Jan. 20, 2006. 01:00 AM


A popular theory that has emerged during this election campaign is that Stephen Harper has moderated and that the former head of the National Citizens Coalition is no longer the hard-line conservative he once was.

Some analysts have speculated that he could even end up like former Ontario Premier Bill Davis in office, a mellow, centrist who would not rock the Canadian boat.

People who make such comments are whistling past the graveyard. In recent decades, both in Canada and abroad, neo-conservatives have not moderated when they have taken office. If anything, they have become more hard-line.

The records of a quartet of conservatives eloquently illustrate the point:

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher was the first of the major neo-conservatives to come to power in a British election that opened the door to what came to be called the Thatcher Revolution.

Within a year of her victory, her harsh monetary policies plunged Britain into a severe recession. Many industrial jobs lost during the Thatcher years were never regained. The Thatcher government privatized telephone and electric power utilities and water distribution companies at low prices that were so advantageous to investors that former Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan accused her of "selling the family silver."

During her decade in office, as under the other neo-conservative regimes of the quartet, the income gap between the affluent and the rest of the population widened appreciably. "The lady's not for turning," it was said of the Thatcher who became known as the Iron Lady, a tribute to her refusal to compromise.

The year after Thatcher's victory in Britain, Ronald Reagan was elected to the White House, with a pledge that he would restore America to its former glory.

The key elements of his program were tax cuts and a steep increase in military spending. Reagan's policies drove the U.S. government to massive high deficits. By the time he had been president for five years, the United States had become a net debtor nation America owed more to foreigners than foreigners owed to Americans, for the first time since 1919.

Reagan's legacy, like Thatcher's, was the loss of millions of jobs in the industrial heartland of the United States, jobs that were later replaced by what were nicknamed "McJobs," low-paying positions in the service sector of the economy. Genial though the Gipper was, he also believed in staying the course.

Mike Harris rode the Common Sense Revolution to power in Ontario in 1995.

During the election campaign that year, Harris pledged deep tax cuts, and promised to pay for them through steep reductions in all government programs, except for those in the areas of health care, classroom education and law enforcement.

Upon assuming office, he cut the payments to those on welfare the poorest people in the province.

He delivered on his income tax cuts, handsomely rewarding the highest-income earners with savings of thousands of dollars a year.

By the time his successor Ernie Eves was defeated in the election of 2003, the Conservatives had downloaded responsibilities to municipalities that couldn't afford them and had left the educational system in a shambles. Whenever he was asked if he would moderate his programs, Mike Harris always answered that Ontarians got what they voted for.

In his youth, the playboy son of a well-positioned father, George W. Bush seemed to have little on his mind when he ran for president in 2000. He promised lower taxes and won applause at rallies when he talked of restoring the military greatness of America.

The terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 gave Bush a mission and brought out the latent ideologue in him.

Since that date, America has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, and in his second inaugural address last January, Bush made this bombastic pledge: "America, in this young century, proclaims liberty throughout all the world, and to all the inhabitants thereof."

Under Bush, America's military is mired in a war it seems unable to win, and the United States is plunging ever more into debt to the rest of the world.

At home, Bush has created a surveillance state in which the government spies on the people, and has made court appointments that could imperil the right of women to abortions.

Is it fair to anticipate that Stephen Harper is cut from the same cloth as the members of the quartet and that he has not moderated or "evolved" to use his own word?

The signs that the Conservative leader is an ideologue with a strongly right-wing agenda are readily at hand, his recent outburst about the courts and the civil service being only the latest example.

In power, Harper will reopen the debate about Canada signing on to U.S. missile defence and is likely to cancel Canada's commitment to the Kyoto environmental accord.

He refuses to commit himself to honouring the far-reaching aboriginal development program agreed to by first ministers last autumn. He will not throw Ottawa's weight behind the establishment of publicly funded, not for profit, child care across the country.

And, as he said on day one of the election campaign, he plans to reopen the issue of same-sex marriage.

Perhaps the best clue that Harper has not moderated comes from his commitment to resolve the so-called fiscal imbalance in Canada.

In plain English that means that a Harper government would sharply reduce Ottawa's role in setting the nation's socio-economic agenda. That pledge, one of Harper's top five priorities, could well become his mantra as he slashes government programs in the days to come.