How conservatives have benefited from bad economic times

TheGlobeandMail.com – Opinion – How conservatives have benefited from bad economic times:  Mr. Harper is sitting pretty, largely because, he, like other conservatives, has done very non-conservative things.  We want governments that ‘manage’ today’s crisis rather than making us think about the great issues of tomorrow
Published on Friday, Oct. 16, 2009. Last updated on Monday, Oct. 19, 2009.   Jeffrey Simpson

Social democrats and others of a leftish persuasion must be in despair these days.

Unemployment in Canada is 8.4 per cent. Recession laid its dead hand on the economy. The high priests of the free market ought to have been defrocked, what with the collapse of Wall Street firms and the resumption of outrageously high payments to plutocrats. Poverty remains as entrenched as ever; indeed, poverty always deepens in bad economic times.

And yet, in Canada and in many other countries, conservative parties seem to be benefiting politically from bad times – not because they are conservatives but rather because they are pursuing leftish policies.

The German Christian Democrats under Chancellor Angela Merkel were just re-elected, although their share of the popular vote slipped a bit. The big losers in the German election were the Social Democrats, who are now no longer part of the governing coalition.

In Britain, the Conservatives under David Cameron are so far ahead of Labour that only a miracle will save Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the spring election. In France, Socialists squabble and President Nicolas Sarkozy continues to dominate. New Zealand swung to the right. (Socialists did win in Greece.)

The big exception remains the United States, where Democrats control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

In Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was floundering a year ago. He made some inexplicable mistakes during the 2008 campaign that likely cost him a majority. He seemed unable to find the right political response to the economic crisis, insisting budgets would be balanced, suggesting the collapse of the stock market opened up good buying opportunities, and then presenting to Parliament an economic statement that was so wrong-headed that it provoked a parliamentary crisis.

A year later, Mr. Harper is sitting pretty, largely because, he, like other conservatives, has done very non-conservative things.

Collectively, the industrialized world decided to deal with the precipitous recession by injecting unprecedented amounts of liquidity into their economies. Everybody’s deficits soared. It didn’t matter which kind of party governed – conservative, liberal, social democratic – they all more or less responded in the same way, injecting about 2 per cent of gross domestic product into the economy through public spending.

This kind of spending responded to a very real economic need, and also responded to a very deeply felt political requirement that in difficult times governments are there to help people, communities and industry.

All the usual conservative talismans of deregulation, privatization, slashing taxes, reducing the size of government, getting government out of the economy were banished in reality, although elements sometimes lingered in political rhetoric.

Belatedly but quite effectively, Mr. Harper banished all these talismans and turned his government into a mighty spending machine, to which was then attached the Conservative Party’s propaganda machine, with television and newspaper advertising extolling the virtues of the government’s Economic Action Plan, Conservative MPs doling out cheques with political gain in mind (a time-honoured Liberal practice of bygone years), and the Prime Minister literally jetting around the country making new spending “announcements” almost every day when Parliament was not in session.

The apotheosis of this single-minded determination to be seen spending money, thereby connecting with ordinary Canadians, came when the Prime Minister rushed back from New York, where world leaders were discussing an issue he does not like – climate change – to do another “spending announcement” photo-op at a Tim Hortons facility in Ontario. All politics, it was once said, is local. (That all issues are in some sense global is usually forgotten.)

Those on the left might argue that these times require fundamental change, because so many weaknesses have been exposed and so many people hurt by the recession, and what created it. But instead, the majority reaction in such circumstances is the reverse: that the times are wrong for visions and big changes, that instead we want governments that “manage” the crisis, that attend to the business of helping today rather than summoning us to think about the great issues of tomorrow.

This is one reason – there are many, many others – why it is almost impossible in Canada to have any debate on anything of great substance, be it poverty or climate change, health care or postsecondary education, productivity or tax policy, aboriginals or culture, let alone (perish the thought) major international issues.

We have no urgency these days to debate anything other than the here and now; indeed, we viscerally dislike such debates, as the Prime Minister has intuitively understood. We have hunkered down, with our internal myths and our comfortable blanket of moral superiority, content with the government that asks nothing and spends much in these difficult times.

The muddling middle of the Canadian political spectrum, against which Mr. Harper and his Reform colleagues of those early years used to rage and resolved to assault, has enveloped him and them, never more so than in these difficult economic times.

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