The Harper budget: Always leave 'em wanting more

PostMedia columnist Michael Den Tandt is still struggling with last Thursday’s budget, which was a good deal less earth-shaking than one of his columns a couple of weeks ago predicted. This is to Den Tandt’s credit: many writers would have forgotten what they predicted and moved on, new day dawning, without a fuss. But why was it such a middle-of-the-road budget, given that a Conservative majority could pass whatever it wished?

Den Tandt indulges apocalyptic speculation:

At what point do red-meat conservatives, and Conservatives, begin to wonder if their chosen political vehicle has become all that it once despised? When do they grow tired of being taken for granted, while the Harper government curries favour with retired teachers, fans of the Canada Council and the like?

Harper “is beginning to look a lot like Chrétien, policy-wise” and “At what point do the most stalwart Conservatives… start thinking about making the Wildrose Alliance a federal party?”

I’m going to guess “not yet.” But Den Tandt is hardly alone. Ezra Levant didn’t like the budget either. And at Hy’s, before everything went weird the other night, a veteran former member of this government confessed to me that he was disappointed with this budget’s timidity. “I hate to agree with Andrew Coyne, but…”

Any one of three things could be happening here. The first is that Stephen Harper is a great big chicken, buck buck buck-AW. I throw that out for discussion. I don’t believe it.

I think it’s a mix of the second and third things. The second thing is that Harper has an overriding strategic objective, not too dissimilar from the one he faced when he was first elected. In 2006 he had to bury the notion that once Conservatives won government they would bring in wrenching and radical change most Canadians could not stomach. In 2012 he must bury the notion that once Conservatives won a majority they would bring in wrenching and radical change most Canadians cannot stomach.

So maybe it’s more effective to boil the frog: incremental change over time. This view contradicts the classic rule of thumb, that a newly-elected majority government gets a year, two tops, to do its fancy stuff before it must start preparing for the next election. That’s how Reagan and Mike Harris rolled. But what if Harper shaved a bit off expectations every year? Then projections of direct federal spending would look the way they have looked in the last three budgets: a bit more fiscally conservative with every pass. (Linked graph courtesy of Globe Economy Lab economist Stephen Gordon.)

Note that the latest budget, passed with a stable majority, continues a trend set by the last two, even though the 2010 budget and the first draft of the 2011 budget were brought in by a government that was supposed to be highly unstable because it commanded only a minority in the Commons. Spending projections get a shave every year. Soon enough the billions add up. If Harper could do that job during the last years of a minority madhouse, he can do it during the middle years of a majority, greatly aided by the monumental inattention of most observers. And he’ll be helped in that incremental conservatism if he avoids a centre-left backlash while leaving conservative itches perpetually unscratched.



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