Sunday, July 14, 2013

Stephen Harper Only Calls Himself A Conservative

I'm not entirely sure that what cloaks itself in the name Conservative these days is in fact "conservative" in any meaningful sense of the word.  So, when Maclean's published an article by Conservative organizer Ken Boessenkool entitled "Revealed: Stephen Harper Is Conservative. Really", I did a double take and read the thing a couple of times over.

As I would expect, Boessenkool has really written a cheerleading piece that is singing Harper's praises. It contains a lot of supposed accomplishments, but it conveniently overlooks the reality of many of Harper's policies and glosses over the consequences of those same policies.

Boessenkool goes through Harper's approach to things one piece at a time, and I will address my comments in much the same order.

Incrementalism...Harper, in contrast, focuses on small, incremental, doable policy. These policies don’t always reach a conservative destination but are, for the most part, important steps on the journey to that destination. And so conservatives celebrate the hundreds of ways in hundreds of days that small changes are made to immigration, grants and contributions, Employment Insurance, trade and so many others.Incrementalism is inherently conservative because conservatives wish (to be trite) to conserve. Conservatives are skeptical of large, government imposed, social change. They abhor “strategies” and grand schemes. They prefer to do things incrementally.
To the rest of the world, this is Harper's not-so-hidden agenda politics.  Harper's "incremental" changes started in 2006, and haven't slowed down much.  They started out with a series of blatant attacks on women and minority groups - cutting funding related to women's equality, axing the charter challenges program come to mind as particularly key starts of his "incremental" program.  

Later changes, such as the gutting of Statistics Canada's effectiveness by axing the long form census, gutting of Environment Canada programs which study climate change and muzzling of government funded scientists have made it clear that this is a government which does not make evidence based decisions.  

Changes to the seemingly ever-growing "Temporary Foreign Worker" program and to EI have solidified the direction of Harper's initial cuts in 2006 - the establishment of all-out warfare on the middle class in Canada.  

Undoers
Doing makes better copy than undoing. And so a second source of the commentariat’s confusion is that conservatives are are, or should be, undoers. As O’Rourke says, “We are participants in an enormous non-march… to demand nothing, that is, except the one thing which no government in history has been able to do – leave us alone.”
Early on, Harper managed to undo some fairly big initiatives of his predecessors. Anyone who has been in government knows that inertia is probably the most powerful force. And hence undoing bad policy ought to be hailed as a victory, a step forward, a conservative coup.
And so conservatives celebrate Harpers termination of the Kelowna Accord – that expensive, nebulous, expensive, open-ended, expensive, exclusionary, expensive, process laden and expensive deal concocted by the government of Paul Martin. The 2006 Conservative budget killed it. Dead. And Conservatives moved on to a number of modest, achievable, outcome-based (in a word, incremental) policy changes on the aboriginal front such as clean drinking water, education improvements and strengthened rights for women and girls on reserve.
What Harper did when he killed the Kelowna Accord was put aboriginal peoples in Canada on notice that he was going to slam them down even further than they already had been.  Is correcting the problems that exist in Canada with respect to our aboriginal peoples going to be cheap?  Of course not. You would have to be the village idiot to think that there was any kind of simple solution to a problem that had been a couple of centuries in the making.  The Kelowna Accord was the result of several years of negotiations between the governments involved - a long collaborative process.  What have we seen since?  A series of arbitrary changes imposed on Canada's First Nations, often without their consent or even the appearance of consultation.

Harper is an undoer alright.  He undoes anything that he didn't think of, without paying so much as the slightest bit of attention to whether or not there is merit in them.  He also demonstrates that he has absolutely no ability or desire to work with the stakeholders who are directly affected by his decision making processes.

Tax and Social Policy
But enough about incrementalism and undoing. Have the Harper Conservatives actually done anything conservative?
Yes.
Let’s start with the big ones – tax and social policy. Liberals maximize the number of decisions government makes for people while conservatives maximize the amount of decisions people make for people. Or as O’Rourke puts it,
There is no virtue in compulsory government charity, and there is no virtue in advocating it. A politician who portrays himself as “caring” and “sensitive” because he wants to expand the government’s charitable programs is merely saying that he’s willing to try do good with other people’s money.  Well, who isn’t? And a voter who takes pride in supporting such programs is telling us that he’ll do good with his own money – if a gun is held to his head.
And so Conservatives celebrate that, rather create programs that only benefit families whose children are housed in unionized institutional childcare, the Harper government gave money to all families with children to do as they saw fit. To do so, the Conservatives killed a $5 billion dollar underfunded unionized institutional child care program and replaced it with a $13 billion dollar program giving cash to all parents with children.
It’s hard to understate the magnitude of the philosophical divide here. Instead of deciding what kind of family choices should be rewarded with government largesse, the Conservatives created the largest new social program since medicare that left those choices to families. And while part of this is doing good “with other people’s money,” most conservatives would argue (even if O’Rourke doesn’t) that society has an obligation to support and promote child-rearing. But (like O’Rourke) I would argue that the conservative way to do so is to provide that support with minimal interference in the choices families make.
Conservatives celebrate tax reductions as good economic and good social policy – it puts more money in the hands of individuals and families, rather than government. While some purist libertarians may object to the social meddling of some of these tax cuts, the following are all cuts enacted by the Harper Conservative government. Reducing the GST from 7 to 6 to 5; reduction of the lowest tax rate; increases to personal exemptions; introduction of the Child Tax Credit; introduction of the Canada Employment Credit; and the introduction of the Arts and Sports tax credit
The total tax take of the federal government has been reduced from 16.3 percent of GDP when Harper took office to 14.0 percent today. That’s a 14 percent reduction in total revenues as a percentage of the economy, or $42 billion more in Canadian’s pockets. That’s a hundred bucks a month for every man, woman and child in Canada.
First, in reducing taxes Harper has not done Canadians as a whole any favours.  Instead, he has hamstrung the government's very ability to fund itself - evidenced by the fact that since Harper came to power, he has literally spent Canada from consistent budgetary surpluses which were being used to pay down debt and alleviate the infrastructure deficit that resulted from the austerity programs undertaken to clean up the mess left by Brian Mulroney - Harper's ideological predecessor in office.

Sure, it's nice to have a couple of dollars more in your pocket - it might buy the odd cup of coffee here and there.  What Boessenkool's analysis fails to recognize is that the bulk of those tax cuts do not benefit middle class Canadians.  Instead, they serve only to benefit the wealthiest Canadians and the corporations, and more of the burden of financing our government falls upon the middle and lower income levels as a result.

Reducing the GST from 7% to 5% is great PR - everybody prefers to pay less at the till.  But it is a short lived joy when it is discovered that the government has starved itself for cash to the point that programs which protect people when they have times of unemployment are not available to them, or that those same programs will force them into taking jobs far out of their fields of expertise rather than enable them to find appropriate employment.

Boessenkool's hostility to unions is palpable throughout the article, but I cannot leave it unremarked upon.  Under the assault that Harper and his government have waged on Canada's middle classes, organized labour suddenly finds itself with a very real purpose once again ... to fight back against the predations not only of exploitative employers, but also a government which is overtly hostile to the very concept that Canada's workers are in fact the backbone of the economy.

Foreign Policy
The other big one is foreign policy. For decades the Canadian government sought to be a middle power, a consensus builder and a follower. A sideshow in nearly all eyes but our own. The Harper Conservatives energetically turned the page on this approach. Harper took sides on the global stage openly, early and emphatically. Or as O’Rourke puts it, “This is the second wonderful thing about Zionism: it was right. Every other “ism” of the modern world was wrong about the nature of civilized man – Marxism, mesmerism, surrealism, pacifism, existentialism, nudism.”
And so conservatives celebrate the government’s hearty support for Israel on the international stage. They do so because Israel is a beacon of democracy and a functioning market economy surrounded by countries largely hostile to these things, on top of their hostility bred from varying degrees (from overtly hostile to aggressive) anti-Semitism. Conservative support for Israel has undoubtedly brought political dividends in a small number of ridings in Toronto, Winnipeg, Montreal and elsewhere. But there has also been a backlash among the much larger, albeit much less unified population that believes either this is the wrong side, or that we ought not to take any side.

I think if Mr. Harper and Mr. Boessenkool were to listen to Canadians as a whole, they would very quickly discover that Canadians as a whole aren't exactly in love with Mr. Harper's more aggressive approach to foreign affairs.

Where Israel is concerned, Mr. Harper has fallen into the trap of "to criticize Israel the state is to be anti-semitic".  His blind, unwavering support for Israel the state does Canada no good when the world looks on appalled at the way in which the state has fought against a two state solution as has been the mandated objective since Israel was formed - or at the very least since the 1967 war.  Blind support for a state that is doing to its neighbors as Israel is doing aggressively to the Palestinian people does Canada no good on the world stage.

Harper's approach to China has been no better.  Swaggering about, and lecturing China on human rights issues while still very much dependent on China's trade at a time when the US economy has been buckling is neither nuanced nor good foreign relations.

What people like Harper and Boessenkool fail to fully understand is that Canada's place on the world stage involves wielding soft power.  Canada is uniquely situated, with an enormous ability to influence the United States by virtue of both trade as well as geographic proximity.  We have historically had much more clout on the world stage because we are seen as the voice of reason in situations where the primary players are deeply polarized.

I know that what I'm going to say here is going to offend anyone who claims the mantle of "conservative".  Canada succeeds best on the world stage when it wields "feminine power".  What I mean here is that we do not have the raw mass in the room to play hardball - the simple reality is that we do not have that kind of muscle.  We succeed when we bring people together and build consensus (all of which are things typically discussed about the differences between masculine and feminine social patterns)

Canada is a major power in the world when we take nuanced, subtle positions.  Unlike what Mr. Harper and his ilk assert, this is not "fence sitting" at all.  It is the art of diplomacy at its highest - that of reading what the various parties in the world are saying, and then helping them to see where there is common ground.

Under Harper's foreign policy, Canada's stature in the world has been greatly diminished, and will likely continue to be reduced until he is removed from power and replaced by someone who understands what diplomacy really is.

Economic Stimulus
Some conservatives bemoan the Harper’s response to the global downturn. They point out that fiscal stimulus programs have a shoddy record of success, and in any event are hardly conservative. Or as O’Rourke puts it in a rare moment of wonkishness “In politics, as opposed to reality, everything is zero sum.” Better is his more un-wonkish statement that “Giving money and power to governments is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.”
Is there such a thing as a conservative stimulus plan? Following O’Rourke it would involve taking money from governments and giving it back to individuals – a tax cut. In economic terms it would be a tax cut that encourages spending. In terms of timing, it would occur at of just as the economy started to slide.
...
And so with this massive and exceedingly well-timed fiscal stimulus in place, conservatives do not fault the Conservatives for hitting the pause button. The 2008 Fall Economic Statement was that pause button. It had a few other items and what happened next is the subject of much speculation and a fair amount of lore, but the essential outcome for present purposes was this: the opposition parties held a gun to the minority Conservative government’s head demanding, among other things, a large stimulus package in the forthcoming budget.
The Economic Action Plan was the result.
In the circumstances, how conservative was the EAP? The International Monetary Fund analyzed Global stimulus packages announced “After the 2008 Crisis” (hence they did not include the prescient tax cuts noted above). These IMF analyses show the following:
  • Canada’s overall fiscal expansion in 2008, 2009 and 2010 was below the G-20 average, and well below that in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan.
  • Discretionary fiscal expansion in those years was also below the G-20 average, and well below that of United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, and Australia.
  • Canada’s Economic Action Plan was heavily weighted to infrastructure and support for housing and construction (Home Renovation Tax Credit). Both were pulled back following the downturn. In contrast, other countries relied much more heavily on social service spending (especially the United States) that is much more difficult to pull back and hence produced much more serious structural deficits.
  • Canada continues to have one of the most, if not the most, healthy balance sheet in the world.
And so, with a gun ever at their heads urging them to do more, the Conservatives delivered one of the more conservative fiscal packages in the developed world. Not the most conservative conceivable, but almost certainly the most conservative possible in the cirumstances.
Let's be abundantly clear about a couple of points here.  First, Harper had already spent Canada into a deficit position before the 2008 crisis.  Had Harper not been spending like a drunken sailor on enormous military contracts (none of which have been successfully procured yet, seven years on), Canada's balance sheet would be in much better shape than it is - without making wholesale and vicious cuts to programs that are in fact important, such as the Charter Challenges program.

Second, quite frankly much of the "Economic Action Plan" appears to have been spent on signage and giant cardboard cheques for photo-ops.  In other words, propaganda spending.

Perhaps more horrifying has been that Harper has moved away from the tradition of budget and accompanying implementation legislation and instead has chosen to wrap the budget up in enormous "omnibus" bills that do far more than support the government's budget.

Crime

Another conservative front that Conservatives have moved on is crime. While some conservatives of the libertarian bent cringe at some of these things, most conservatives believe that if you do the crime, you do the time. Or as O’Rourke puts it: “The second item in the liberal creed, after self-righteousness, is unaccountability. Liberals have invented whole college majors – psychology, sociology, women’s studies – to prove that nothing is anybody’s fault. No one is fond of taking responsibility for his actions.”
... Conservatives celebrate longer mandatory sentences instead of house arrest for serious crimes. 
Here is one of the fundamental areas where conservatives and social liberals diverge.  The conservatives under Harper seem to think that the justice system is all about punishment.  The greater the punishment, the better goes the rubric.  Of course, the flip side is the issues of rehabilitation, integration and so on.  Not to mention the exorbitant costs of running an ever expanding prison system. (as California has discovered - and very nearly gone bankrupt as a result)

What conservatives often argue is that stiffer sentences serve as a deterrent.  They do not.  The deterrent argument has never been borne out by statistics.  The fact is that sentences are the "price" that society deems should be exacted for a given crime.  We do that through incarceration - taking away someone's liberty.

Beyond that sentence, the issue remains one of making the offender an effective participant in the fabric of society.  If we fail to do that, then there is no chance whatsoever that there is any justice done - either on behalf of the victims of crime, or the criminal themselves.

Federalism

A final area where conservatives laud Harper’s approach is in the area of federal-provincial relations. One path to the conservative goal of a smaller government is for government to stick to its knitting. Conservatives are policy modest, liberals, not so much. As O’Rourke says, “The principal feature of liberalism is sanctimoniousness. By loudly denouncing all bad things – war and hunger and date rape – liberals testify to their own terrific goodness. More important they promote themselves to membership in a self-selecting elite of those who care deeply about such things.”
Policy modesty has played itself out in the areas of health care and education. On both, Harper has, shall we say, erected firewalls between the federal government and the provinces. The previous occupants of 24 Sussex regularly got tangled in federal provincial snarls. They would host big dinner parties (sometimes overnighters!) where ten premiers would collectively beat them up. No more. Other than in the area of research and federal unconditional transfers, Ottawa does not dictate, preach or harass provinces on how they should run health or education. Ottawa is no longer the voice of sanctimoniousness and unhelpful intrusions into health and education. Today the Council of the Federation – a body of provincial and territorial governments sans the federal government – meets regularly to discuss these issues on their own. As they should.
Speaking of sanctimonious nonsense, I cannot even begin to speak to how Mr. Boessenkool's position grossly misrepresents things.  Harper has simply dictated the terms upon which he will engage with the provinces and brooks absolutely no counterpoint.

If Mr. Boessenkool thinks that relations between Ottawa and the provinces are suddenly magically so much better under Harper, it's only because Harper doesn't actually pay any attention to the issues in the provinces, nor does he give a damn about whether programs like Health Care are equally available across Canada.

Harper's hostility to such programs is well known - rather than attack them directly, he is going after them by attacking them through incrementalism and deliberate neglect.

No, Mr. Boessenkool, the man you idolize as some great conservative is not a conservative.  He is a destroyer; he is a force which has brought Canada low in the world.  He has not preserved that which is good, rather he has moved to destroy much that is good, and has hamstrung the government's very ability to fund itself.

Further, Harper's willingness to follow the example of US Republicans in fomenting overt class warfare against Canada's Middle Class makes him not a conservative at all - at least not in any classical sense of the term.  It makes him a slave to big money corporatism.

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