Look closely, U.S. conservatives: Harper’s not a new Thatcher

Posted on in Governance Policy Context

TheGlobeandMail.com – Globe Debate
Sep. 29 2014.   Konrad Yakabuski

Canada used to be the poster country for The New York Times. The urban American liberals who wrote for and read The Times envied our progressive social values, our public health-care system, our racial harmony and our decision to stay out of George W. Bush’s war in Iraq.

Their infatuation with Canada began to wane, however, some time after Stephen Harper became Prime Minister and the oil sands started making nasty international headlines. They felt so betrayed. That island of progressivism to the north was melting faster than the Arctic sea ice.

That’s when The Wall Street Journal decided us worthy enough to become its BFF. The bible of American business loved the way we flaunted our fossil fuels. The motley crew of economic libertarians and military interventionists who compose The Journal’s editorials decided the world needed more Canada – as long as it was run by Mr. Harper.

Compared to Barack Obama’s fixation on providing health insurance for the poor, stemming climate change, wooing Iran, soaking the rich and pursuing multilateralism over unilateralism, Mr. Harper looked to Journal types like the real deal – a Thatcherite in Canada Goose clothing.

Mr. Harper has been basking in the flattery. A Prime Minister barely on speaking terms with this country’s media lets his helmet hair down when he’s in the company of his foreign groupies.

So it was last week when Mr. Harper sat down in New York for an hour-long Q & A session with Journal editor-in-chief Gerard Baker, a Brit hand-picked by Rupert Murdoch who was once described by The Times’ David Carr as a “neo-conservative columnist of acute political views.”

“Have you changed Canada?” Mr. Baker indulgently asked. “Is it a more conservative country? Is it a country that values, more now than it did before you came in, the private sector? Business that is more conservative in outlook, and in sensibility, and in character?”

“Well, you know, I like to think so,” Mr. Harper replied. He described his incremental approach to reducing taxes and stiffening penalties for criminals. He played up the appeal of these policies to new Canadians. “So, look, I think we’ve moved and the country has moved with us.”

Really? If American conservatives looked closely, they’d discover that the Prime Minister is not such a conservative after all, at least not in The Wall Street Journal meaning of the word. He talks a good game and his personal convictions undoubtedly skew right. But he governs in that great Canadian tradition of pragmatic meddling. The state is no less involved in our lives. In some ways, it’s become more interventionist.

Would a true conservative have riddled the Income Tax Act with a bevy of small-ball tax credits, pandering to selected voters, distorting markets and engaging in social engineering?

Would a true conservative spend vast sums of taxpayers’ money to build and fill new prisons when crime rates are falling, yet let defence spending shrivel to barely 1 per cent of GDP?

Would a true conservative have bailed out GM and Chrysler? At least Mr. Obama earned a nice return on his investment as the U.S. auto sector booms. Canada’s continues to shrink.

Yes, Mr. Harper’s budget deficits have been relatively smaller than Mr. Obama’s. But that’s because Canada was not hit as hard by the recession – for reasons that had little to do with Mr. Harper’s economic policies. The return to a balanced budget has been driven by strong revenue growth, not European-style austerity.

True, Mr. Harper has not raised taxes. He hasn’t had to. The heavy lifting, when it comes to shrinking federal expenditures as a share of the Canadian economy, was set in motion under Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin. All Mr. Harper has done is push the cruise control button.

Mr. Harper has played the same subsidy game, too. He has maintained a slew of Liberal regional and industrial development slush funds – and created new ones of his own, including the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario. That’s on top of his Automotive Innovation Fund and Sustainable Development Technology Canada.

And remember, this Prime Minister blocked the purchase of Potash Corp. by a capitalism-practising Australian company but embraced the purchase of Nexen Inc. by a Chinese state-owned corporation.

Conservative, Mr. Harper? Mrs. Thatcher might even call him a “wet.”

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