amazingly compelling.

Even when challenged by Baker — “Your start date, for job growth, you pick 2006.  Of course, that was before the crisis…you haven’t really out-performed the US since [the crisis.]” — Harper bounced back (in that case, noting that the growth has more-or-less mirrored and that’s a net positive for Canada.)

For the next hour, Harper weaved through a forest of issues that, back up North, he rarely ventures near.  He accepted that, yes, Canadian manufacturing was in slump — he even admitted some degree of fault, by noting that efforts to drive down the Loonie, that he ended, were the only thing keeping some factories afloat.  He said, no, the Canadian technology industry is not quite booming yet.  He singled out skill shortages as an evil that he’s trying to remedy via immigration programs.

The weird frankness of the thing was in direct contrast to the Stephen Harper we know back home.  It’s hard to imagine Harper, the one that goes to Question Period, admitting that, yes, he pulled the rug out from Canadian manufacturing.

Baker brings up Blackberry as endemic for the Canadian technology industry.

“We have a long history in Canada of really high investments in those sorts of things, but really low investments in the private sector…much of our government research has had little to do with commercialization,” Harper said.  “It’s all oriented towards getting us towards a higher-capital, higher innovation manufacturing sector.

That may sound insufferably boring, but here’s what he’s saying — and, what he explained over about ten minutes — Ottawa, for years, dumped money down pits as it developed things that, while perhaps useful, existed in rarified air.  Privatizing research and creating government-sponsored partnerships has inexorably linked one problem (a non-competitive technology industry) to another (a declining manufacturing sector.)

And while neither might be a problem with a clear remedy, it’s hard to argue with Harper’s logic that his approach is probably the right one.  Then you think about it, and realize that neither Thomas Mulcair nor Justin Trudeau would be able to contradict that point.

Mulcair, with his dogmatic attachment to a robust public sector that, perhaps admirable or even prudent in a state like France, simply is no longer viable in Canada.  We are a business-friendly utopia with a rapidly shrinking role for by-government-for-government programs.  Then, Trudeau, and his platitudes don’t offer much to chew on at all.

Harper highlighted that.  When asked about the Burger King-Tim Horton’s tax inversion, the Prime Minister said it was simply “good governance” to have a competitive business environment.  He waxed that, while tax avoidance is a no-no, states can’t expect stifled business to stick around.  Think of it: Canada, lecturing America on being business-friendly.

But, to a degree, Stephen Harper the economist is a man we’ve seen before.  And it’s one we may not often see again — after all, the public isn’t interested in a macroeconomic lecture.

The surprising Harper that came out in the last half of the event was the diplomat.

For months, we’ve seen a Stephen Harper grabbing foreign affairs issues by the horns and riding them around.

What we saw today — with the backdrop being the UN annual meeting — Harper talked tough.

Obama had come calling for military aid — real military aid — and Ottawa might yet answer the call.

“We haven’t ruled anything out,” he said.  “We’re weighing our options.”

Harper, the commander-in-chief is an interesting hat.  We’ve never properly had that job in our history.  The mission in Libya was an international effort that was done as a necessity.  The invasion of Afghanistan felt urgent and rushed, like we were being led by the ear.

Canada’s role in Iraq — once determined, seemingly, entirely by Canada — feels different.  We, according to Ottawa, have the 2nd most number of troops in the country.  We have not just aided, but coordinated various matters.  Our Prime Minister has been louder and more forceful than even Washington.

When Harper came up before the Security Council a few hours later, after the Q&A, he was almost dismissive.  He listed his government’s various efforts — legislation to arrest fighters that seek to go abroad, powers to strip terrorists’ citizenship, and new powers that are incoming — and iterated that Canada has already taken up this mantle.  His tone was almost dismissive — and, rightfully so.  The Security Council meeting was almost certainly too little, too late.

Back at Goldman Sachs, Harper hopped from issue to issue — the “irritants” in Canada’s relationship with America like Keystone, which he is adamant will be approved eventually; the terse friendship with China which, thanks to their “governance issues” has “discomfort;” and Canada’s growing role as a democratic energy-provider to the world.

When asked about his ability to track and catch terrorists, Harper even weighed in on mass surveillance.

“I’m not a big believer in those kinds of systems,” Harper said, referring to mass collection programs, like those run by the NSA.  Not even metadata?  Baker asked. “We don’t use metadata as a surveillance tool,” he said.

Harper, the Prime Minister who presided over dozens of terrorism-related arrests, cited the work of his government’s intelligence services in their on-the-ground work, and their relationship with the Muslim community, in order to stop these threats.

Now, take these two strands — Harper the Economist, and Harper the Commander in Chief.

Mix that in with Harper, Leader of the Conservative Party — the one who, today, told Baker that his party’s courtship of immigrant voters came about thanks to paying attention to them, but also recognizing traditional (but, notably, “liberal”) social values.  The partisan who, speaking before supporters earlier this month that he would not let his successor have a large surplus with which to play (and, apparently, funnel to “special interests.”)

Squash them all together.  You’ve got a man appealing to the country who has, on one hand, objectively done wonders for the economy.  On the other, he’s kept us safe while stepping up in an independent way abroad.  Thirdly, he’s an anti-government, money-in-your-pocket small-c conservative.

The result is Harper’s next election campaign.

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OTHER ARTICLES BY JUSTIN LING

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Trudeau’s fortunes are fragile
Voters don’t trust the NDP on the economy

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Follow Justin Ling on twitter: @Justin_Ling

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