I have a friend who has the kind of stomach that doesn’t take to a variety of foods, including dairy. Every once in a while, she’ll eat something she knows probably won’t sit well, figuring maybe this time that milkshake won’t be so bad. Experiencing an unfavourable reaction, she’ll get back on her usual diet.
This, in a nutshell, is how federal politics play out in Canada. Every once in a while we vote for the Conservatives.
Feeling sick to our stomachs, we go back to the Liberals. After some time has passed – and figuring maybe this time it won’t be so bad – we try electing another Conservative government.
The Joe Clark experiment was short-lived, sandwiched by the presence of Pierre Trudeau. As with the inexplicable two terms for George W. Bush, we twice voted for Brian Mulroney, before regretting it and reducing the party to a pair of seats in the election that brought Jean Chrétien to power. After 13 years of Liberal rule, we voted
Conservative in large enough numbers to make Stephen Harper the head of a minority government.
In that abbreviated summation of the past four decades, a pattern emerges. I find it useful in trying to put the current campaign in perspective. And it’s why we should avoid a Harper majority: It’s a good idea to avoid the pain that would follow.
Our problem with Conservative governments boils down to ideology: deep down, we don’t like what they’re selling. It’s the same reason most of us, if we had a vote, would support Democrats and not Republicans in U.S. elections.
Again, there’s a simple pattern to be found. Right-wing governments tend to cut spending on things we benefit from, spend on things we don’t, run deficits, privatize assets to the benefit of a few supporters and deregulate where a watchful eye is needed.
And that doesn’t even address the distasteful fundamentalist positions and social conservatism, which have crept into Canadian politics courtesy of the Reform movement.
Let’s just stick with the basics. Mulroney’s governments ran up massive deficits during good times, introduced the GST and free trade despite public opposition and spent money like sailors on shore leave, all the while widening the gap between rich and poor. The same scenario played out with other so-called fiscal conservatives at the time, most notably Ronald Reagan in the U.S. and Margaret Thatcher in the U.K. It was only successive centre-left parties – the “tax and spend” crowd – that balanced the budget and restored economic health to their countries: Chrétien’s Liberals here, Democratic president Bill Clinton and Labour’s Tony Blair.
It’s no coincidence that the current economic turmoil originated from the U.S. under Bush: The massive deficits, debt spiraling past $11 trillion and deregulation frenzy combined to bring us where we are today, handcuffing Bush’s successor Barack Obama.
Harper supporters decry the comparisons to Bush. Frankly, there are too many similarities for our comfort level, this being Canada. Even in the absence of the worst fundamentalist abuses and the attack on civil liberties, the economic crisis has clearly revealed the right’s greatest weakness: laissez fair economics.
You can accuse Bush of having being a not-too-bright puppet, with Cheney and his ilk running things in the U.S. Here, however, Harper is a one-man show. An economist by training, he should know exactly what can, and does happen under the kind of market system he’s advocated for years.
Deregulation is a mantra on the right. That may change in the wake of the financial sector meltdown, as some analysts are calling it the end of the cowboy capitalism that’s thrived under the Bush administration. Unfettered by bothersome rules, the industry spun evermore intricate financial instruments, greed making everyone ignore that the system had become a house of cards. Banks are folding, not just in the U.S. but overseas as well, under a mountain of bad debt. Canada’s banking system weathered the storm largely because the mergers and deregulation demanded by the industry were disallowed by previous Liberal governments. The situation here might have been much grimmer today if a Conservative government had been at the helm a decade ago.
In an election that was called for no other reason than Harper hoping the time was right for a shot at a majority, the financial crisis comes in time to shine a spotlight on his party’s economic shortcomings. He argues we need a steady hand on the tiller in turbulent times. Problem is, he’s steering us the wrong way.