Maxime Bernier unplugged

ANDREW COYNE: The Conservative member's recent "remarkable" speech surely must rule out any return to cabinet

That was a remarkable speech Maxime Bernier delivered the other day in Calgary. That is, it was an entirely unremarkable speech, the kind you would hear every other day in any normal democracy: a fairly pedestrian restatement of conservative principles by a leading conservative politician.

But in the Conservative Party of Canada, in its present moribund state, it counts as Luther’s 95 Theses. It must surely rule out any return to cabinet, if it does not lead to his outright expulsion from caucus, since it contradicts every line of current Conservative — well, I was going to say “policy,” but that’s not quite right, is it? Policy, after all, tends to proceed from some sort of underlying ideas or philosophy, and as we know today’s Conservatives have worked very hard to expunge those from their thoughts. Say “positioning,” then.

But back to Bernier. Consider, in particular, this passage:

One way to change the terms of the debate would be to announce that the government is not going to grow any more.

I know that we are going through some very difficult economic circumstances and that this is not a realistic proposal for the coming budget. But let’s try a thought experiment.

Last year, the federal government’s total expenses were about 250 billion dollars. You can do a lot of things with 250 billion dollars! From a historical perspective, it’s a gigantic amount of resources.

What if we decided that this is more than enough? That expenses are not going to grow anymore?

And I’m not saying zero growth adjusted for inflation and population or GDP increase. Just zero growth.

The overall budget is frozen at 250 billion. From now on, any government decision has to be taken within this budgetary constraint.

Every new government program, or increase in an existing program, has to be balanced by a decrease somewhere else.

We no longer have debates about how much more generous the government can be with this or that group, as if the money belonged to the government instead of taxpayers. The silent majority’s interests are always being protected.

The focus of the debate is shifting to a determination of priorities: what are the most important tasks for government to achieve with the money we have? Is this government function really important and should we have more of it? Then what should we do less or stop doing and leave in the hands of the free market, voluntary organisations and individual citizens?

That would be quite a change, don’t you think? A commitment to Zero Budget Growth could become a powerful symbol of fiscal conservatism, just like the “No Deficit” consensus was, to some extent, until the advent of the global economic crisis. But the consequences would be much deeper.

It would mean that every year, the relative size of government would be smaller. It would force politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists and everybody else to stop thinking that your salaries are just there to grab for their own benefit. And because of the budgetary constraints, Canadians would have a lot more confidence that we’re not wasting their money.

We have to convince people that we’re not simply aiming to be better managers of a bigger government; we are aiming to be better managers of a smaller government.

Smaller government?? What party does this guy belong to? Surely not the gang that increased spending by nearly 40% in four years? I can hear the opposition parties already: Does the PM believe in Zero Budget Growth? When will he repudiate these remarks?

UPDATE: And what’s this? Pierre Poilievre calling it a “brilliant speech”? So: the last four years, then. They’ve just been a bad dream?

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