Joe Oliver sails one over the plate -

Joe Oliver sails one over the plate

Paul Wells on what today’s fall economic update says about Stephen Harper’s 2015 election plans

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Chris Wattie/Reuters

What’s the next election going to be about? Personality, says one column this morning. Terrorism, says another. Or we could just ask Stephen Harper. Here is the Prime Minister at his Calgary Stampede barbecue speech this July:

“So, friends, under our government, we have trade expanding, employment growing, and finances solid; . . . Canada never stronger in the global economy.

“And, given this situation, what next?

The Opposition will say, now, let’s spend and spend and spend . . . But, next year, we will use the fiscal room to do what we promised, . . . Cut taxes for hard-working Canadian families!”

[Emphasis added, of course.] This fits everything I know about Stephen Harper: Having been elected once, he does not ever plan to run for re-election on some bold new plan. He is (readers will vary in the extent to which they want to take this literally) the devil you know. In 2008, a senior adviser to Stéphane Dion, who is today a senior adviser to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, wondered over drinks at Hy’s what big, bold, new project Harper would come up with to compete for voter attention with Dion’s Green Shift. “We’ve got the environment,” Senior Adviser said. “I think maybe he’ll take health care.”

No. No no no no. Harper’s big project in 2008 was to tell everyone that Dion’s big project was ruinous. He needed none other. His big project in 2011 was to tell everyone that the other leaders’ big project—coalition government—was ruinous. He needed none other, and his share of seats and popular vote increased.

In 2015—because I am here to tell you the next federal election will be in October of 2015—Harper’s big project will be to tell everyone that the others’ new project—a new era of activist government—will be ruinous. He will not need a personality. He will not need terrorism. He may not win. But I’m telling you, this is the play.

LISTEN: Rogers Radio’s Cormac MacSweeney in conversation with Finance Minister Joe Oliver

Exhibit A is Joltin’ Joe Oliver, whose fall economic update today solidly sets up the circumstance Harper was describing in his Stampede speech. The federal government will return to budget balance in the next few months and announce a wee surplus in the next budget, the last before an election. The surplus will be just large enough to permit a few more targeted (nigglingly, persnicketily targeted) tax cuts in the budget. And a whisper of new spending—Harper having understood, better than any of his predecessors, that a government spending $10 million on a popular target receives about as much political credit as a government spending $10 billion would have. But basically, it’s hold-the-line on spending. And, as Oliver repeated again today, all while federal tax revenues as a portion of GDP are at their lowest in my lifetime.

All the Conservatives need to do, then, is point out that the other parties want to roll back these tax cuts to finance new programs. Oliver predicted as much from Trudeau: “Justin Trudeau has already announced he would repeal some of our family tax cuts and may repeal the others . . . Taking money out of the pockets of middle-class and lower-income Canadians does not sound like a winning platform to me. But hey, that’s what he said.”

Oliver didn’t make a similar prediction about Tom Mulcair, but if he had, it’d already be coming true. The NDP leader said there will be no surplus, calling the announced surplus “a mirage” because it’s made possible by cuts to programs Mulcair likes. There’ll be even less of a surplus if Mulcair plans to reverse those cuts.

I’m tempted to say the next election campaign is already on, but I’ve been saying that since September. Its contours are clear. If you want bold government, doing new things to help Canadians in new ways, vote NDP or Liberal. If you want someone to remind you what that would cost while they continue a half-decade of progressively constraining the ability of any future federal government to expand its role, vote Conservative. It’s pretty much that simple.


Joe Oliver sails one over the plate

  1. The majority of Canadians do not want any future federal government to expand its role.

    There is still a tremendous amount of fat to be cut Mr. Wells.

    • Let’s start with Harper and the rest of his fatheads.

      • Mother corpse……….the CBC, shut it down, sell the hard assets.

  2. Wells once again displays his knack for discerning the obvious. Man I get frustrated with Cdn journos sometimes.

    • “Discerning the obvious” is absolutely a fair criticism of this column. What I’ve written here is thunderingly obvious, and I’ve been writing variations on it since 2010. So it’s obvious and not even new.

      But I’m surrounded by colleagues at other news organizations to whom none of this has ever occurred, and I find it’s handy to repeat myself. I do apologize to anyone who’s been paying attention.

      • Well, in fairness, you may be wrong. I don’t think you are, but then I’m not always right.

  3. And a no-downside ‘play’ it is. You handcuff the opposition by spiriting most of the surplus back to taxpayers (where it rightly belongs anyway), then dare them to pledge clawing it all back (for whatever dreamy reason).

    As Mr. Wells says, the ’15 campaign is go, and the gimlet-eyed one is on something of a roll these days–a momentum swing which explains the sense of unease attending certain message board posts of late. (I wonder how much of a tipping point Ottawa’s recent terror attacks will be adjudged to have had when the ’15 post-mortems are written.)

  4. Mr. Wells obviously doesn’t understand what an effective government does to run a country extremely well. While the U.S. continues to wallow in debt,
    the Harper government has provided the services expected by Canadians at lower cost, balanced the budget while increasing transfer payments to the provinces (unlike Chretien who did it by dumping costs on them), and now is returning the surplus funds to those who provided them through tax reductions. Now, if we could ever accomplish the same stellar results in Ontario, I would be delighted.

    • Canada continues to wallow in debt. He is increasing transfers below the rate of population growth — in other words he’s cutting them. Child poverty is at 24% — close to the worst in the OECD. Infant mortality is worse than it is in Cuba and Andorra and Ireland — thanks to the third world conditions on many reserves. Youth unemployment is in the double digits. Meanwhile Denmark’s youth unemployment is lower than our general unemployment rate and their ratio of government spending to GDP is over 50%. Go figure. Harper might brag Canada is OK compared to some G7 countries but that’s not saying anything. The G7 countries lag places like Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway — all high-tax social democracies with low inequality and highly competitive high value-added economies.

      • Child poverty rates have been dropping here while increasing in other developed countries. Just last month: “UNICEF is commending the Canadian government and its provincial counterparts after it found the country’s overall child poverty rate decreased during the recession five years ago.”

        Ironically, one proposed initiative to reduce child poverty rates is to boost the Canada Child Tax Benefit, which is exactly what Harper is proposing (and which you’ve conveniently left out of your rant). And infant mortality is not worse than Cuba.

        Comparisons to Scandinavia are much too facile. Norway has tremendous natural resources, specifically oil, for a country with such a tiny population. Sweden and Finland are struggling with sky-high suicide rates. Denmark has the most regressive immigration and refugee system in the entire developed world – if Canada adopted such an archaic system, no doubt our unemployment rates would drop dramatically. For a country that prides itself as “strongest when helping the weak” Denmark does a piss-poor job of helping the weak that are not native Danes.

  5. Paul, I bascially agree with the premise. Don’t expect Harper to come up with anything shiny and new in the 2015 campaign.

    I do, however, question your contention that the Conservatives have “progressively constraining the ability of any future federal government to expand its role”.

    If, as you note, federal tax revenues are at their lowest level as a portion of GDP in your lifetime, the NDP and Liberals have plenty of room to raise taxes if they want to expand the federal government’s role. Canadians are a reasonable people; surely if they make a compelling argument that they will improve Canadians lives with this program or that, Canadians will give them a mandate to implement these programs (and raise taxes to do it). There’s also nothing stopping the Liberals & NDP from saying these programs are so vital that they are prepared to run a deficit to fund them.

    What Liberals and NDP seem to object to is that Harper isn’t going to create a multi-billion dollar surplus that they can use to buy Canadian’s votes in the next election.

  6. I think you have Harper’s position right and I think your suggestion at the end of you piece that it may not work is also reasonable. Winnipeg just elected a new mayor. There were about 6 candidates with credibility. 4 of them promised activist government and an increase in taxes to pay for upgrades to third-world quality infrastructure, expanded transit and incentives to develop downtown. One loud candidate promised tax freezes and modest increases in spending paid for through “efficiencies” and selling golf courses. He came in 4th. The candidates that came in 1,2 and 3 had progressive agendas.

    People want to work together through the government to deliver a solid package of services. They realize cuts at the federal level mean major cuts or tax increases at the provincial where the heavy lifting happens in terms of services. Next year many provinces will be in dire straits and it will hit home. Also at the current levels of household debt, even a whiff of inflation leading to real increases in interest rates will hit people hard.

    Trudeau has to be smart and say he will give people the OPTION of taking income splitting to pay for child care or they can participate in a subsidized childcare program. He has to announce a nation-building program of basic annual income — paid for by cutting subsidies to fossil fuel industry (recently pegged by the IMF at about $34 billion in Canada) setting up a choice between taxpayers funding daycare and a basic income for poor families and single moms versus billions in subsidies for Calgargy oilpatch millionaires. He can run ads where he says his family will take home $2,000 a year thanks to Steven Harper while introducing a single mom making $35,000 a year who’ll get $400 and a dual income couple with no kids with a household income of $40,000 a year who’ll get nothing. It’s hard working families versus oil patch lottery winners. Tough choice.