Harper confronts comments about Atlantic Canada’s ‘culture of defeat’

By Alison Auld, CP

HALIFAX (CP) – Stephen Harper ventured back to Atlantic Canada on Friday, carefully trying to sidestep earlier remarks that inflamed regional tensions and cast even more doubt on the party’s East Coast fortunes.

In a 25-minute address to a business luncheon, the Canadian Alliance leader made only a passing reference to what many believe was a critical gaffe that could cost the party dearly in a region where they now have no representation. Last May, Harper said he thought Atlantic Canada was hampered economically and politically by “a culture of defeat,” a comment that infuriated politicians and people throughout the region.

“Contrary to what you may have heard, it is a pleasure for me to come here,” Harper said to muted laughter in his speech to the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a conservative business lobby group.

Several people in the audience expected Harper to apologize for the remarks since it was his first trip back to the region after making them in an interview with a New Brunswick newspaper.

“He really should have taken the opportunity to comment, to apologize,” said one businessman who didn’t want to be named.

Harper, who is trying to drum up support in the area, later defended the statement to reporters, claiming he was misrepresented. He said he had been responding to questions about long-standing political traditions and implied that Atlantic Canada had to break from its habit of letting Ottawa decide what’s best for the region.

Harper said he saw no need to apologize, saying his message was that the federal government has failed the region by implementing flawed programs that merely increased Atlantic Canada’s reliance on handouts.

“I don’t typically apologize for being misrepresented,” he said after his speech. “I’ve never ever suggested that the people of this region are responsible for the region’s have-not status.

“There is a policy culture of defeat at the federal level and that’s what we want to change.”

The Alliance has insisted that one way to break that cycle is to rid the region of subsidized programs that prop up lame business schemes at the expense of encouraging viable opportunities.

Harper reiterated that position, saying he would move away from the using the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency to generate jobs and instead reduce taxes to spur economic growth.

But critics said he spoke of few specifics related to improving the economic and social situation in the region and mentioned Atlantic Canada only four times in his speech.

“It bore little or no relevance to Atlantic Canada,” said Scott Brison, Tory MP for Kings County. “He continues to distance himself from statements of contempt about the region and has moved on to statements of indifference about the region.

“He’s gone from attacking Atlantic Canadians to ignoring us.”

Harper focused much of his speech on former finance minister Paul Martin, who is expected to be his main rival in the House of Commons when Prime Minister Jean Chretien steps down in 2004. Harper accused Martin of betraying a policy of fiscal conservatism in favour of massive spending.

He said Ottawa’s spending rose to almost $130 billion last year from $110 billion three years ago – something that has let Canada slip behind the United States in personal wealth and productivity.

“The Paul Martin spending spree of the past few years means that Canada has missed a golden opportunity to make our tax rates competitive,” Harper said.
The appearance was one of the first in recent months for Harper, who has been keeping a low profile since defeating former Alliance leader Stockwell Day in a leadership vote in March.

The change hasn’t appeared to help the party, though, with a recent poll by Environics Research Group suggesting that national support for the Alliance dropped to 13 per cent in August from 18 per cent the previous month, and to nine per cent from 15 in Ontario.

The party is expected to to have a tough time gaining ground in Atlantic Canada, which has been angered before by comments from Alliance members.
Two years ago, John Mykytyshyn, a senior party organizer, was forced to resign after he suggested Atlantic Canadians were lazy and always on the lookout for handouts.

Harper said that is not the belief of the party.

“I’m not going to quarrel about this. My father was from here. My relatives were all from here. . . . This region is part of my family. I’m not going to be labelled as someone who doesn’t like the region or doesn’t like the people.”