Finally, time for a real agenda

Andrew Coyne spells out what's on the Tory to-do list

Finally, time for a real  agenda

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

By now the wisdom is well and truly conventional: the Conservatives may have won a majority for the first time in 23 years; they may have control of both houses of Parliament; their enemies may be scattered before them, but God forbid they should actually do anything with the power they now possess.

For that would be “polarizing,” and thus in violation of the First Principle of Political Punditry: Thou Shalt Hug the Middle. And since the middle is, by long-established consensus, wherever we happen to be at the time, this leads very quickly to the Second Principle of Political Punditry: Thou Shalt Not Change Things Much, If At All.

Indeed, it has been so long since any government in Canada attempted anything so ambitious as an agenda that we have almost forgotten what that looks like. The years since the last Chrétien government was elected in 2000 have been something of a lost decade. Whatever sense of direction there might have been was dispelled first in the infighting between the Chrétien and Martin gangs, then in the sponsorship scandal, and at last dissipated utterly in the three minority Parliaments that followed. The notion of planning ahead, taking risks, spending political capital, all the ordinary business of majority governments, must now be relearned.

But in fact governments are not obliged to do nothing to survive, nor must they bow and scrape before the status quo to be fit for polite company. Yes, they are constrained not to stray too far from the middle, but every successful politician knows that the trick is not, as my friends in the free-advice trade never tire of repeating, to move to the middle, but to move the middle to you.

So the way is open for the Tories to dial up the ideology a couple of notches. No one signed on for a revolution, but a consistent, incrementalist nudge in the conservative direction need not prove unduly alarming. That was supposed to be the plan in 2006, you’ll recall, before the party started splashing about like a drowning rabbit.

Some items on the Conservative to-do list are already known, as spelled out in their oddly titled election platform, Here for Canada. They will return to pass the budget that died with the last Parliament, complete with an unspecified $4 billion in savings from the Strategic and Operating Review (This Time We Mean It edition). They’ll bundle up the unpassed crime bills into an omnibus bill and pass them all at one go. They’ll pay Quebec $2.2 billion, supposedly in “compensation” for harmonizing its provincial sales tax with the GST, mostly on the grounds that they did the same for other provinces.

They’ll scrap the long-gun registry, and sign on for 65 F-35 fighter jets, and build a lot more jails. And they’ll parcel out another round of micro-tax credits, for fitness classes and volunteer firefighters and so on. But, apart from a couple of big-ticket items that don’t kick in for three years—income-splitting for couples with children, and expanded tax-free savings accounts—there’s not a lot here that you could really call an agenda, in the sense of a coherent program designed to address important national challenges. That does not mean they don’t have one, however, or can’t make one up if they have to. Indeed, much of it can be found in older platforms, from 2004 and 2006 especially, before expediency started dictating everything. They offer clues to the government’s thinking, from a time when it still thought.

Governments can only do so much in a single term, of course, so let’s confine ourselves to three broad areas of focus: priorities, in govspeak. The first, naturally, is the economy. Short term, things are in relatively good order: outside of another recession, balancing the budget by 2014-15, as promised, is a cinch. It’s the longer-term productivity challenge that should be of concern to us now—the one that was left to languish during the lost decade—if we are to bear the costs of looking after all those baby boomers in their dotage.

What do the Tories have planned here? Well, they’re cutting the corporate tax rate to 15 per cent, from 18 per cent last year. Good, but not good enough. Back in 2004, the Tories were promising to cut corporate and other subsidies: instead they’ve soared, by $10 billion in fiscal 2010 alone. They’re worth cutting in their own right, for the way they distort investment decisions. But they also cost billions of dollars that could be used to cut tax rates further.

The Tory platform also promised to conclude two important free trade deals: with the European Union, by 2012, and with India, by 2013. Not mentioned: the Doha round at the World Trade Organization. Why they don’t mention it: Canada is under heavy pressure to dismantle its system of agricultural quotas and tariffs, known as supply management, as the price of a deal. Do it—these cost Canadian consumers dearly. The WTO merely provides a pretext to do what we should be doing anyway. But do it soon: the reaction from the farm lobby, especially the Quebec dairy industry, will be fierce.

The Tories might also renew the push for free trade at home. They’ve been signalling their intention for years here, even promising to invoke the Constitution’s “trade and commerce” power if remaining provincial barriers were not removed “by 2010.” Time to dust off that threat: a favourable decision from the Supreme Court on Ottawa’s right to set up a national securities regulator would prepare the way. And of course, there is a whole shelf full of recommendations ready to go from the report of the 2008 Competition Policy Review Panel, chaired by former Bell Canada chairman Red Wilson: reversing the onus on foreign investment decisions (from “net benefit” to “net harm”), opening up the telecoms and airlines to foreign ownership, and so on.

A second broad priority: reform of fiscal federalism. Transfers to the provinces for “health care” (in fact they can spend it on whatever they like) are scheduled to rise by six per cent per year. Originally, that was until 2014. In the heat of the election campaign, it was extended two more years. But everyone knows it’s unsustainable.

Provinces will need a maximum degree of freedom if they are to meet the challenges an aging population will impose (they’re spending nearly half their budgets on health care now, and the baby boomers have only just begun to retire). But they’ll also have to be accountable to their own voters—and taxpayers—for the choices they make. The way to recognize both of these imperatives is to convert the existing cash transfers to tax points, perhaps as part of a grand bargain with the provinces on the economic union.

A third priority: democratic reform. This may seem unlikely, given the Tories’ abysmal record to date. But a majority might soften Stephen Harper’s control-freak tendencies: moreover, a reform package might make an attractive late-term offering, as the next election approaches.

It’s well-known the Conservatives will bring in a bill to add 30 seats in the Commons for Ontario and the West, redressing the inequity in their representation (and, coincidentally I’m sure, improving the Tories’ electoral chances). Senate reform will also proceed, to the extent the Constitution allows it. And the Tories will abolish the per-vote subsidy for political parties, possibly as their first act. (Not everyone regards that as a reform.)

But look through their past platforms, and you find some other interesting nuggets. Banning partisan advertising by government departments (heavens, does that still go on?). Cleaning up party nomination and leadership races, including a system of voter registration. Ensuring that candidates are the choice of their local riding association, not party leaders. Making all votes in the House of Commons, outside of the budget and main estimates, free votes. And this, from 2004: “We will also look at new proposals for allowing greater direct democracy and changing the electoral system used to elect members of Parliament.” Perhaps a royal commission, reporting back in two years?

Well. The best-laid plans and all that: what governments might wish to tackle, and what gets thrown at them, are usually two different things. One obvious wild card in all this is the election of a Parti Québécois government in Quebec sometime in the next two years, with the constitutional brinksmanship that would follow. Recession, war, a major terrorist attack—all sorts of events could arise to make these suggestions irrelevant.

But a government that accomplished even half of these reforms could make a fair claim to have earned a second majority.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.