Between the ossification of the New Democrats and the obfuscation of the Liberals, Canada’s opposition parties have a long way to travel before they threaten the Harper Conservatives.
And the Harper Conservatives won’t remain idle in the months ahead. They didn’t even wait 24 hours before launching their patented negative attack advertisements to disfigure the new Liberal Leader, Justin Trudeau, because this is how the Harper Conservatives do politics. They will continue to use taxpayers’ money to brag shamelessly on television about Canada’s Economic Action Plan. And Stephen Harper will put various ministerial warhorses out to pasture and bring into cabinet a crop of younger ministers, mostly female.
As for the opposition parties, they aren’t ready intellectually to defeat the Conservatives.
The NDP, the Official Opposition, keeps talking about renewal, but its ideas are rooted in the Ed Broadbent era: anti-free trade, skeptical of business and the free market, eager to pour borrowed money into social programs.
Consider as perfect “old think” the party’s plans to restore the 6-per-cent index for federal health-care transfers in three years, instead of allowing it to fall to inflation plus economic growth of perhaps 3.5 or 4 per cent.
This 6-per-cent approach flowed from the Romanow commission of 2002 and the subsequent Paul Martin accord with the premiers. It brought few improvements at a very high price, and thus only the intellectually infirm or ideological hidebound would propose repeating the mistake.
Or consider the party’s attitude to trade agreements. Again, the party is locked in the past, opposing them at every turn, unlike the social democratic parties of continental Europe and Britain. The party’s recent conference was awash with free-trade skepticism of the usual NDP variety.
In Scandinavia, the classic social democratic country there, Sweden, has blown open the delivery of publicly funded services in education, health care, daycare and pharmacies by allowing competition among the public and private sectors, something light-years away from NDP thinking. On too many issues, the NDP is rooted in the 1970s and 1980s and, as such, will be seen politically as too out of touch to govern.
The Liberals, for their part, are afloat on the persona of Mr. Trudeau and the vague clichés that lifted his leadership campaign. Such ideas as he presented were old chestnuts on which Ottawa has already chewed.
Education, a major theme of Mr. Trudeau, is vitally important, but Ottawa has a limited constitutional role in the field. Immigration, another favourite, is an area the Conservatives have worked on assiduously with record numbers of total immigrants entering Canada. As for the “middle class,” about which Mr. Trudeau speaks so often, who are the Conservatives’ mythical target voters if not the hockey moms and dads stopping for a coffee and a doughnut at a Tim Hortons? The Conservatives’ entire political ethos centres on luring these middle-class voters with tax bribes of every sort.
So if these are Mr. Trudeau’s preferred themes, as he said in an article for The Globe and Mail and in many of his campaign utterances, he’s going to find the political field awfully crowded. He certainly won’t gain any traction with what he has said thus far.
Both opposition parties reveal how frightened they are of certain core Conservative ideas. Both New Democrats and Liberals are deathly afraid of being labelled “tax-and-spenders.” Neither will contest the single stupidest of all tax policies introduced by the Conservatives: the reduction of the GST by two points, which costs the federal government about $12-billion a year.
Nor will they consider raising personal income taxes to pay for badly needed services, except for New Democrats who reflexively favour taxes on business and the “rich,” which, depressingly for the party, actually don’t provide all that much revenue, at least compared with what the uninitiated in tax policy convince themselves.
Judging by the opposition parties’ fear, the Conservatives have won the debate on taxes, and even on fiscal policy, since every party insists it supports a balanced budget – although why the Conservatives, given their record, should be accorded the upper hand on fiscal management remains a mystery.