Which Will Be Better: ‘Real’ Conservativism or Incrementalism?

Gerry Nicholls, in his National Post article yesterday, took issue with incrementalism, something repeatedly described by Tom Flanagan in his Globe & Mail pieces. The question is: what would be better for Canada?

Many Canadians self-describe as “liberal” (in the small-“L” sense) or “progressive”. What is often meant by this is that they have a concern for fairness, for a high degree of social freedom, and for government to act to “improve” things. During the Harper Government’s first term, a generally incrementalist programme was unfolded: many small initiatives to inch toward some of the items Canadians of one or another conservative (in the small-“C” sense) stripe would like to see, while maintaining enough behaviour that is recognisable as “centrist” in the sense of small-L liberalism. Hence the spending sprees alongside the minor tax credits and GST reductions, the child care allowance, and the like.

It is probably true that this self-defined culture amongst Canadians requires a slow, steady approach to change. There is, after all, nothing inherently “right wing” about making choices about which programmes to have and how much funding should be applied to those that are kept/initiated, just as there is nothing inherently “left wing” about wanting every need to be met. (It is how it tends to line up in this country: south of the border, of course, it has been the “right” that has championed the greatest expansion in entitlements, bailouts and deficit financing to avoid making choices in the history of the United States. This is one of the reasons I find the equation belovèd of some Liberals, NDPers, Blocquistes and Greens that “Harper = Bush” so risible. Never let a lack of respect for the evidence get in the way of a convenient catch-phrase!, eh?)

What Gerry Nichols argued for yesterday was a turn to ‘real’ conservativism: fiscal discipline, tax cuts, programme elimination. I also argued for this yesterday: in particular, we will need the fiscal capacity — both in the hands of (here comes that phrase so loved by New Democrats!) ordinary Canadians and to have the ability to make choices for the future. In other words, if we do not clear out the dross, we cannot find the space to do a good job on what the future will require.

Note, in passing, how both Premiers that spoke up yesterday on their province’s economic situation reflect the small-L “I don’t have to make choices” attitude. For the McGuinty Government in Ontario, there are no decisions to restrain spending needed, as deficit financing is deemed acceptable rather than having to make choices either for today or tomorrow. In British Columbia, the Campbell Government promises minor tax cuts and savings and no deficit, although no sense of either what the future might require nor anything meaningful emerged from the semi-snarling lips of the Premier forced to recall the Legislature against his will.

Canadians elect governments to govern. In that sense, if fiscal conservativism is a part of the Conservative Party’s credo, it ought to be implemented. (I certainly stand with Nicolls that, in this regard, incrementalism does not achieve the objective.) Further, as I posted yesterday in my piece on tax cuts, large bites should be taken (not these penny-ante moves of Gordon Campbell: $140.00 reduction on a $70,000 income? Really? Anyone going to even notice that?) forcing a thorough house-cleaning of dead programmes (and dead thinking) so as to move forward without barnacles and boat anchors from the past tied to the ability to move into the future.

Now, I know Gerry Nicholls is also the type of conservative who holds as well with a socially libertarian outlook: in this realm, the government that governs best governs least. Where we may disagree is with the what to do next with the fiscal capacity that is created: I would hold that our current global economic situation is in large measure a result of a sea change in the availability of cheap (to produce) energy, and that the downward movement in the price of oil is a blip in a long term upward trend. As a result, Canada needs a 21st century infrastructure suited for a country with a surplus of geography, and an ever-restricting set of options for transportation and linkages to hold it together. So I (Red Tory that I am) would invest appropriately; Nicholls might well be satisfied with the simple return of tax monies to their originators.

What that means is that the house-cleaning must go deeper than the tax cuts — and that the tax cuts must be deep enough to not only make a difference by creating new non-bank capital for use but also to trigger a redefinition of the choices we make as Canadians. This implies angering just about every interest group, every Premier, every vested interest in the country. But the era of expecting a hand-out rather than solving problems locally must end, for, in the near future, it will be unaffordable. The economic crisis is intensified by bad policy decisions, but its causes are fundamental: in short, unbridled expansion is no longer an option. The tide may hold steady or it may fall, but it will not routinely rise to allow every new idea for something or other to be entertained without simultaneously saying “so what do we stop to pay for this”?

Would the Government survive? It may well not: Canadians are human, and human beings are notorious for avoiding reality in favour of dream states. But some things need doing, and need to be said. Doing the right thing in the face of adversity is the mark of leadership.

It is time to stop rearranging the deck chairs on the Canadian “Titanic” and start dealing with Iceberg Alley, for we are in the thick of it, and the weather is from the North tonight.

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