Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Harper Conservatives show their teeth on everything but fiscal policy

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's appearance at the annual Calgary Stampede BBQ has prompted some commentary. Alberta Finance Minister Ted Norton used the opportunity to make the interesting declaration that, with respect to his provincial party and the Wildrose, "We all believe in the same thing and want the same results." I'll nonetheless leave that claim aside for now and instead opine on Vancouver-based Adrian MacNair's lament that
the current Conservatives have adopted the kind of woolly-headed, socialist, nanny-state ideals that would make any Liberal feel quite at home.
While all too regrettably true, what's galling is that despite these policies, small l and big L liberals still feel anything but at home in Harper's party. This primarily because the party's culture represents everything that is offensive to small L liberal sensibilities.

The authoritative Economist has not been shy about exhibiting its distaste for the Harper regime this year. St Albert pundit David Climenhaga has fingered the British weekly as a "venerable" but "pretentious newsmagazine" (perhaps alluding to one of its advertising lines "[i]t's lonely at the top, but at least there's something to read") that provides "wistful right-wing drivel" "for credulous capitalists around the globe" and describes its upscale readership as "people who wish they were rich." The Observer (a unit of the UK's left leaning Guardian) has tut-tutted that the Economist's "writers rarely see a political or economic problem that cannot be solved by the trusted three-card trick of privatisation, deregulation and liberalisation." Yet what John Ralston Saul has further described as "the Bible of the corporate executive" mocked Harper's rationale for pro-roguing Parliament in January and charged, "Never mind what his spin doctors say: Mr Harper’s move looks like naked self-interest." The prime minister has a "ruthless streak" in the Economist's view which suggests that he is the same man who threw away a chance at 24 Sussex in 2004 by claiming that then-Prime Minister Paul Martin approved of child pornography. As a columnist observed at the time, Harper "showed his teeth."

In December the Economist observed that
A third of the 63 bills introduced in the House of Commons in the past year have dealt with some aspect of criminal justice, and more are on their way. Despite complaints that a similar, purely punitive approach has not worked in the United States, and that piecemeal change will clog up the justice system and leave taxpayers with a larger bill, the government has not deviated.
Never mind that the association representing Crown prosecutors appeared before the much maligned Senate to plead for a more evidence-based approach. Fiscal conservatives have to concede, yet again, as the prisoner population increases, costing taxpayers $93 000 per year per prisoner.

The Economist is hardly a lone voice here. Andrew Coyne's observations of a year ago on the federal Conservatives, which Mike Brock posted to Youtube, should be must see viewing for Wildrose party supporters in Alberta who believe Harper, who cannot find the political support for an agenda that is not even as fiscally conservative as that of the politically dominant Liberals in the mid-1990s, has really shown the way.
On policy after policy, they have not simply watered down or moved incrementally, they have abandoned their convictions...
It is too easy to just say that politics is the art of the possible, and leave it at that, because it allows other people to define what is possible... a truer statement is that politics is the art of enlarging the possible. Politics is not just a matter of giving people what they want, it is a matter of making them want what you want them to want. It is not just a matter of moving to the middle... it is a matter of moving the middle to you. ...
All [the Conservatives] have done is shift the spectrum further and further to the left. The right wing of Canadian politics is now defined by 35 billion dollar deficits [and] by record high levels of spending...
- Andrew Coyne
If one is going to sell-out, at least sell-out for something. Not that getting into the good graces of the Economist and Andrew Coyne would constitute a stooping that self-described conservatives should ever be ashamed of anyway. Label them "liberal " and it doesn't change the dynamic: these are the sorts of liberals who need to be onside if a conservative movement is going to have the support of the majority. Pundits warning conservative movements against going down the Tea Party road late last year have been silenced this year as the electorate has shifted to the right, but the unthinking populism of the Tea Party still represents a political dead end.

In Alberta, I doubt that some of the "moderation" efforts that have been initiated by influential players in Alberta's Wildrose Alliance are going to produce nearly as many votes as hoped for, not least because it is the party's image and communications that needs to have its edges sanded off as opposed to the policy platform. Show one's teeth on the budget, and one's smile on everything else (the exact opposite of the Harper approach, in other words). Turning over communications from Shawn Howard to a shrill caucus is not going to help on this count.

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