What's so scary about Planet Tory?

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

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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