One emergency at a time, please

Must-reads: John Ivison, Chantal Hébert, Dan Gardner, Jeffrey Simpson and Thomas Walkom, on the fiscal update.

Bad timing, at best
If you were as smart as Stephen Harper, then you’d know what he’s up to.

“There are valid reasons for the government to keep its powder dry” on stimulating the economy, Chantal Hébert argues in the Toronto Star—namely, that “in the absence of a definitive course from the new American administration, dealing with the crisis from Ottawa is a hit-and-miss affair.” But there was no valid reason to announce in yesterday’s fiscal update that political parties would be removed from the federal dole, she insists, suggesting such a move might better follow “a debate on electoral reform.” This is nothing more complicated than the Conservatives sacrificing the “goodwill in the House of Commons … on the altar of partisan self-interest,” she insists, which threatens to turn this parliament “even more toxic than its predecessors” at precisely the time it would be most damaging.

The National Post’s John Ivison, too, believes there’s a compelling case to be made to wean parties off the public teat, and insists “the Liberals only have themselves to blame for the fact that it still costs them 50¢ to raise $1 and that their donor base is only one-quarter the size of that of the Conservative Party.” But the timing, he argues, is indefensible. The public has “a reasonable expectation that Parliament should deal with one emergency before embarking on another,” he writes, “especially one of its own making.”

“How long can he get away with it?” asks the Ottawa Citizen’s Susan Riley. “How many major reversals, conflicting messages and nasty provocations … will Prime Minister Stephen Harper be allowed before Canadians decide they have had enough?” Interesting question, though we’d say Canadians are well accustomed to reversals and conflicting messages from the Liberal era. (The provocations, admittedly, have come thicker and faster since 2006.) The Prime Minister underestimates our intelligence, she argues, when he assumes that we’ll accept the “symbolic gestures” he’s offering towards cost-cutting at face value, rather than as “war room tactics,” and that we’ll “forget that, during the last election campaign, Stéphane Dion was honest about the prospect of deficits.” Hmm, that’s not quite how we remember the campaign… ah yes, here we go, Dion promised a Liberal government “will not cause a deficit, will not put Canada in a deficit.” Honesty and forthrightness personified!

The fantastical fiscal projections of the finance minister were bad enough, Don Martin writes in the Calgary Herald, but the funding cuts to political parties were yesterday’s “true horror”—an “epic mistake” that can only be rectified if Harper “does an uncharacteristic retreat” (which he has already). Even if the situation is ultimately defused, Martin asks, “where’s the win for Harper in this beyond appeasing a loyal Conservative base that may be unimpressed by his oncoming mega deficit?” We have no idea.

In the Post, L. Ian MacDonald declares the move “tactically brilliant,” which would have ranked as one of the sillier things he’s ever said even before today’s climb-down. That said, if the multifarious, Machiavellian genius of the gambit unfurls itself in the coming weeks and months, we’ll gladly apologize.

“As other countries roll out massive and dramatic economic rescue plans, rarely have more good Canadian trees been wasted on a document of less value than [Jim] Flaherty’s report,” Sun Media’s Greg Weston opines. Harper just won an election promising not to run a deficit, has spent the intervening weeks “talking about pending red ink as al but done,” and now his finance minister is “back projecting a budget surplus, albeit slim, for next year and into 2010,” based on ludicrously optimistic projections. “It is to laugh.”

The Star’s Thomas Walkom isn’t laughing, but weeping. And he’s no clearer than Weston on what Flaherty and Harper are playing at. As Walkom notes, Harper has of late “deliberately” and even “eloquently” abandoned the “Conservative balanced budget orthodoxy,” instead professing faith in economic stimuli. Flaherty’s fiscal update proposes exactly the opposite, Walkom notes—he’s urging Canadians to “tighten their belts” when the whole point of the current crisis “is to ensure that people keep their belts loose.” And that’s not just Walkom’s opinion. “If Harper meant what he said in Peru, it’s what Flaherty’s boss thinks too.”

The Globe and Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson sees the Flaherty-Harper disconnect as a product of “the tension between instinct and reality” within the Conservative party right now. Obviously a massive economic bailout offends many Tories, but internal polling conducted after the election showed, to their surprise, that Canadians “were cautious about deficits, but they did not reject them.” That, Simpson opines, is “exactly the tone Mr. Flaherty tried to adopt yesterday” in advance of a full-scale budget announcement in January.

Harper was “savaged” when he advised calm and stressed the fundamentals of the Canadian economy, Dan Gardner observes in the Citizen, and lauded when he jumped aboard the Great Depression bandwagon and declared the economic downturn “potentially as dangerous as anything we have faced since 1929.” It should have been the reverse, he says, because even the direst current unemployment projections top out at 9 per cent—which is considerably better than the 1980s recession and wholly incomparable to the 25 per cent figure commonly attributed to the Depression era. The OECD, meanwhile, predicts 7.5 per cent unemployment, which is what we had in 1999. “Does anyone else remember 1999? Peace and prosperity. It was a very good year.”

Any logical individual will cut spending and pay down debt in the face of a looming recession, Richard Gwyn notes in the Star, but that in turn hurts the economy. People need to be convinced to keep spending. As such, he is pleased to see governments are willing to spend massive quantities of money, and “try just about anything,” from bank bailouts to rescuing the Detroit Three to undertaking massive infrastructure programs, in order to inject “that most precious economic commodity of all—trust—back into the marketplace.”

Duly noted
“If anyone ought to be permanently welcome in [Robert] Mugabe’s Zimbabwe,” Colby Cosh observes in the Post, it should be Jimmy Carter, who, as president, insisted on “democratic principles” when it would have been more in “short-term U.S. interests” to live with the “power-sharing arrangements that preserved white dominance.” But Carter, Kofi Annan and Graca Machel Mandela were refused entry visas this week, Cosh notes, even as reports have cholera—“the sharp defining line between modernity and barbarity”—emerging as a serious threat in Zimbabwe. As such, Cosh applauds Carter’s “clarity” in “describing the country as a ‘basket case’ and an putting the blame firmly at the feet of Mugabe.”