Budget reality: promises, promises on the road to fiscal hock

TheGlobeandMail.com – Opinions – The single most curious aspect of North American political conservatism is that it has very seldom produced what it preached
Published on Friday, Mar. 05, 2010.  Last updated on Saturday, Mar. 06, 2010.   Jeffrey Simpson

Standard practice for the federal Department of Finance while preparing a budget is at least three surveys of public opinion.

One occurs early on in the budget cycle. It’s a major survey – paid for by Canadians, of course – that asks Canadians for their priorities and preferences, so the framers of the budget know generally what Canadians want and what to avoid.

The second takes the form of extensive focus groups organized across the country, allowing the government to probe Canadians’ fears and aspirations more deeply and gauging their reactions to possible budget initiatives.

After the budget has been largely drawn up, the third poll tests reactions to specific measures.

So, yes, the government “consults” Canadians in various forums, and it hears from a plethora of interest groups, most of which offer predictable, self-serving advice. And the caucus chips in with its wish lists.

But what really sets the backdrop for any budget are these polls and focus groups. Government is not looking for a broad sense of “public opinion” – it wants to know what its supporters and those who might vote for it are thinking.

Which is why this week’s budget delivers the kind of blueprint Conservative voters, and those who might support the Conservatives, want – a budget that keeps on spending for a while until the recovery takes hold but then supposedly causes the spending to slow down and, in certain areas, to stop so that, in five years, the budget will be balanced.

Polls reflected this dual-track message: a mixture of anxieties about the lingering effects of recession but the perils of constant deficits. The trouble is that this government, like conservative parties across North America, has little credibility to eventually do what it now promises.

The single most curious aspect of North American political conservatism is that it has very seldom produced what it preached, although the yawning gap never stopped the preaching. Put another way, the incessant clamouring for smaller government, small-c conservative values, lower taxes and balanced budgets has never yet happened in any sustained way.

What this ideology ought to have produced was prudence, caution, skepticism and a steely ability to say no. Instead, rather ironically, conservative-minded governments often produced fiscal messes that centrist or centre-left governments then had to clean up.

In the U.S., the anti-government, low-tax, balanced-budget ideology gripped the Republican Party starting with the Goldwater revolution in the 1960s. It flowered under Ronald Reagan, who was later followed by George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush. For much of their time in the White House, these Republican presidents enjoyed Republican congressional majorities. Yet, Republicans never once balanced the federal budget. They were conservatives in rhetoric only – fakes, in a way.

Taxes were cut, all right. But spending kept rising, especially on defence, but also on big domestic programs. Mr. Reagan promised to abolish the Department of Education but never did. George W. Bush created a hugely expensive drug program for seniors without providing any funding for it. None of them did anything about Social Security for seniors or the poor, or any of the other big-ticket spending items.

They talked and threatened and went off to conservative think tanks or Legion conventions to rail against Washington and Big Government and welfare. But back in Washington, nothing happened.

Even today, congressional Republicans grab whatever money they can find for their districts, vote for bloated military spending, call for yet lower taxes and decry Big Government but offer no credible plan to shrink it. The country, meantime, sinks further into a fiscal morass.

In Canada, Conservative governments in provinces such as Ontario and Saskatchewan preached all the usual small-c conservative virtues but bequeathed deficits that subsequent governments had to eliminate. They cut spending for a while but left their provinces in hock.

In Alberta, capital of small-c conservatism, Ralph Klein cut spending and balanced the books for a short while. Spending then rose fast, courtesy of an oil and gas boom that swelled the government’s coffers. Again, the Klein Conservatives did not govern prudently. They spent most of the money (and sent rebate cheques to taxpayers), rather than socking more money into the Alberta Heritage Fund. They banked, as the federal Conservatives are now doing, on endlessly optimistic economic news.

In Ottawa, supposedly small-c conservatives governed until the recession by driving up spending way above the inflation rate, while cutting taxes. They eliminated the contingency fund the Liberals insisted on inserting into federal budgets.

Perhaps, if re-elected with a majority later this year, the Harper government might buck the trend of North American conservatives preaching one thing but doing another. But its own record, and that of its intellectual soulmates, leaves much room for doubt.

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