The rise of the Conservative nanny state



When I wrote my most recent cranky, cranky column for the print magazine — whose thesis is that Stephen Harper so thoroughly despises Parliament and all the… the… people in it that he cannot stand to make the place function — a few commenters replied, in effect, that this was excellent news. A Conservative’s goal should be minimal government, they said. One way to achieve minimal government is, simply, to jam a stick between the spokes.

“Can’t one ‘care about the economy’ even if one doesn’t ‘believe… any government can do anything to affect its course’?” wrote David Mader (whose own blog is a thoughtful home for this sort of sentiment) in our comment board. “Indeed, isn’t the core premise of free-market conservatism that because government can’t really affect the economy’s course, those who really care about it should simply leave it alone?”

Sure. Great. Fine. Whatever. Have at it, brother. Except here’s the funny thing. The problem with Stephen Harper’s recent approach — I’m thinking roughly since smilin’ Guy Giorno came in with a mandate to make the operation “more political” — is that it is so shatteringly inept as to fail consistently to produce any coherent result, including the result the party’s own best advocates might desire. Which is why Colleague Coyne is in such a snit this morning. Having painted himself, all full of swagger and bravado, into a corner, the prime minister is now going to walk out on a carpet of tax dollars. Bail out the auto industry? That was last week’s concession. Now it’s forests and mines. And that cutting-edge sector of the future, boats, under the stewardship of every small-government conservative’s favourite freshly-minted Atlantic Gateway minister. In this context, it is poignant that some of Harper’s defenders still seem to believe the fight is about public funding for political parties. That one didn’t last 48 hours, and that time it was John Baird, who at least likes to play a small-government conservative on TV, who got sent out to swallow the government’s policy whole.

This, then, is the difference between the Mark I Harper, circa 2002 to 2008, and the shiny new malfunctioning Harper T-1000: the old guy used to calmly choose his concessions to statism (supply management? You bet! A bridge for every riding in Quebec? Sure!), whereas the new one blunders into one crisis after another and then uses the Money Gun to fight his way out. Deficits are “essential,” he said in Peru. Not so much to save the Canadian economy, it turns out, as to save his own political shanks.

If the fall update had contained fewer irritants, trivial in dollar amount but lovingly designed to infuriate the opposition parties and their client groups, it could have built the case for principled, effective dissent from the Keynesian orthodoxy driving most Western governments’ response to the crisis. Harper could then perhaps have looked like Angela Merkel, whose reassuring blandness is not merely a fleeting campaign-ad affectation and who, in a polity designed to produce ever-precarious parliamentary coalitions, has managed to set a markedly different course from the rest of panic-spending Europe. Instead Harper went in like Moe from the Three Stooges. And as a direct result, everything he is so proud of defending — the cuts to party funding, the dissent from deficit spending, the sink-or-swim approach to economic management — is falling away.

On his own blog a while ago, David Mader asked how come Liberals are celebrated for being jerks (Jean Chrétien) whereas this Conservative prime minister is pilloried for it. Here’s one answer. While indulging his inner jerk, Chrétien achieved what Liberals wanted. To pay the price for his inner jerk, Harper is about to deliver what Liberals want.

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