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Jeffrey Simpson

When ideological purity goes out the window Add to ...

The Harper government is a minority one. It hasn't gone anywhere except slightly down in public esteem since the last election. So it can't afford to jeopardize the seats it has, such as those in Saskatchewan.

Approving BHP Billiton's takeover of Potash Corp. would have risked those seats. When 85 per cent of the people of Saskatchewan, half the country's chief executives and all the Prairie premiers are against you, a government would have been bordering on politically mad to allow the sale.

But what about the free-market ideology this government is supposed to espouse? What about that business of scaring off foreign investment?

Almost everywhere in the Western world, divided government is the rule, and divided governments can seldom be ideologically pure. France is perhaps the exception. There, one party controls the presidency and the National Assembly. It took that kind of control to push through what, by international standards, was a modest, long-overdue pension change to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. If France's government had been divided, chances are that no such reform would have passed.

Individual country circumstances, or the nature of the political systems, produce divided or coalition governments. So does economic disappointment, as people search desperately for politicians who can do something, anything.

Split governments always happen in countries with proportional representation. Coalitions then emerge, as in Sweden, New Zealand and Germany. Minority governments currently exist in Australia, Britain and Canada, although Canada is governed without a coalition. After the U.S. midterm elections, the constitutional division of powers has deepened, with the Republicans controlling the House and the Democrats the Senate and the White House. Mexico has one party in the presidency and another running Congress.

Britain's Conservative-Liberal coalition took office facing a ghastly fiscal mess. It has hung together in proposing very tough cuts and tax increases. That kind of firmness is the exception rather than the rule for minority, divided or coalition governments.

Minority governments generally do better at getting along. By virtue of their internal dynamics of compromise, they tend to be pragmatic. Ideology doesn't rule them; political survival does. The potash decision reflects this reality. But the wider challenge of our time is how to scale down the deficits and accumulated debt incurred in the recession and its aftermath.

Projections are for slower growth than before the recession. Deficits are large, debts are growing and populations are aging. So there has to be a scaling back of the state and/or tax increases, neither of which is easily done in the real world (as opposed to the ivory towers of editorial offices and classrooms). Right-wing populism offers an easy set of answers - until complex reality crashes those hopes.

You could see this dynamic in the successful Republican assault on President Barack Obama. The Republicans are all for tax cuts and lower spending, except their actual proposals for reducing spending are risibly small. Read the editorial tub-thumpers at The Wall Street Journal and other podiums of Republican orthodoxy; they're long on rhetoric but painfully short on plans.

The U.S. is entering an acute state of political paralysis at the very moment it needs tough decisions. The roots of American discontent lie in profound problems that neither Democrats nor Republicans have been able to overcome.

The Harper government extols the virtues of free markets but kills the BHP takeover bid and prevents Air Emirates from offering daily flights to protect Air Canada and its Star Alliance partners. It wants to keep the government out of business but sets up regional development agencies and bails out auto companies. It wants smaller, leaner government but lets spending rip before the recession.

The world of politics is always complicated. It's even more complicated in minority or coalition situations. Nostrums and ideological purity have no place in such circumstances.

 

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