The hamsters are whirring on Parliament Hill, quietly squeaking, softly padding . . . but peek inside a cage or two and you will see a busy bunch of bureaucrats and wonks scampering for what pundits suspect is the first, outright articulation of Prime Minister Harper's Canada.
And while panicked lobbies have been misreading last year's rotting leavings for an absent social agenda, quietly—incrementally—the Prime Minister has been outlining a smaller picture of Canadian federalism, both at home and abroad. It will come, as with all important things in our consumerist times, through the back door of the federal budget.
National, federally-administered programs are right out. The Conservative movement has made no secret of its desire to download priorities, financial and moral, to lower and lower levels of governance. Subsidiarity advocates might find this encouraging, but—of course—downloading can only be a successful social policy if a commensurate trail of money follows it. The structural reduction of federal capacities will undoubtedly accompany a clearer, closer elimination of the deficit. Federal taxes will not go up. That unhappy task will probably be left to the provinces, some already sagging under the enormous debt of squandered boom times, and municipalities, whose laughable powers of taxation might yet inspire a rash of urban "suicides," as some cities simply give up on life. Politics is about to become more local, but not therefore—as anyone who has ever debated a municipal by-law or speed bump at a town hall meeting knows—more civil.
Still, the Conservative maxim of reaping what you sow will focus the conversation: provinces like Alberta will be better for the autonomy, and those like Quebec will presumably enjoy the influx of sovereignty. And the spat between Federal Conservatives and Ontario Liberals will finally find resolution through an experiment of empowerment by neglect. Federal transfers to provinces will be less like the renewal of federalist covenant, and more like a divorce settlement. Alimony payments will be prompt, but further negotiation will be met with a cease-and-desist.
Foreign affairs will play by the same logic. Not unfairly, Carlo Dade at the University of Ottawa asked where all the conservatives in foreign policy are. Within days, Jack Granatstein, in the National Post, argued that Prime Minister Harper had made Canada a world player. Ironically, in the incremental-smallness-of-the-new-grand vision of Canada, both can be right.
Foreign affairs is one portfolio this government will not (cannot) download, and has demonstrated, via the shuffling in of Minister Baird, a strong potential for defining a new Canadian role in the world. But that role is narrower, with a focus on defense and on targeted, concentrated international aid with an eye to tangible deliverables via—as far as possible—non-governmental associations. Dade asks where the Conservative expertise on anything besides defense, America, Israel, and economics is. There is no accidental absence here: Canadian foreign policy as an extension of Canada's interests is becoming narrowly economic. Even a capable military is largely sold as pulling our weight with wealthy trade partners, while making the world safe for Canadians.
This is foreign policy, but it is not a sweeping moral vision. It's not even a strategy for wide scale global engagement. This government is getting itself—and perhaps by precedent future governments—out of that business.
Values at home will be mirrored abroad, as Canada fashions itself a pragmatic, capable, dependable ally, making incremental contributions to a democratic, free market international system that's safe for Canadians and safe for its allies. Worse things have been proposed.
But don't let the smallness of that grand vision confuse: the devolution of more and more values and principles to lower levels of governance, and—ultimately—as far as possible to the individual, is a grand vision. Likewise, a foreign policy driven by national interest, and so-called shared Canadian values, also is a grand vision. It's just a vision that sneaks by dressed as common sense, which—as Robert Cox has long reminded us—is the greatest power of all.