Once again, a respected journalist has made the mistake of putting Prime Minister Harper in an ideological box. In “Conservatives preach the gospel but forget the chapters,” the Globe and Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson bemoans what he sees as the failure of North America’s conservatives to govern according to the ideological trinity of small government, lower taxes, and balanced budget. According to Simpson, conservatives talk a good game but, like all politicians, only get the easy part done—lowering taxes.
In fact, according to Simpson, the Harper Conservatives “squandered the [Chrétien] surplus… ran up big deficits and let the size of government grow, including the number of civil servants.”
Now, Jeffrey Simpson is a very good journalist who regularly points out the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of all political parties. So, without deep insight into the strategy of the government during its early years of the minority parliament, I’m not surprised that he arrived at this conclusion. Based upon what I know, however, the inconsistencies that Simpson identifies were not a result of weakness of character, but rather a political calculation.
You see, in the first couple of years of minority government, few Conservatives gave the party very long in power. The fear was that the government would be defeated quickly, as happened to Mr. Clark, and that the Liberals would be left with a huge surplus to spend on projects that would help them politically. Conservatives calculated, obviously too pessimistically, that the best way to keep the size of government down was to reduce the surplus through tax cuts. That way, if the government were defeated, the Liberals would have nothing to spend!
Russell Kirk once said that “a prudent statesman is one who looks before he leaps; who…knows that politics is the art of the possible.” Practicality always trumps ideology. Politicians need to be prudent. Now that the Conservatives have their majority, they can focus on reducing spending and the size of government as Minister Clement publically intimated during the Manning Conference earlier this month.
This next budget has the potential to be transformational. The government is hinting at changing some of the incentives to senior management in the public service so that they’re rewarded for reducing spending and the size of government (standard operating procedure in government today is to protect your budget).
So rather than lump all conservatives together in an ideological box, I think Mr. Simpson ought to wait until he sees the budget before judging. And, since Mr. Simpson is into biblical references, he might want to remember 1 Corinthians 4:5a: “Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time.”