Prime Minister as Moral Crusader: Stephen Harper's Punitive Turn in Social Policy-Making

By Prince, Michael J. | Canadian Review of Social Policy, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Prime Minister as Moral Crusader: Stephen Harper's Punitive Turn in Social Policy-Making


Prince, Michael J., Canadian Review of Social Policy


Introduction

Canadian social policy-making involves a formation of political relations of power and constitutional jurisdictions; the deployment of expenditures, legislation and administrative systems; a focus on particular human actions and relationships; values and beliefs of individual and collective obligations and rights; policies and program effects of care and control; professional and organizational arrangements; as well as various forms of knowledge and discourses of private troubles and public issues. Social policy, in addition to future goals and aspirations, interplays with the past, and more specifically, with multiple and contested pasts: historic decisions on major reforms, previous intergovernmental commitments on equalization, longstanding expectations by program constituencies, and entrenched patterns of service delivery practices. A Prime Minister's social policy agenda further occurs within the general context of Canada's capitalist market economy, federated polity and pluralist civil society.

This article argues that social policy-making under the Harper Conservatives has moved from areas of income security and provision to groups in need, to concerns over safety and punishing the dangerous. These latter concerns are driven by a moral vision held by Prime Minister Harper and others in the Conservative party, a vision often at odds with empirical understandings of crime and danger. The rest of this Introduction describes the social policy record of the Harper years in general terms and compares it to other recent prime ministerial eras. The second section of the article discusses more specifically the Harper government's law and order agenda, which is described here as an institutional-punitive conception of social policy. The third section, drawing on the classic work of Howard Becker on deviance, outsiders, and social order, examines the Harper Conservatives as moral crusaders in public office. The fourth section offers conclusions on the Harper government's law and order agenda as constituting a centrepiece of their social policy record.

To appreciate what is distinctive about social policy in the Harper years, it is important to note some underlying similarities of Harper's governing and social agenda with those of previous federal administrations. . The first similarity is that Canadian politics takes place within the post 9-11 world of security, intelligence, surveillance and border controls, a circumstance that underscores and symbolizes the contemporary age of anxieties. The second is the continued reliance on personal income taxes as compared to corporate taxation or other taxes as the major source of revenue for the federal government. Contemporary tax policy emphasizes breaks for corporations and tax savings for some individuals; along with the use of boutique tax credits to target small benefits to specific groups. Third, labour market issues persist in terms of precarious and non-standard employment, underemployment and unemployment at the same time with concerns of labour supply shortages. There also is a manifest inertia by recent governments on employment equity and affirmative action. Fourth, there has been a fading function of Employment Insurance in providing regular income support to the jobless in terms of coverage of the workforce, level of earnings replacement through benefits, and the maximum duration of benefits. This illustrates a broader trend over the last 20 years in the declining role by the federal government in maintaining national conditions or standards in health care, social services or income assistance (Rice & Prince, 2013). In this regard the first Harper government explicitly endorsed the 1999 Social Union Framework Agreement of placing limits on the use of the federal spending power for new shared-cost programs in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction (Lazar, 2008). Nonetheless, there continues to be a vigorous politics of competing views on the nature of the federation and on the role of the federal government in Canadian social policy. …

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