Nobody home

What is the point of being conservative in Canada? If fiscal conservatism were a city it would look like downtown Detroit – abandoned houses, grass growing through the sidewalks, no traffic, no people. Well, there’s crazy old Andrew Coyne in the bungalow on the corner. Some evenings he’ll sit out on the front porch with his shotgun on his knees, ranting about how they needed to keep the lid on expenditure growth in 2005-2006, while the squirrels scamper over the shingles. There’s the Manning house. He kept a column going in the neighbourhood paper for a while after he moved. Until they closed down. The Harrisses used to live across the street. They split up and he retired to Hawaii to work on his golf game. But there’s still the Church of Fraserology; the new building with all the fluorescent lights down a block. They’re still going. But you never see anybody in there. And nobody knows where they get their money. Kind of creepy, really.

But sprained metaphors aside, what is there? A few cranky writers in the print media (the wave of future – 200 years ago) and a rag-bag of Internet pamphleteers who are already on the trailing edge of cyberspace. In politics, by contrast, there isn’t a single elected spokesperson for fiscal restraint or productivity growth in the whole country. The two main parties, that is, the Red-tie Party and the Blue-tie Party are for all purposes one and the same. A student of political science who had access only to the contents of the country’s budgets over the last decade but not electoral results would be hard pressed to deduce whether or when a change of government had ever taken place.

Stephen Harper’s pursuit of the political centre has been relentless. That this has cost the party whatever character it ever had as an alternative to the Liberals no longer seems to figure in the strategic formulations of Canada’s Unnatural Party of Government. When it really comes down to it, what matters is power. Naive Reformers didn’t really understand this. But they do now. Jean Chretien, Canada’s grandmaster of parochial realpolitik, must be laughing his saggy ass off.

The Conservatives could have cut corporate taxes, raised the sales tax (or at least left it alone), accelerated debt repayment, held the line on spending and simplified the tax code. Instead they ran vote-buying budgets, complicated the tax code and dragged their feet on debt. They weren’t ready to stare down a weak opposition on a single matter of fiscal principle, although the PM was willing to risk the survival of his government on the less-than-critical issue of party funding.

Now the Blue ties have passed a budget which John McCallum and Michael Ignatieff could have written, which will do nothing to remedy the macro situation (which is beyond our control), and will, at best, simply lighten the load for some (but not all) of those whose boats are in danger of being swamped by the rough tides of the next twelve to eighteen months. This at the price of wiping out the last 13 years of debt repayment and turning politics into a big-government monoculture on the eve of what may be a global debt and currency crisis.