Behind the spin
The 2005-06 election features the curious sight of the major parties running hard with the usual partisan fervour, but without platforms. Each knows its policies are best. It just doesn’t know what they are. Except the Bloc. Yet voters can still get some sense of their programs from the early days of the campaign. The New Democratic Party and the Conservatives evidently have platforms. (So, presumably, do the Liberals, who did not respond to inquiries on this point.) They just insist on unveiling them in a carefully staged manner--lest voters react inappropriately to suddenly seeing the whole truth. Only the Bloc posted on its website a detailed platform for its election and its 2004 program (including an English summary). True, the BQ had little hope or reason to hide what it believes (Canada stinks) and believed last election (Canada stinks). Still, it’s nice to be treated like adults.
What about the others? Each ran 18 months ago on a platform they endorsed passionately. But NDP spokesman Jamey Heath says the 2004 platform “may not necessarily reflect the current approach. For example, we are not proposing an inheritance tax,” something that earned the party nearly unanimous bad reviews last spring. Recent statements by NDP MPs in Parliament give us some clues, and Heath promises the whole platform by campaign’s end. Tory MP Rona Ambrose (Edmonton- Spruce Grove) explains that her party’s 2004 platform is no longer operative, while its March 2005 convention resolutions guided policy formulation but didn’t determine it. As for timing, “We want to lay out our policies at a time when people can really take a look at them instead of in the middle of a heated election... In January we expect the Liberals to be quite vicious in their campaigning and this gives us a chance to lay things out and have a debate on some of these substantive issues.” Ambrose says most of the platform will probably be out by Christmas.
The parties’ political equivalent of a striptease is nevertheless suggestive, not only for what they have said but what they have chosen to speak about early. The Tories started with change, accountability and quality candidates, detoured through gay marriage (promising a free vote they must know they will lose) to crime: leader Stephen Harper promised an independent prosecutor for Adscam-type offences--or maybe not if it’s provincial jurisdiction (deputy leader Peter MacKay awkwardly contradicted him on the details despite, one assumes, having seen the platform).
Then came a promise to cut the GST from seven to six per cent immediately and to five per cent within five years. Then on health care, a vow never ever to allow two-tier health care, an accelerated schedule for wait-time guarantees and a promise to punish provinces that fail to treat patients promptly or pay for their treatment elsewhere. Then a crackdown on crack, marijuana and other drugs, and a promise of a “$1,200 per year Choice in Child Care Allowance for children under the age of six,” which, the party boasted, “is part of a larger Conservative plan to allocate $10.9 billion to child care over the next five years, compared to $6.2 billion for the Liberal plan.” Also, they would cut the small business tax rate from 12 to 11 per cent over five years.
The NDP, says Heath, started with “new funding for postsecondary education, a new auto policy, fairness for Saskatchewan on equalization, a response to softwood lumber, that we will not raise taxes and will reduce the lowest income tax rate and increase basic personal exemptions.” They also want child care to be way more public than the Liberals. NDP Leader Jack Layton promised to fix global warming and other environmental ills for a price not yet known but somehow promised to be low. He rejected proposed Liberal corporate tax cuts, but promised relief for low-income earners. Health care should apparently run just as is, only better. And the party again promises a balanced budget.
Of course, both the Tories and the NDP are in substantial measure running against the Liberal record. And the Liberals are, in some ways, commendably, running on it, too. For instance, the recent economic and fiscal update and last fall’s fix for health care for a generation. Elsewhere, reacting to Tory child-care policy, Liberal national director Steven MacKinnon said his party stood for “quality, universality, accessibility and the development of the child,” while Harper’s was a mere “tax break” and Paul Martin proclaimed public day care “a lasting addition to our... social foundation [and] a right for our children.” The instinctive flinching at private child raising has at least the virtue of philosophic clarity.
For the Liberals are implicitly running as the party of really big government. Never mind dozens of spending promises exceeding $20 billion right before the election. The 2004 budget projected 2004-05 spending of $183.3 billion, but the actual figure in the November 2005 update was $196.8 billion. It is part of a frightening and almost undebated recent tendency for spending to gallop way ahead of the estimates and grow faster than since the worst Trudeau years. In that sense it does not matter what platform the party unveils in January. This spending blast wasn’t in any previous platform but was consistently the result of the Liberals’ approach to governing. We must assume it is what they will do again if re-elected. Regrettably, the other parties aren’t addressing this problem.
More policy will follow on the politicians’ schedule, not ours. But it’s big government, bigger government or biggest government for Canada unless, of course, you’d prefer really big but separate government for an independent Quebec. Stay tuned out.
The Liberal Party may win another election, or at least a minority, but it is in peril. It doesn’t know what it stands for, and eventually such parties stop winning. Its impressive rhetorical and organizational talents once served an intellectual agenda. Now they mostly deceive the party as well as voters about the extent of the rot.
The Liberals used to be deliberately centrist in every way. Even former PM Pierre Trudeau shouted “Viva Castro” while letting the Americans test cruise missiles here. Today’s Liberals have run down our military and increased our anti-Americanism long past the point of diminishing diplomatic influence.
On economics, the Liberal party has not been classically liberal since it adopted former U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s philosophy that “necessitous men are not free men.” But it once understood the need to spend only what the economy could sustain. Now it only knows how to take enough in taxes to cover runaway spending during a boom. And booms always end.
On social change, the Liberals used to seem cautiously humane. Today, they are wildly radical on gay marriage and abortion. And the cheesy outrage of Prime Minister Paul Martin or Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan at Tory Leader Stephen Harper’s alleged plan to dismantle health care cannot conceal that the 2004 “fix for a generation” was unintelligent and useless.
True, the party has won three-and-a-half straight elections. But in quick succession, against weak opposition, unimpressively. After John Diefenbaker’s coalition of Ontario Red Tories, Western conservative populists and Quebec soft nationalists exploded, the Grits revived in the West (27 of 68 seats in 1968) and especially Quebec (as late as 1980, 74 of 75). After Brian Mulroney’s same coalition exploded, the Grits managed 27 of 86 in the West in 1993 but just 14 of 92 by 2004 (and 21 of Quebec’s 75). Should social radicalism or overspending weaken them in Greater Toronto, they will find they no longer have any way to win.
The Liberal problem is not that they have abandoned their ideas. It is where their ideas led them. Post-modern liberals do not believe in truth and thus rely on power and spin. Even their radicalism is reactive; Trudeau led public opinion in decriminalizing homosexuality; Martin followed the Supreme Court in legalizing gay marriage.
Many thoughtful Liberals see in Toronto star candidate and Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff a second Trudeau. He supports the Iraq war and hectored the March Liberal convention about leaders’ ability to say “no.” His parachute drop into Etobicoke-Lakeshore hit politically correct turbulence, but those who love the Liberal party must hope he lands safely and takes command. If not, the rot within will cause the facade to crumble.
It says “conservative” on the package, but sometimes a product says “new and improved” even when the change is trivial. So conservative voters should read the ingredient list and worry how much free-market economics, traditional social values and strong, realistic foreign policy it actually contains.
The Tories’ cranky anti-crime anti-drug policy is properly conservative. It may distress libertarians but in this area, traditional social values very often trump free markets in conservative politics and philosophy. But the party’s health policy is an anti-market catastrophe: no two-tier, no market forces, no common sense. Having Manitoba send people languishing on waiting lists to Ontario while Ontario sends its waiting list languishers to Manitoba is good for airlines but absurd for patients. And penalizing provinces financially if they can’t afford timely treatment is counterproductive. Implicitly this policy relies on the semi-market-based U.S. system, but only disingenuously.
The Conservatives’ gay-marriage policy is also disingenuous. It was clever of leader Stephen Harper to raise it pre-emptively, but the plan seems to be a free vote they know they’ll lose, placating the rubes with a knowing wink to urban sophisticates. And the refusal to address the notwithstanding issue squarely, and with it the sovereignty of Parliament, is distressingly anti-traditionalist on constitutional matters.
On taxes, the proposal to cut the GST fulfills the first requirement of conservatism--lower taxes--but the justification does not. Harper said, “It is fair and it is more effective in stimulating consumption than anything the government is doing.” Real conservatives try to raise the revenues needed for government operations in a way that doesn’t affect citizens’ behaviour; neo-conservatives in a way that encourages investment and growth. Only liberal Keynesians want to stimulate consumption. So this policy is politically clever but not conservative--especially as there are no announced spending cuts.
Instead, there are large spending increases, especially on child care. Tory policy here manages to qualify as conservative in some sense. A deep- blue or libertarian conservative wouldn’t have a family policy. But aiming to assist stay-at-home parents and enhance choice while offering a relatively small subsidy for company day care to help working families counts. Shake this package, though, and it contains a surprising amount of empty space.
As the campaign unfolds, watch for practical policy to stop judicial activism, a forthright endorsement of the western alliance against terror and something, anything, to reduce the role of government significantly in an area that matters. If not, anyone who buys this product believing it conservative should demand their money back.
The NDP is in trouble. The party’s main problem is not tactical, although there is a real risk that, as in 1974, cohabitating with the Liberals will push swing voters from the NDP to the Grits, not the reverse, especially given the difficulty of hammering on Adscam with Svend Robinson back onstage. The real danger is that, having failed to absorb the Green party, the NDP may find itself absorbed by it instead.
With 4.3 per cent of the vote in 2004, the Greens are poised for a breakthrough despite having no MPs and, therefore, no spot in the televised leaders’ debates. Green party deputy leader and Ottawa Centre candidate David Chernushenko explains, “We have said many times and believe... that we’re attracting progressive Canadians from any side of the spectrum and that there isn’t any particular advantage to targeting one party and their supporters.” But if you want youth, idealism relevant to today’s big challenges, and an integrated radical world view in which the personal is the political, you’re likely to weigh green against orange in 2006--and favourably.
Consider the Green party promise to “reduce the GST on products that cut pollution and improve the health of Canadians, while comparably raising it on products that do the opposite.” It’s interventionism with an economic face, because as with other taxes, the party’s goal is consistently to bring the consumer’s cost for a product closer to its real cost including environmental impact. Moreover, Chernushenko says, “We can’t start having a whole range of different types of taxes for every kind of product,” so they’ll need clear, manageable priorities. It’s environmentally sensitive, economically reasonable and politically original. Why isn’t it coming from the NDP? Come to think of it, what is?
Metal-bashing isn’t the economic future and leader Jack Layton never seemed to fit in with the steelworker crowd anyway. But while his party may have the political equivalent of “new and improved” in its name, when Layton extracted $4.6 billion in concessions from the Liberals, it was for the same old NDP stuff. The party seems to have placed itself into the curious position of disliking the way things are going while being petrified of change. For a progressive party it seems bereft of progressive ideas.
Not the Greens. It’s odd that the NDP’s centre of intellectual gravity hasn’t shifted from big-government, mechanistic thinking to a holistic vision. It’s also politically dangerous. The party will be absorbed by its smaller progressive rival if it doesn’t smarten up.
[First published in Western Standard]