A boring budget from an unpopular government

NationalPost.com – Full Comment
February 15, 2014.   Conrad Black

It is with reluctance that I take issue with Jim Flaherty, a cordial acquaintance of many years who has been very successful in his role as federal finance minister (as he was when he performed the same role in Mike Harris’ Ontario government). He must rank with Paul Martin (Jr.), Michael Wilson, John Turner, Douglas Abbott, James L. Ilsley, William Fielding and Sir Thomas White as among the ablest holders of that post in the last century.

It does not require demiurgic imagination to figure out that he and his colleagues chose such a plain vanilla budget this year in order to stuff the election basket next year. But isn’t there just a chance that Canadians are becoming a little too worldly to be seduced by quadrennial treats such as this? The minister told the press that it was a boring budget, and assured them that “boring is good.” I don’t think it is good, as policy or as electoral tactics. I think, and the polls indicate, that the country is tiring of being bored by this government.

Boring governments, even competent boring governments, which this one has been, apart from its demeaning pandering to the knuckle-dragging imprisonment freaks and drug hard-liners, end up looking like placemen, decayed servitors, and become sitting ducks for that dangerous tocsin, “It’s time for a change.”

This is what happened to Louis St. Laurent and C.D. Howe in 1957; the people were bored with them. They had been one of the most talented and successful governments in the history of the country, and they lost to John Diefenbaker, who had no aptitude whatever to govern (though he had other high qualities). W.L. Mackenzie King, whose diligence, talent for political chicanery, and policy focus Stephen Harper somewhat emulates, was a publicly unexciting leader (though his political diary is extremely interesting and often well-written), but he always sought to strengthen his government and the quality of the ministers, and was quite imaginative in policy terms.

Jim Flaherty inherited a prudently directed Finance ministry from Paul Martin and Ralph Goodale, and has continued worthily. But NDP leader Thomas Mulcair was correct when he said “There is nothing for jobs” in the budget; as was Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s statement that “The government has run out of ideas.”

The fact is that the government has squeezed all the juice there is out of running a tight ship. It does deserve great credit, Treasury Board President Tony Clement in particular, for the reduced indulgence it has shown the rapacious public service unions, and its ambition to rejoin Germany as the only G-7 country with a federal government surplus is commendable. But managing the Canadian dollar down to 90 cents U.S. in order to produce a bigger surplus is hokey, and every informed person knows it.

Instead of providing $250-million for the auto industry and debating with Fiat-Chrysler over a minivan plant, we should invest the money directly into Fiat-Chrysler and increase our equity in that company until we are co-owners. Instead of deferring $3.1-billion in defence spending, a field where this government, in a British expression, has been “all mouth and no trousers,” the government should get on with it, increase the personnel in the armed forces, and channel economic stimulus through defense research and development. It should work With Bombardier and others to rebuild the Canadian Aerospace industry, which is still recovering from Diefenbaker’s cancellation of the Avro Arrow in 1959, and work with the Irvings and others to rebuild the Royal Canadian Navy. These are much stronger and more reputable conservative issues than building superfluous and inhumanely operated prisons for the unconvicted and posturing about marijuana.

Marijuana is one of the leading cash crops in British Columbia, as it is in the Western U.S. states. The argument that it is the “gateway drug” is partially true but irrelevant: The narcotics barbarians long ago demolished the gate and the fortifications and have immersed themselves in the population, and now we have to deal with them. While we have avoided in Canada the grotesque corruption and hypocrisy of the U.S. “war on drugs” (which has been a defeat on such a scale that it has made Prohibition’s delivery of the alcoholic beverage industry to the underworld in the twenties seem like inspired public policy), we are, as in so many other areas, pallidly emulating failed American policy without the excuse the U.S has of living on the borders of the Mexican drug cartels. We should legalize all drugs but require hard drug users to register and submit to treatment.

Huge amounts of money would thereby be redirected to legitimate commerce, recovery rates would multiply, Jim Flaherty would have no more concerns about how to balance his budget, and the government’s emissaries to its more intellectually primitive supporters, such as Julian Fantino, could repurpose the build-and-they-will-come prisons as homeless shelters.

The forecast 2%-plus economic growth-rates are quite inadequate for such a rich country with a skilled work force. Instead of piling more excise taxes on tobacco, which will increase contraband, the Finance Minister should raise sales and transaction taxes on activities that are not undesirable but are exclusively engaged in voluntarily by prosperous people, to stay on course on deficit elimination while raising growth-rates. Harper and Flaherty could really get the world’s respectful attention if they started a move back to hard currencies, by announcing that the Canadian dollar would be linked to a formula of the oil price, gold price, and the Consumers’ Price Index. Money would pour into Canada, and the country’s name would be famous for something more edifying than the leisure habits of the mayor of Toronto (whose re-election chances right now are better than Harper’s).

The Tory ads attacking Justin Trudeau’s marijuana position are simply absurd

The Conservatives’ 2015 election plan — enterprisingly revealed by the Toronto Star, after it received a 70-page slide-show that had been presented to the Conservative party’s national council — includes the deployment of the Prime Minister’s wife, Laureen Harper, on the campaign trail. This is understandable: She is an attractive and delightful person. But more than this will be required. The Conservatives are trailing substantially in the polls now, and the party is professedly boring, despite eight years of rather good government. Conservative strategists think that they have as severely divided an opposition as Mulroney had in 1988, where half the people supported free trade and the other half was divided between the Liberals and NDP. And they apparently think that Trudeau will wither when seriously scrutinized. But they can’t bore and mud-sling their way to victory. And the Tory ads attacking his marijuana position are absurd.

Trudeau should regain most of the federalist vote in Quebec and should gain at least 30 MPs from the NDP there. If he doesn’t stumble badly, and this regime doesn’t show any creative imagination, the Liberals could pick up enough elsewhere to become the largest party. Mulcair, who hasn’t reaped the reward he deserves for his strong parliamentary performance, will hold the balance with 60 or so MPs. This need not, and may not, happen. But the regime will have to raise its game to avoid such a fate.

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