The problem with ‘pragmatic’ conservatives

paulseditors-desk-picThe projected $90 billion deficit over five years envisioned by the Conservative government of Stephen Harper and announced by his finance minister in January is irresponsible on so many levels. After two years of a much-mocked policy of referring to new federal policies as being delivered by Canada’s “new government,” perhaps the branding of the new budget should be from Canada’s “new Keynesian government.”

The return to deficit spending is bad fiscal policy, because the infrastructure spending that is all the rage of politicians of all stripes, both in Canada and abroad, is hardly a proven remedy to today’s global financial turmoil. When John Maynard Keynes promoted such spending as the answer to the Depression, there were genuine infrastructure needs: roads, electricity, indoor plumbing, communications. The infrastructure “needs” of today are hardly analogous to the need to bring a higher standard of living and hygiene to the masses of the 1930s.

The federal government’s economic calculations are also irresponsible. Just over a month after the federal finance department speculated in its budget what the economy would be doing 12 months, two years and five years from now, predicting an $89 billion deficit over the next half-decade, a report from TD Economics said that economic growth is forecasted to be lower than expected, and thus the recession deeper and more costlier to deal with. That $89 billion deficit over five years will likely turn into $100-125 million in additional debt.

Which brings me to the third reason this new deficit spending is wrong: it is a tax on future generations of taxpayers, including those not yet born. This shouldn’t be surprising. In a country where the unborn are given no protection – an indication that public policy is indifferent to the next generation of Canadians – should we be surprised that our government doesn’t care about the future?

What is surprising is that this spending spree comes from the Conservative party. Stephen Harper, we were often told, is a fiscal conservative, someone who preaches from the libertarian economics books. Instead, the Harper Conservatives resort to 1980s-style budget deficits. And why? Political pragmatism.

In December, the opposition parties united in an unholy coalition in an attempt to thwart the democratically expressed will of the voters and grab power, complaining that the Conservative government was not doing enough about economic turmoil. In his December economic update, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty had not yet converted to the infrastructure-spending gospel. The Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois argued that government had to spend billions to protect jobs and turn the economy around. Public outrage over the proposed coalition forced Stephane Dion to step down as Liberal leader and vaulted Michael Ignatieff to the leadership. While the immediate danger of losing power appeared to have subsided, the Harper Conservatives dared not risk political maneuvering that would force another election or bring the opposition to power; he would deliver a budget that the left in this country would have to support.

It worked. The election was averted and the Tories remain in power.

Why rehearse this recent history? Because there is an important lesson. Political pragmatists will not only “adapt” to cater policy to changing circumstances. Too often, they will abandon core principles in exchange for power.

Social conservatism, we were told, is politically unpopular, so the Conservative party has to be “moderate” on issues of abortion and homosexuality, but it would offer a distinct alternative to the Liberals on economic matters. Now, in 2009, Stephen Harper turned back the clock to the 1990s, before the Jean Chretien government arrested Canada’s out-of-control spending and there appears to be little difference between the Paul Martin-Stephane Dion-Michael Ignatieff Liberals and the Harper Conservatives when it comes to government spending.

The ‘easy issues’

Years ago, Ian Brodie, then a professor of political science at the University of Western Ontario, introduced me to a conservative friend of his, saying, “This is Paul Tuns. He’s a conservative and not just on the easy issues.” That was Brodie’s way of saying that I was a moral conservative.

Later, Brodie would become Harper’s chief of staff and, although he left that job before the Conservative government would embrace Keynesian-style spending beliefs, I wonder what he would say of his erstwhile political boss today. “This is Stephen Harper. He’s not even a conservative on the easy issues.”

Another anecdote. A newly elected Republican Congressman was at an event with fiscally conservative business types. During dinner, talk turned to abortion and other social issues and it was revealed that the new Congressman was pro-life. When the Congressman left the table, his acquaintance, who remained behind, discovered that the businessman was pleased he was pro-life. As they explained, if he was willing to stand up on the difficult moral issues, he was more likely to remain steadfast in his defence of economic liberty, low taxes and less regulation. Indeed, a study of the GOP class of 1994 – the Contract with America Republicans who came to Washington with plenty of right-wing fire in their bellies – found that Congressmen who held socially conservative views were mostly likely to remain opposed to big government.

All this is to say that social conservatives are more likely to remain true to broadly conservative core beliefs when the pressures of political pragmatism suggest abandoning principles.

I’m not saying what the ideal size of government is or what the perfect level of spending should be. But small-c conservatives have every right to expect that their party adequately represents their views and provides a sufficient alternative to the Liberal and NDP way of doing things.

One of the better guarantors of that is to choose authentically and broadly conservative leaders.

John Tory

The Ontario Progressive Conservatives have twice chosen so-called “moderate” leaders – people who are socially liberal and supposedly fiscally conservative. In both 2002 and again 2004, the Ontario PCs chose the more “electable” moderate leader – Ernie Eves and John Tory – than risk selecting the more conservative, but supposedly less electable, alternatives (Jim Flaherty and Frank Klees). Eves won just 24 seats in 2003 when Dalton McGuinty won his first majority and Tory brought that total all the way up to 26 in 2007 when the unpopular McGuinty won re-election. Tory lost his own seat in Toronto, despite a three-year campaign to remake the party in his own image – that of the urban sophisticate.

John Tory marched in gay pride parades, was an honorary “distinguished patron” for the Queer Youth Video Project and publicly urged Stephen Harper not to re-open the same-sex “marriage” issue. Is that what a conservative leader does?

Of course not, but Tory was never a small-c conservative. He has been involved in the party for decades, but seems uninterested in actual conservative policies. Instead, he represents his downtown Toronto elite upbringing. When journalists lamented that he resigned the party’s leadership after a stunning by-election loss on March 5, they included an obligatory note about how he was a nice guy. That’s code for “he’s one of us.” He attends the same arts festivals, goes to the same garden parties and shares the same urban prejudices as big city editors and political reporters. That’s fine for him, but it was disastrous for the PCs, as they were unable to present a credible alternative to the Liberals or hold Dalton McGuinty responsible for his shoddy record over the past half decade.

John Tory led the wrong party. Indeed, he has admitted he doesn’t like being in opposition because he doesn’t always want to oppose the government. Fundamentally, he doesn’t disagree with the McGuinty Liberals. He is not opposed to their policies, but merely with how they are implemented.

Tory’s plan to fund religious schools gets the blame for the PCs loss in 2007, but polls showed the highly divisive policy was opposed by 60 per cent of Ontarians, which means that four in 10 voters still supported the idea. By comparison, the PCs garnered less than 32 per cent of the vote. In other words, the “unpopular” policy Tory promoted ran about eight points ahead of the party.

If the religious funding issue hurt John Tory, it was because he offered no other policies to differentiate his PCs from the Liberals. There were Liberals who supported the policy, but there was no other reason to switch over. Meanwhile, if a voter was strongly opposed to religious school funding, there was little reason to support the PCs over the Liberals – the two parties were essentially the same on the other issues.

The lesson for Ontario conservatives is not that religious school funding is an election loser, but that so-called electable moderates are politically ruinous. If the party insists on electing such leaders, they will be delivering the Liberals a permanent majority.

All of this is a plea for conservative parties to be conservative and for fiscal conservative types to understand that socially conservative politicians might make more effective leaders. They remain true to their core principles and galvanize voters by giving them a real choice on election day. Ronald Reagan won in 1980 and grew his majority in 1984, not by abandoning his conservative base, but by expanding it. Culturally and socially conservative Democrats voted Republican because Reagan spoke to them about the concerns they had about the moral direction of their country and drew a stark line in the sand to force voters to choose one vision over another.

Ian Duncan Smith, the former head of the Conservative party of the United Kingdom, says that conservative parties need to take into account a broad understanding of social justice (including family breakdown) as a way of reaching out to new voters. He told the Ottawa-based Institute for Marriage and Family Canada in March that this is possible without a massive growth of government. It sounds like a winning formula and one that conservatives at both the federal and provincial level should embrace: defence of traditional morality and concern for the disadvantaged within a framework of prudent fiscal management. It would provide a clear alternative to the Liberals and NDP, solidify the base and reach out to new voters.

More important, it would not only be politically expedient, it would be the right thing to do.