What’s so scary about Planet Tory?

The truth is that Canada has already had a successful conservative revolution

by the editors

What's so scary about Planet Tory?

Photograph by Cole Garside

Stephen Harper is still being a bit careful about using the M-word in public. His preferred phrase is “stable government.” But as the election campaign got rolling, the Prime Minister finally became comfortable enough to explicitly ask voters for a majority in the House of Commons. “Friends, don’t be under any illusion,” he said in Winnipeg this week. “There won’t be a Conservative minority government after this election. There’s either going to be Mr. Ignatieff put in power by the NDP and the Bloc Québécois, or there will be what Canada needs to keep this economy moving forward: a strong and stable national, majority Conservative government.”

That challenge is having the desired effect: the other leaders are all saying, hey, I’m the only one who can stand in Harper’s way. The Liberals’ Michael Ignatieff: “There’s the red door and there’s the blue door; these are the only two choices.” The NDP’s Jack Layton: “The way to stop Stephen Harper from getting a majority is to take Conservative seats one by one… the only way to do that is to vote for your New Democrat candidate.” Even the BQ’s Gilles Duceppe: “A Conservative majority is a danger for Quebec. The risk of Stephen Harper obtaining a majority is very real.”

Duceppe went on to add: “If that happened, the Conservatives would have nothing holding them back. They would be free to impose without end their ideological policies, contrary to our interests and values.” It’s an old familiar tune, and not just

On the first count, it is hard to see a pretext for suspicion. Harper biographers note his long-standing ties to evangelicals, from Preston Manning to Gary Goodyear, and critics like Marci McDonald inflate occasional name-drops of God into visions of theocratic cabals and conspiracies—even as churchy old Reformers like Chuck Strahl and Stockwell Day depart the scene. The truth is that there is only patchy evidence, cobbled from ephemeral hints and mouldy press clippings, that Harper is particularly religious at all. (He can’t very well be both a micromanaging power freak and a secret puritan idealist.)

The Prime Minister has paid homage to traditional faith as a political force and an object of respect, but has given the traditionalist faithful, as such, next to nothing in hard political currency. Canada is still the world’s rogue anarchist when it comes to abortion, and Canadians take more pride every day in granting access to same-sex marriage, a genie that was hard to unbottle but would be harder still to rebottle.

That leaves the creeping fear of an economic revolution. And there is much better evidence that the Prime Minister is in earnest about smaller government. Consider, for example, his endlessly cited 1997 quote from a speech to American conservatives: “Canada is a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term, and very proud of it.” Compared to the U.S., Harper complained, Canada had low economic growth, high unemployment, and a lower standard of living—all of which contributed to a constant “brain drain” that threatened to leave us ever further behind.

What’s rarely remembered about that speech is the curious manner in which private citizen Harper offered implicit praise for the Liberal government of the day. Canadian complacency, he told the Americans, “is beginning to change. There have been some significant changes in our fiscal policies and our social welfare policies in the last three or four years.” Harper was right: a Liberal-led small-C conservative cataclysm, launched in 1995 with a Treasury Board program review and a massacre of federal public-service manpower, was well under way.

In 1996, total all-level expenditures by Canadian governments were equal to about 47 per cent of a year’s gross domestic product. In a table of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, Canada came in right next to the Netherlands, Norway and Germany—practically definitive “Northern European welfare states”—at around 49 per cent. The U.K. stood far behind, at 42 per cent. The U.S. was at 37.

Today, although Canada’s federal government is thought to have taken on a small structural deficit, its overall fiscal health is nowhere near as poor as it was in the mid-’90s, when debt-servicing costs were eating up a third or so of federal revenues. Judged by current spending, the multi-level panoply of Canadian government is less ambitious. As of 2009 we had dropped nearly to the bottom of the OECD table in expenditure-to-GDP ratio, at 44 per cent. (The previous year, before the economic crisis hit and the stimulus taps were opened everywhere, the figure had been under 40 per cent.) Oil-rich Norway is still two points ahead, but Germany is at 48, and Holland and the U.K. over 51. Most remarkably of all, the U.S., at 42 per cent, has almost caught up.

Canada has become an exemplar, not just of sound “fiscal management,” but of outright small-government ideology—and the groundwork was laid by finance minister Paul Martin, whose political career Harper cut short. Indeed, these decades may very well be remembered as the “Martin-Harper years.”

The political economy of Canada now has a markedly conservative structure in many ways, by international standards. Our unemployment insurance is OECD average for the short-term unemployed and well below average for the long-term; we simply do not let employable adults rot away on the dole as France or Britain or Germany do. The “tax wedge” gouged out of Canadian labour income, including net worker losses on social security, is low at all income levels. We have about half as many working-age adults on disability benefits as the U.S., and far fewer than in Western Europe generally. We rank among the “worst” in the OECD’s index of employee-protection regulations, meaning that Canadians can be fired or laid off more easily than almost anyone else. We score low in state control of business, low in product regulation, and low (lower than the U.S.) in barriers to entrepreneurship—that is, in red tape.

And whether the Martin-Harper version of Canada is to one’s taste or not, one must admit that we have shed much of our traditional inferiority complex with regard to the United States. You don’t hear much about the “brain drain” anymore. The quarter-century trend of the Canadian dollar losing about a cent a year against the U.S. dollar has reversed. Young people who grew up feeling the magnetic pull of the U.S. now see expatriate friends and family in the south facing wretched labour markets, paying mortgages on bubble homes in Arizona or California, and pondering the possibility of U.S. hyperinflation or default. Rightly or wrongly, envy has almost been transformed to pity.

So what’s left to worry about with a Tory majority? Possibly Harper might push secular aspects of a social agenda, particularly when it comes to the war on drugs and other law-and-order measures—but then, the Liberals have offered little resistance on that front anyway. That leaves the economic side, presumably, and on that score, the truth is that Canada has already had a successful conservative revolution.




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What’s so scary about Planet Tory?

  1. Just by looking at the picture with this article one can see why Vancouver is more efficient. No snow is good for municipal budget. All those high-rise condo's in Vancouver help in a number of ways…less for sewer/water service infrastructure, easier for garbage pickup, less/easier to install power lines, cable, fibre optics. For most of the year Vancouverites can walk/bike to work/play. Amtrack, Via, CP (WCE) and city-operated rail lines. Boat service. (both boat/rail passenger service could be even better perhaps).

    Last week i looked at pictures of ancient walled cities. For a long time i've been thinking that Canada's northern cities should be built like that. Did you know that people in Nunavut use 200 million litres of fuel a year? Why aren't cities up north more compact like Vancouver? From an energy perspective… many northern cities are badly built…

    • If you're interested in looking at some old walled cities google…darkroastedblend walled cities….(there's lots of cool pictures so it's a pretty big download). Read somewhere that if New York City was a state…it would rank # 51 for per capita energy use. I'm guessing here…but i'd venture to say that 100 000 people who live in the Vancouver core use less energy per capita then the 30 000 people who live in Nunavut. Some of the extra energy outlay is a given…but outside of boats, skidoos, and some 4 wheelers…why do people in Iqaluit need cars to get around their small city?

    • Even looking at maps of Whitehorse…the airport is located in the middle of the city…during the winter months how easy is it for people in the burbs on one side of the airport to work/play on the other downtown section? Heck, if Whitehorse is going to sprawl…why not build new communities along the old, abandoned railway? Transit oriented development instead of usual roads/cars model. Or build close-by and compact structures linked to each other so as to allow walking/biking…possible even in the worst winter months. Calgary and Winnipeg have multiple buildings liked allowing for walking tunnels connecting many blocks…can that be done better and over a bigger geographic footprint? Should Canadian cities in general, and northern cities in particular, create better indoor pathway systems?

    • Ha! We blew our snow-clearing budget in several weeks last winter. City Hall was pilloried for their handling of it all, with many streets and sidewalks not cleared for weeks and no communications response from City Hall.

      While it's clear that we don't get as much snow as cities in central and eastern Canada, when we do get it, it causes big problems because the city isn't accustomed to dealing with it.

      On another note, there's no question that density in the downtown core makes municipal service delivery transportation more efficient.

  2. I agree with Court above that is it fairly easy to dismiss the value of climate and geography on Vancouver's success. The dense but pleasant downtown core framed by water and ending at the entrance to Stanley Park is virtually ideal. Having lived there in the past, I would also note the citizens of Vancouver are simply more passionate about their city than anywhere else I have lived in North America. Their interest in local politics is an important byproduct of that passion but it is certainly not its source. No doubt this passion has made local politics more policy-based and active. In Toronto by contrast, people see the city as simply a backdrop for their busy lives. Frankly if partisan politics led to better governance and accountability, then would not one expect that the respective governments of the Province of British Columbia would have a long and exemplary record in those two areas. Partisan, cheap-shot, short term governance may be good for editors at Macleans and the Globe, but it is bad for Canadians.

  3. I remember now why I stopped subscribing to this magazine. Narrow, dollars-based analysis of literaly everything, leading to irrelevant conclusions about annoying topics delivered in list form with lots of intentionally devisive blabber.

    Remember when Maclean's analysis of "culture" lead ot the conclusion that Calgary is the most cultured city in Canada?

    Yeah.

    Someone needs to take away some of the Maclean's monopoly on truth in this country.

    • Spoken like a true outsider. I've lived many other places, and reside again full time in Calgary. It's cultural scene has grown exponentially over the last 40 years, as cash influx can do great things for vitalization, plus its Rocky Mountain recreational location and international tourism naturally feeds to a thoughtful and full spectrum of places eat, go and things to do. Ignorance does not make you correct.

  4. Amen to that. Try driving to Vancouver from areas only 70 miles away by highway. Pack a lunch! The highway and transit system has needed a major overhaul since the mid 70's when the Port Mann bridge was created.

    The bridge was redundant 5 years after it was made, and it took until now to get serious consideration in improving.

  5. It's not conservatism that is scary. What's scary about the Tories is the lack of respect for democracy, and the gradually growing tendency towards what can only be called "leader worship". (The photo at the top of this page is an example.)

    At this stage, a vote for the Conservatives is a vote for one-man rule by Stephen Harper. Which would mean that Canada would be vulnerable to the quirks and frailties of this one man. The elimination of the mandatory long-form census – which no one but Harper was in favour of – is an example of this.

  6. Are you FREAKIN' kidding me? This little game we have been playing with Harper isn't Conservatism by any stretch of the imagination….it's called populism and it's about time editors (especially ones with big badass Conservative tattoos left over from Mulroney's days figured out that the Conservative movement is dead in Canada.

  7. HARPER DON'T LOOK NOW BUT YOUR PANTS ARE ON FIRE!!! "I didn't know …" Then how do we trust you with our vote??????????

  8. HARPER DON'T LOOK NOW BUT YOUR PANTS ARE ON FIRE!!! "I didn't know …" Then how do we trust you with our vote??????????

  9. 'What's so scary about Planet Tory'?

    Nothing for you guys provided its 'Tory. If any Liberal government or godforsaken 'Socialist' government had turned a thirteen billion dollar surplus into a fifty-six billion deficit all the Macleans headlines would be about how evil they are by running Canada into the ground and mortgaging our economic future – and you know it.

    Where does the Harper government gets its reputation for sound fiscal management? From pundits such as yourselves who just like them better. They're more you're kind of people and you would prefer them to be in charge. That's all you're basically saying here.

    Base hypocrites. The lot of you.

  10. 'What's so scary about Planet Tory'?

    Nothing for you guys provided its 'Tory. If any Liberal government or godforsaken 'Socialist' government had turned a thirteen billion dollar surplus into a fifty-six billion deficit all the Macleans headlines would be about how evil they are by running Canada into the ground and mortgaging our economic future – and you know it.

    Where does the Harper government gets its reputation for sound fiscal management? From pundits such as yourselves who just like them better. They're more you're kind of people and you would prefer them to be in charge. That's all you're basically saying here.

    Base hypocrites. The lot of you.

    • The Harper government created a structural deficit before the economic problems, very true. But the whole coalition scare was probably more about the lack of "stimulus" spending planned by the government than about the threat to their per-vote subsidy. And how likely do you think it is that Harper's big spending before that would have happened if he had a majority? The other three parties can vote him down if they dislike his budgets enough, so you can blame Harper for not taking a chance and doing things his way until the yearly elections got him a majority or turfed but otherwise it has been the 'socialists' causing the deficit.

      • ' … but otherwise it has been the 'socialists' causing the deficit….'

        Really? Has it now? Thats priceless. It was 'the socialists' that cut the GST – right?

        I'm sorry – who's the Prime Minister again?

        Priceless. Its like you guys are on crack.

      • Just curious how you rationalize "it has been the 'socialists' causing the deficit" with "The Harper government created a structural deficit before the economic problems"?

      • He promised the G20 a two year, 2% of GDP (ie $30 billion per year) stimulus before the coalition crisis. Unless he was lying to the G20, I can't see how the coalition situation changed what he was going to do otherwise.

    • You completely missed the point about the article, letting your own political bias take over your view of how you read it.

      This article is not about the quality of economic management by the Conservatives. It does not argue the Conservatives have managed the economy well; it does not quote statistics that might indicate that, such as unemployment numbers, GDP growth, debt-to-GDP ratio etc.

      The point of the article is that under Liberal and Conservative governments, Canada’s economic *policies* have become relatively conservative compared to other OECD countries. The article sites indicators such as ratio of government spending to GDP, EI policies, barriers to entrepeneurship etc.

      None of these indicators can be used to make a quantitative argument that the economy has been well managed. They are used to make a qualitative argument about the ideological assumptions underlying how the economy is being managed.

      Not everything you read is an argument for or against a political party, despite what your own partisan bias might lead you to believe. Most writers, especially at Macleans, are more interested in trying to make an intelligent point that goes beyond partisan politics.

  11. Excuse me *your* kind of people

    For you guys Harper will always get a pass on everything – even on the one issue that is supposed to be his great strength.

    This is without question the lamest thing you have written so far on the federal election.

    You would be no where without Wells and Coyne.

  12. Excuse me *your* kind of people

    For you guys Harper will always get a pass on everything – even on the one issue that is supposed to be his great strength.

    This is without question the lamest thing you have written so far on the federal election.

    You would be no where without Wells and Coyne.

  13. "…although Canada's federal government is thought to have taken on a small structural deficit …'

    Nicely put – as its the only reference I can actually find in here to the actual deficit. Telling that it contains no actual numbers given that that deficit is now twenty billion dollars more than any Trudeau or Mulroney deficit.

    Was this a conscious decision or did you guys ('the editors') just desperately stare around at each other across the conference table and hope that nobody said anything?

    This piece is an absolute classic. Made my day – hypocrites.

    'What's so scary about Planet Tory'?

    How about their incompetence as financial managers. Its just that Tory economic management – now matter how egregious – will always get a pass from you guys.

    Hypocrites.

  14. "…although Canada's federal government is thought to have taken on a small structural deficit …'

    Nicely put – as its the only reference I can actually find in here to the actual deficit. Telling that it contains no actual numbers given that that deficit is now twenty billion dollars more than any Trudeau or Mulroney deficit.

    Was this a conscious decision or did you guys ('the editors') just desperately stare around at each other across the conference table and hope that nobody said anything?

    This piece is an absolute classic. Made my day – hypocrites.

    'What's so scary about Planet Tory'?

    How about their incompetence as financial managers. Its just that Tory economic management – now matter how egregious – will always get a pass from you guys.

    Hypocrites.

  15. The Harper government created a structural deficit before the economic problems, very true. But the whole coalition scare was probably more about the lack of "stimulus" spending planned by the government than about the threat to their per-vote subsidy. And how likely do you think it is that Harper's big spending before that would have happened if he had a majority? The other three parties can vote him down if they dislike his budgets enough, so you can blame Harper for not taking a chance and doing things his way until the yearly elections got him a majority or turfed but otherwise it has been the 'socialists' causing the deficit.

  16. The Liberals pragmatically cut the deficit in the 1990s, because they believed it had to be done. Harper wants to shrink our government and would want to do so even during a time of surplus.

  17. The Liberals pragmatically cut the deficit in the 1990s, because they believed it had to be done. Harper wants to shrink our government and would want to do so even during a time of surplus.

  18. ' … but otherwise it has been the 'socialists' causing the deficit….'

    Really? Has it now? Thats priceless. It was 'the socialists' that cut the GST – right?

    I'm sorry – who's the Prime Minister again?

    Priceless. Its like you guys are on crack.

  19. Indeed, what's scary about Planet Tory is that right-wing populist ideology will start trumping sound policy on every front the government can influence. The destruction of a hundred years of consistent census data is a good example, as is our dramatic abandonment of being a sound, middle-ground broker internationally, especially in the Middle East. Around the world, Canada is now respected less than at any time in our history, because we are pursuing bizarre self-serving policies such as pretending climate change doesn't exist and that we can pollute everyone else's planet with no consequences or responsibility for our actions. And, most ominously, Harper displays extremely fascistic tendencies toward one-man dictatorial rule that has frightening implications for the very soundness of our democracy. He has already suspended parliament twice on a whim to maintain his iron grip on power – once he achieves full control over every arm of government, no one will be safe for 4 years because we have no recall mechanism in Canada. We will be literally at the mercy of our very own home bred Bush-clone.

  20. Indeed, what's scary about Planet Tory is that right-wing populist ideology will start trumping sound policy on every front the government can influence. The destruction of a hundred years of consistent census data is a good example, as is our dramatic abandonment of being a sound, middle-ground broker internationally, especially in the Middle East. Around the world, Canada is now respected less than at any time in our history, because we are pursuing bizarre self-serving policies such as pretending climate change doesn't exist and that we can pollute everyone else's planet with no consequences or responsibility for our actions. And, most ominously, Harper displays extremely fascistic tendencies toward one-man dictatorial rule that has frightening implications for the very soundness of our democracy. He has already suspended parliament twice on a whim to maintain his iron grip on power – once he achieves full control over every arm of government, no one will be safe for 4 years because we have no recall mechanism in Canada. We will be literally at the mercy of our very own home bred Bush-clone.

  21. What's so scary? It's those social conservatives. They'll make you eat your vegetables and go to bed early.

  22. Just curious how you rationalize "it has been the 'socialists' causing the deficit" with "The Harper government created a structural deficit before the economic problems"?

  23. I get the impression that neither you nor Thwim actually read my post. But at least I think you read half of it. Would there be a structural deficit via the GST cut if there had not also been a 40% increase in spending under Harper? And would Harper have increased spending if his party was not outnumbered in the house?

  24. The things I find disturbing about "Planet Tory" : Mr Harper has a Science and Technology minister who is a Christian Evangelical who does not believe in evolution and that Stem Cell research is 'wrong.' Mr Harper cut the funding to 12 of 16 Status of Women group office after promising them increased funding in the last election. That Mr. Harper has cut the funding to almost every Scientific Research Group in Canada, to the point that a world recognized Research group had to shut down. That Mr Harper cut $35 million research grant to Genome Canada (The group that was instrumental in mapping the human genome.) that MR Harper promised to revamp the Senate and institute voting for members and instead has filled the Senate with 38 of his UNelected Tory friends. That Mr Harper has become a joke for his patronage after promising his government would 'put an end to Liberal patronage."
    Outside of that I think Mr Harper's ReformCon party just makes me feel so warm and secure….NOT!

  25. The things I find disturbing about "Planet Tory" : Mr Harper has a Science and Technology minister who is a Christian Evangelical who does not believe in evolution and that Stem Cell research is 'wrong.' Mr Harper cut the funding to 12 of 16 Status of Women group office after promising them increased funding in the last election. That Mr. Harper has cut the funding to almost every Scientific Research Group in Canada, to the point that a world recognized Research group had to shut down. That Mr Harper cut $35 million research grant to Genome Canada (The group that was instrumental in mapping the human genome.) that MR Harper promised to revamp the Senate and institute voting for members and instead has filled the Senate with 38 of his UNelected Tory friends. That Mr Harper has become a joke for his patronage after promising his government would 'put an end to Liberal patronage."
    Outside of that I think Mr Harper's ReformCon party just makes me feel so warm and secure….NOT!

  26. You completely missed the point about the article, letting your own political bias take over your view of how you read it.

    This article is not about the quality of economic management by the Conservatives. It does not argue the Conservatives have managed the economy well; it does not quote statistics that might indicate that, such as unemployment numbers, GDP growth, debt-to-GDP ratio etc.

    The point of the article is that under Liberal and Conservative governments, Canada’s economic *policies* have become relatively conservative compared to other OECD countries. The article sites indicators such as ratio of government spending to GDP, EI policies, barriers to entrepeneurship etc.

    None of these indicators can be used to make a quantitative argument that the economy has been well managed. They are used to make a qualitative argument about the ideological assumptions underlying how the economy is being managed.

    Not everything you read is an argument for or against a political party, despite what your own partisan bias might lead you to believe. Most writers, especially at Macleans, are more interested in trying to make an intelligent point that goes beyond partisan politics.

  27. He promised the G20 a two year, 2% of GDP (ie $30 billion per year) stimulus before the coalition crisis. Unless he was lying to the G20, I can't see how the coalition situation changed what he was going to do otherwise.

  28. "That leaves the economic side, presumably, and on that score, the truth is that Canada has already had a successful conservative revolution."

    So, we've had a conservative revolution and are now among the smallest-government countries in the industrial world. Ego, it's sensible to elect a government that is wont to slash the size of government further, primarily motivated by ideology rather than pragmatism.

    Sorry, it does not follow.

  29. "That leaves the economic side, presumably, and on that score, the truth is that Canada has already had a successful conservative revolution."

    So, we've had a conservative revolution and are now among the smallest-government countries in the industrial world. Ego, it's sensible to elect a government that is wont to slash the size of government further, primarily motivated by ideology rather than pragmatism.

    Sorry, it does not follow.

  30. Blaming the conservatives over debt shows the lack of knowledge most Canadians have – because of the global financial circumstances. It matters not which party is in power – the results would be the same. I myself don't care who is in power as long as they know what to do – I'm not certain that any party knows what to do because they seem more interested in gaining or retaining power. Canada cannot continue to be governed in such disorganized state. Mr. Harper is correct about a majority government to end the lunacy. It's up to Canadians to decide which majority and get off their couches and make it happen. It's up to the political parties to inspire Canadians to do so.

  31. Blaming the conservatives over debt shows the lack of knowledge most Canadians have – because of the global financial circumstances. It matters not which party is in power – the results would be the same. I myself don't care who is in power as long as they know what to do – I'm not certain that any party knows what to do because they seem more interested in gaining or retaining power. Canada cannot continue to be governed in such disorganized state. Mr. Harper is correct about a majority government to end the lunacy. It's up to Canadians to decide which majority and get off their couches and make it happen. It's up to the political parties to inspire Canadians to do so.

  32. As long as Stephen Harper is their leader, the Tories can forget about a majority in the House of Commons. The best thing that could happen to the Conservatives would be to suffer a good thrashing at the polls. Then they would see that they HAVE to get a new leader, or my name isn't Sam Steele.

  33. As long as Stephen Harper is their leader, the Tories can forget about a majority in the House of Commons. The best thing that could happen to the Conservatives would be to suffer a good thrashing at the polls. Then they would see that they HAVE to get a new leader, or my name isn't Sam Steele.

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