Montreal, January 15, 2011 No 285

 

Gerry Nicholls is a writer and political consultant.

 

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Pity Canada's political orphans*

 

by Gerry Nicholls

 

          Let's take some time to pity this country's political orphans.

          I am talking about those Canadian voters who could be described as "economic conservatives," individuals who support lower taxes, smaller government, less regulation and prudent fiscal policies. These are voters without a home; without a voice.

 

          Their numbers include libertarians who philosophically support minimum government, businesspeople who see less intrusive bureaucracies and lower taxes as good for commerce, and mere citizens who want government to live within its means.

          At one time, economic conservatives represented an important voting bloc, at least for "right of centre" parties. Economic conservatives, for instance, were an important component in the winning political coalition Ronald Reagan put together in 1980s America.

          Canadian politicians wooed economic conservatives, too. Former prime minister Brian Mulroney, for example, specifically pursued their votes when he made freer trade with the United States the key issue in the 1988 federal election.

          Then there was former Ontario premier Mike Harris who targeted economic conservatives with the fiscally conservative planks in his "Common Sense Revolution." And even the supposedly big government Liberals under former prime minister Jean Chretien, had these voters in mind when they balanced the budget and cut taxes in the late 1990s.

          However, the days of catering to economic conservatives are over. It's a trend that started in the United States.

          In the 2000s, Republican president George W. Bush, who tellingly called himself a "compassionate conservative," implemented economic policies that both bloated the size of government and massively increased the federal deficit. This was hardly the kind of leadership economic conservatives desired.

          Yet, Bush didn't care. He was putting together a political coalition that excluded economic conservatives, but which did include the Christian Right, foreign policy hawks and those Americans concerned about the threat of international terrorism.

          This required a strategy which put economic policies on the back burner, but which stressed instead a strong military and an aggressive foreign policy.

          Here in Canada the governing Conservatives have embraced a modified version of the Bush formula.

          Like Bush, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has essentially thrown economic conservatives under the bus. During his term in office he has engaged in spending sprees, chalked up enormous deficits, increased the size and scope of government and even embraced Trudeau-style economic nationalism.
 

"Like Bush, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has essentially thrown economic conservatives under the bus. During his term in office he has engaged in spending sprees, chalked up enormous deficits, increased the size and scope of government and even embraced Trudeau-style economic nationalism."


          At the same time, Harper is also actively trying to woo voters who are more concerned about security than they are about the country's fiscal state.

          That's why he is building up the military, ordering new prisons, and enacting a plethora of "tough on crime" laws.

          The upshot of all this is that no major political party in Canada, not the Conservatives, not the Liberals and certainly not the NDP, is currently championing economic conservative policies.

          As a result, a political vacuum exists, at least as far as fiscal conservatism goes.

          In the U.S., this vacuum was filled by a non-political party―The Tea Party Movement. The Tea Party, after all, was, at least originally, made up primarily of economic conservatives fed up with the fiscal incompetence of both Republicans and Democrats. Simply put, Tea Partiers were angry with the government's massive spending, with the deficits and the bailouts. Could a Canadian-style Tea Party movement emerge here?

          Probably not yet; the dynamics are just not right. While Canadian economic conservatives may be disappointed in Harper, they like the Liberal alternative even less. And besides, many of them still hope that if Harper ever wins his elusive majority government, he will then embrace truly conservative economic policies. Hence, they won't be taking to the streets anytime soon.

          But that doesn't mean economic conservatives are happy. Indeed, they are waiting and hoping for a political champion to emerge, a leader who will speak up for smaller government, lower taxes and individual freedom.

          Maybe Harper will one day shift his focus and become that leader, or maybe it will be somebody else, like former Tory cabinet minister Maxime Bernier. Or maybe such a leader will never emerge.

          All that can be said for certain is that Canada's political orphans need a home.

 

* This article was first published in The Ottawa Citizen on January 8, 2011. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of its author.