There is no Harper Nation

NationalPost.com – FinancialPost/FPcomment
Mar 25, 2011.   Terence Corcoran

hortly after his government’s defeat, Prime Minister Stephen Harper attempted to deflect focus back to Tuesday’s budget. The economy, he said, is the number one priority of Canadians and the budget was the key to the country’s economic future. Then he said: “There was nothing in the budget that the opposition could not or should not have supported.” True enough — but what does that say to Canada’s conservatives? Based on the budget, they are now called on to support a Conservative party that has presided over an extravagant full-scale national revival of big government by fiscal expansion.

Only a few days ago, it seems, Canadian politics was abuzz with the possibility of a new ideological era that favoured smaller government and lower taxes, with less waste, more discipline and a determination to cut taxes. There were signs of revolt in British Columbia, a shake-up in Calgary and reform in Toronto, where Mayor Rob Ford captured a staggering 47% of the vote in a town where The Globe and Mail is considered a right-wing propaganda sheet. Ford Nation, they called it.

There is no Harper Nation. After five-plus years in office, the Harper Conservatives have singularly failed to change the Canadian ideological landscape. Instead, Canadian politics changed the Conservatives. In power, they transformed themselves into another basely partisan party that willingly and even eagerly pandered to whatever the political three-ring circus put on display. This week’s budget, in which $2-billion in loose cash was promptly distributed to a score of special interests and political agendas, left in place a $40-billion deficit for 2010 and solidified a $100-billion increase in the national debt over five years.

What can Canadian conservatives, who favour less government, fiscal discipline and lower taxes, find in the Conservative record? Even if there is no genuine vast Ford Nation of Canadians who seek a major transformation in Canadian politics, a shift in direction from left to right, there are certainly large numbers of libertarians, free-market Tories, classical liberals, small-c conservatives and others who see the need for at least a micro-revolution in the objectives of Canadian politics. There must be something more to Canada than an ever-increasing role for governments, bureaucrats and politician to fill a constant demand for more and more government spending and intervention.

Instead of initiating that movement, the Harper Conservatives have merely entrenched themselves deeply into the existing framework. The government’s spending record — an increase of 40% in program spending over five years to $245-billion — is evidence enough. At the federal level alone, that spending now sits at more than $7,000 for every person in Canada, plus another $900 a year to pay interest in the federal debt. For every family of four, Ottawa now spends $32,000 — not counting pension redistributions.

A more meaningful indicator of the failure to establish a Harper Nation is the trend in government spending across all levels of government — the national spending culture. The table above shows how the culture of expansionist Big Government returned to Canadian politics within a year of the 1996 fiscal crisis and continued dramatically through the last five years of Harper conservatism. From $13,400 in 1997, the spending of federal, provincial and local governments per capita jumped to $18,000 last year, an increase of more than 33%

Note that these are not a parade of dollars bloated by inflation. These are constant dollars after inflation has been removed, which means that governments in Canada are spending $4,500 more for each person today than in 1997, or about $18,000 for a family of four. Total all-government spending today for a family of four exceeds $72,000 a year.

Do Canadians feel they are getting their money’s worth for all this spending — and all the taxation that is needed to feed the system? More importantly, do taxpayers want to continue supporting such a massive redistribution of wealth from their pockets to the pockets of others—or even back to their own pockets?

Unfortunately, this election will not answer that question. The Harper Conservatives have become part of an all-party consensus around the idea that the role of government is to expand to fill whatever void the political dream machine can produce. For conservatives and other Canadians who might want change, there appear to be no options.

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