Why the Harper Conservatives Didn't Deserve Victory... And Why Now They Do...


The article below was written just before I accepted a posting as a deputy returning officer for the riding of Kitchener Centre. As you can expect, one of the obligations of being a deputy returning officer is to be strictly non-partisan. This means, if you signed onto the post at the recommendation of one of the candidates, all work for that candidate would now cease. You would not campaign. Looking through this article, I realized that I was not being non-partisan, so I set it aside until after the election.

I still stand by everything I say in this article, but you should be sure to read through to the end. I have crafted an addition...

Why the Harper Conservatives Don't Deserve Victory

(Nobody deserves anything in the world of Bowjamesbow, except maybe defeat. Witness my previous posts, "Why the Martin Administration Deserves Defeat" and the five-part series "Why the Bush Administration Deserves Defeat")

Forget the real or imagined hidden agendas. Forget about the possibility of reopening fractious debates of abortion, gay marriage and capital punishment. Forget about a one-line slip suggesting that he supports and would implement monetary union with the United States. Stephen Harper's Conservatives do not deserve to form a majority government in this country because they are not fiscally conservative.

The Conservative Party has made no bones about their desire to cut federal income taxes by 25%. They have tried to avoid the pitfalls of the Bush Administration in the States and the Harris government in Ontario by targetting their cuts to the poorest people paying tax and to the middle class, but they still expect to slash government revenues. Despite this, the Harper Conservatives also expect to increase health care spending, transfer three cents per litre of the gas tax to the provinces, and spend billions more on our military. These initiatives are all fine and good, but how do they intend to pay for them while at the same time cutting taxes?

All three mainstream parties predict an increase of government revenues through a growing economy. The Paul Martin Liberals say that, if the government did nothing and said nothing, revenues would still grow by $40 billion over the next five years. Layton's NDP is more optimistic, hoping that $60 billion will pay for most of their substantial increase in social spending. Uncharacteristically, the Conservatives are the most liberal of the bunch, predicting no less than $90 billion in increased revenues from our quietly humming economy.

Essentially, Harper is accusing Paul Martin of underreporting coming surpluses by $50 billion over the next five years. While Martin is famous for underreporting revenues until budget time (his primary strategy to keep spending down while Canada's deficit turned into a surplus), Martin's predictions have never been $10 billion short five years in a row. And with economists saying that even Paul Martin's $40 billion predictions may be optimistic, you have to wonder about the sensibility of Harper banking his fiscal policy on the hopes of finding fifty billion dollars of spare change in the folds of Paul Martin's couch.

It is a shame nobody has asked Harper what he would do if, by some miracle, the Liberal numbers were right. With the Conservative party committed to lowering income taxes, transfering gas taxes and spending more on health and the military, what promise does Stephen Harper break? Does he renege on the tax cuts? Does he revoke his promise to transfer more funds to the provinces? Does he shortchange us on his health care or military spending? Does he slash the budgets of other government programs, including unemployment insurance, Canada's pension plan, or funding for arts and culture (which he has verbally promised not to slash while at a campaign stop recently in Cambridge)? Or does he break his promise to maintain balanced budgets and instead run a deficit?

It would seem out of character for Harper to renege on cutting taxes. The history of his political career, as a critic for the Reform Party and as head of the National Citizens Coalition, suggests that he believes government to be a black hole into which tax dollars are sucked and from which no benefit is derived. I have always disagreed with Mr. Harper on this, and Harper's willingness to campaign on increased spending to health and the military suggests that he knows that many Canadians agree with me. The Harris government of Ontario also showed that tax cuts don't give much benefit at the paycheque level, and the consequences of underfunding municipal infrastructure and social programs far exceed the benefits of the jobs that have supposedly been created. I even have my doubts over whether tax cuts really create jobs to the extent that neo-conservatives argue.

Finally, one only need look south of the border to see the effects fiscally irresponsible tax cuts derive. Canada's position in the G8 and its underlying economic strength are increasing compared to the United States as we maintain a surplus while the Americans mortgage their future. Harper, at least, has spoken long and hard about the perils of deficit spending, so to maintain his tax cuts and to maintain a balanced budget, we can expect hefty spending cuts should our economy not deliver what the Conservatives need. Harper hasn't warned Canadians that he would do this, and he honestly disagrees with the suggestion that the benefits of Canadian society are paid for in large part by our tax rates, so expect government services like VIA Rail, the CBC, funding for the arts and culture, to collapse.

In the leaders' debates, Harper commented on the fact that he is a firm believer in provincial autonomy and noted the irony of him running to be the prime minister of Canada. Maybe there is no irony involved.

The debates over whether to raise taxes, slash spending or run a deficit will dog the days of a Harper government unless Canada is blessed with five years of spectacular economic growth. With Harper failing to see the need to invest in municipal infrastructure and in education, it's hard to see such growth occurring, unless the provincial governments do the heavy lifting for him.

And that could be it: Harper could be running for the position of federal prime minister because he expects that position to become the one that requires the least vision, the least inspiration and the least leadership.

Canadians will not be well served by a man who believes that the prime minister should be responsible for ribbon cutting at the opening of shopping malls from coast to coast. Despite Harper's attempts to portray himself as a centrist alternative to the Liberals, Canadians searching for truly pragmatic leadership would do better to look elsewhere.

And Why Harper Should Be Prime Minister... If Only For a Little While

It comes down to the fact that Paul Martin just doesn't seem to learn.

For the past eleven years the Liberals have governed the country to mixed reviews. I am pleased with some of the things they have done, but I have grown concerned over the increasing sense that the Liberals believe that they couldn't lose. With the opposition divided, the Liberals got sloppy and arrogant. They felt that they could essentially thumb their noses at the majority of the electorate because the electorate could never organize themselves sufficiently to bring them down.

Nowhere was this arrogance felt more keenly than in the six months that Paul Martin was prime minister. The fact that the government suddenly found itself without a legislative agenda when Martin suddenly decided to postpone the election showed clearly that Martin didn't intend to roll up his sleeves and govern... at least until September after a long summer break following an election victory that he expected to just have handed to him. There was no vision, no new ideas, just a maddening sense of entitlement.

Starting with the Auditor General's damning report in February through to the near-death experience of the election campaign, Canadians sent the strongest message possible to Paul Martin that they expected him to shape up. Canadians may not have been ready to hand the keys to parliament to another party at the moment, but they did not appreciate being undervalued. By handing Martin the barest of bare minorities, Martin should have reacted by showing that he knew that the Canadian electorate had more than just put him on probation -- rather, they had given him a stay of execution.

Has Martin shown this understanding? Not according to Warren Kinsella, who cites the lack of any housecleaning in the prime minister's office and senior Liberal e-mails congratulating Liberal workers on their "victory". Not according to Jack Layton (link courtesy Sinister Thoughts), who has yet to hear from Mr. Martin about cooperation in the coming minority house. It has been suggested that Martin thinks he can govern as if he has a majority, believing that the three major opposition parties in the House won't gang up against him because they are just too ideologically different. He is counting on the support of the NDP and the Bloc not through any concessions, but by essentially daring them to call his bluff and make Stephen Harper prime minister.

I am sick of having Liberals believe that my support is automatic, simply because I fear the alternatives to be worse. There comes a time when, to improve the state of democracy in this nation, we have to take a risk with a government that might be worse, in order to show the current government beyond a shadow of a doubt that they need to do better. If allowing Stephen Harper to become prime minister is what it takes to make Prime Minister Paul Martin understand the depth of our anger, let's do it: let's topple the Liberal government from the get-go. Unless Martin picks up the phone to Layton or Duceppe right now, Layton should call Stephen Harper and Gilles Duceppe now and work out a legislative agenda that all three parties can live with. Then, when the time comes for parliament to resume, the three parties should all vote against the Governor General's throne speech. This stunning defeat to the Liberals will force Paul Martin's resignation as prime minister, and probably as leader of the Liberal party.

During the election campaign I thought that the best result for Canadians was a Conservative minority propped up by the NDP, or even the NDP and the Bloc. Such a move would show to Canadians that their governments can change and that their democracy is essentially sound. It would give Canadians a little taste of Harper, while keeping him on a tight leash. It would give Harper roughly a year to either make or break the country, without doing serious damage if he screwed up. It would also be a final humiliation to Paul Martin and his Liberals (which I think they desperately need, right now). It would force Martin's departure and grant the party a cathartic, wide-open leadership race that could reenergize the party and make it more responsive to the wishes of the Canadian public again.

I understand that some might see my suggestion as drastic, but so be it. Complacent Liberal administrations have provoked sharper responses; it was Bourassa's arrogance that allowed the Parti Quebecois to assume power, and it was Petersen's sense of entitlement that gave us Bob Rae. It's their own darn fault that the electorate came to believe that the alternatives weren't much worse. Besides, whatever we may think of Rene Levesque and Bob Rae, I would point out that we survived both government and, frankly, neither of those governments were really that bad. Canadians should not be afraid of a little change; the consequences of such change pales in comparison to allowing the Liberals to forget that they have to earn Canadians' trust.

I understand that the Conservatives, the NDP and the Bloc are far apart on a number of issues, but I suspect that at the back of their minds they all know that the health of democracy depends upon being able to toss out a governing party that has become tired and arrogant. Canadians aren't looking for a hard-right Conservative agenda just as they aren't looking for democratic socialism. Rather, they are looking for politicians who will respond, who will value the mandate Canadians have given them, and who will realize that they are entrusted with government, and not simply entitled to it.

So unless Paul Martin gets a clue, and fast, it's time for Layton, Harper and Duceppe to hone their negotiation skills and send Mr. Martin packing.

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