Vote buying has become the Canadian way

My bonnet is full of bees. My pet peeves constitute a menagerie. And I constantly grind a shed full of shiny axes. My excuse is they come in handy. For instance, I must wave three of them at the federal budget: Our Conservatives are not conservative, our governments are giant vote-buying machines and most politicians are too dim to grasp it. Obviously, this government is Conservative in name only. Program spending is to rise from $175 billion to $206 billion in just three years. But it’s not only the scope of the spending or the gleeful way it is unveiled. It is the evident conviction that there is nothing government cannot or should not do, from $2 million for free MedicAlert bracelets for children to increased tax breaks for long-haul truckers’ meals. I am not saying kids should get sick or truckers should faint from hunger behind the wheel. I am saying any Tories who remember once thinking government had some other purpose than trading money for votes have evidently long since forgotten why they used to care.

It is true that this budget, in the finest Mulroney fashion, predicts a dramatic slowdown in spending later while causing a dramatic increase now. But modern governments chronically exceed their spending targets. Do the Tories not know this, or not care? Either way, they are not conservative.

What they are is consummate panderers. To break the Liberal stranglehold on power they have had to learn, and clearly have learned (Axe 2 here, borrowed from political economist Anthony de Jasay), the exquisite art of sending the maximum possible benefits to older, articulate middle-class voters in key ridings. A number of pundits have scornfully declared this a Liberal budget. It is, but only because it is the budget that wins elections in a modern, decadent democracy regardless of party. Unfortunately, buying the middle class gets harder fiscally each year, especially as the population ages, but harder not to do politically. It would be a serious problem if it were understood. It is critical because it is not.

Axe 3 is that too many of our leading politicians are obtuse lumps of stultified hebetude lucky to put together a complete sentence without cue cards or a complete thought even with them. I concede that in his budget-day news conference, Jim Flaherty showed mastery of the details and that as a device for buying middle-class votes this budget was well crafted. Yet members of the other parties are so philosophically challenged they no longer recognize that the Tories are doing what they themselves would do, let alone why.

Stéphane Dion, for instance, stammered: “I don’t want to win an election, but I cannot stand up for a budget that is doing so little with so much.” Empty gibberish. Liberal Finance critic John McCallum fared little better, saying: “This is a shotgun budget. It is as if the finance minister shut his eyes, held a shotgun into the air, pulled the trigger and hoped that it would hit as many targets as possible.” Which is exactly backward. Ruthless political microtargeting is a fiscal strategy open to sharp criticism on many grounds. This one not among them.

Meanwhile, NDP child-care critic Olivia Chow snarled: “Working children and families are getting crumbs.” I don’t even know what a working child is. I thought we had laws against that. But I know a talking point when I see one. NDP leader Jack Layton sneered: “The average working family sitting at the kitchen table was expecting something more than just crumbs from the prime minister. It’s the boardroom table that got the big gift.” Which is what he’d say regardless, so why pay attention? Especially since the middle class got the money, not plutocrats.

Mr. Harper snapped back: “The NDP in opposing this budget is rejecting what every NDP leader in history has stood for.” Which should make you wonder why the Tories introduced it. Mr. Harper had earlier said the “major priorities” in the 2005 Liberal budget “are Conservative priorities.” So I guess we’d have to elect the NDP to get a Liberal budget and close the circle. In short, philosophy no longer matters, and that’s something we should worry about.

Things are so bad that the most intelligent comment came from Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe, whose party supports the budget: “We can’t let $3-billion get away. We’ll take the money.” It’s pure materialism — and exactly how the Tories hope key electoral groups will feel.

Our government is broken in several ways, including the collapse of parliamentary oversight. It is certainly broken in that budgets no longer even pretend to be about finance and politicians can’t figure out why not.

Thus I keep grinding my axes, to keep them sharp enough to cut through this nonsense.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

UncategorizedJohn Robson