The Red Tory in me knows that there are times and places for Government to be the institution that mobilises resources for a large-scale common good. Most Government programmes, however, do not pass this test: they are simple transfers of wealth from the majority of us to a minority of us. These must go! — for choices will increasingly need to be made.
If there is one thing that the Chrétien, Martin and now Harper years have demonstrated, it is a singular lack of vision. Give Trudeau and Mulroney their due: both were fixated on what the business world calls “big hairy audacious goals”. Whether we have benefitted as a nation by these obsessions is not the subject for today. Both of these former Prime Ministers wanted to accomplish their goals; they subordinated much else to these (which means there is no shortage of real criticism possible for their years in power), and ultimately both finished as permanently unelectable despite their legions of adoring fans who to this day gladly defend them. (Proof of the assertion that Trudeau and Mulroney had visionary goals and drove toward them is that Clark, Turner and Campbell simply disappear from view, as those in the shadows often do.)
Chrétien (I must be in a charitable mood today) ran a government driven by reacting to events. The deficit and accumulated debt hit the point of unsustainability? Oh, well, I guess we’ll do something about it. Québec came within 0.5% of a referendum result to chart a course toward independence? Oh, well, I guess we’ll do something about it. So it went with Chrétien: a long list of promises, seldom kept, and a pattern of letting events unfold. His years in office were ultimately about le p’tit gars being in office.
Martin, too, suffered from “I’m here because I’m here” syndrome, typified by his penchant for everything being a top priority (and therefore nothing other than surviving at the top of the dung hill for another day was a priority). When he asked us, in his last election battle, to “Choose Your Canada”, we did. We wanted one with some sense of vision and purpose.
Alas, despite a good start — and a decent track record of “things done” — the Harper Government has also failed dismally to articulate a vision and a reason for its existence, beyond “it’s not the other guys”. I tend to support the Conservative Government, but not reflexively: I do believe we need (as a nation) to regenerate the Liberal Party after years of neglect and mismanagement under Trudeau, Turner, Chrétien, Martin and Dion. They must seriously rethink their purpose. Policy must be more than a book of line items: where is the overarching vision? What elements of our past must we now move away from; which should be the centrepiece of what is brought forward? None of this is being done; until it is, my view as an elector is “anyone but a Liberal”. Enough of tactics and expediency!
That, of course, is the message I would give Mr. Harper, too. “Enough of tactics and expediency!” I would, for instance, have hoped for a healthy dose of fiscal conservativism, grounded in the notion that tax monies are our monies, not “the Government’s”, and should be minimised to return them to their rightful owners. As with, for instance, the whole day care plan issue: “here’s money; you decide how best to use it” rather than “here’s your program and you’ll learn to love it”. (Even better, of course, would be “we’re cutting taxes here so that you can decide if day care is one of your priorities” — no money in, no cheque out — but it will take a very long time to wean Canadian lips from the teat of the State.)
We haven’t had a vision. We’ve had one tactical manoeuvre after another, designed to appeal to this or that, or to get a credit with some small voting bloc for this or that, but we haven’t had a vision.
Within the Conservative Party, of course, there are those with a vision. Some of these have visions I do not support; indeed, actively oppose. That’s all right, because national political parties capable of reaching Government must, of necessity, be big tents: there will be no shortage of people with whom to disagree, even abhor, from time to time. The question is “is this a side note to a vision of the party tout court, or is it what passes for the party’s vision in the absence of having laid one out”? Harper’s Government is perilously close to having its minority views substitute for a vision due to the lack of one.
Despite having had my dalliances over the years with other alternatives — and I do think that if the NDP were to get the stick out and acquire a real vision it might do well enough to actually contend for government rather than for “Best Opposer, 20xx” — I come back to my conservative roots and thus the Conservative Party in its various incarnations over the years because, often, their tactics in the absence of vision are closer to my own views than others. The lack of vision, however, rots this at its core. Expedient actions and tactical manoeuvres don’t add up to anything other than “return me to office” — and in the meantime burden Canada with yet more reasons not to get up off its collective ass, turn the idiot box off, and fend for itself.
We’re going to have to learn again how to do that. Big Government, big programmes, massive transfers are all creations of cheap energy. Cheap energy is going, going, gone, never to return. With its passing into history, the “big structures” it created: massive corporations, national-scale unions, and huge government bureaucracies, are all going to find themselves also headed toward the rubbish tip of history.
A Canadian Conservative Government of vision would be starting to position us for exactly that. It would dismantle programmes of little merit. It would transition us out of them in the way that the pending debacle of “national day care” would have immobilised the country’s wealth and future growth was transitioned away from: most people are much happier with their cheque than with a programme. Then a tax cut can clean up the cheques. Putting resources where they belong — generally as close to the coalface of decision-making as possible — is a sound application of the principle of subsidiarity.
So, too, getting out of the way of the provinces: our provinces should be laboratories for public policy. They ought not only to reflect local conditions and local affordability, they ought to be able to experiment with “what is enough” and “how to do this” in their own domains.
In the meantime, there are elements of national infrastructure in need of repair. A dependence upon road traffic must come to an end: we must invest in alternatives. A mass investment programme of that nature — to be done in a short period of time — is a proper use of government (and then you get out of the business as the economics of operation start to change).
A vision of a sustainable Canada whose prosperity is not based on incessant “growth” obtained by strip-mining the world’s affordable resources could very well be a vision for 21st century Conservativism. But it won’t happen if the Conservative Party doesn’t stop mucking about with tactical voting bloc slicing and marginal riding dicing and instead lay out an integrated vision.
Right now no party offers that sort of visionary umbrella and a set of integrated policy proposals to put meat on the vision’s bones. A free prediction: those that do so first will benefit greatly at the polls (and electoral turnout will jump upwards at that election).
You would change Canada so Canadians stop whingeing and waiting for “Government to do something”? You would make us a centre-right nation rather than a centre-left nation? Where’s the vision to rally the country around?
We are who we are because a string of leftist leaders did exactly that. One of them — Pearson — even did so through two minority governments, and “scandals” far more invasive to his agenda than anything being raised in Ottawa today. All it took was vision, and the courage to stake everything on selling that vision.
Do you have what it takes, Mr. Harper?