The Conservatives might lose the Oct. 19 election – at this stage of the campaign, it appears that they might – but the Stephen Harper party has won important battles in the shaping of public opinion.
Much of what the Conservatives have done in two big areas they identified as critical – economic policy and criminal justice – will remain, opposition party rhetoric notwithstanding. The Conservatives have placed their imprint on important aspects of Canadian public policy, and the other parties seem unwilling to erase them.
Consider tax policy. Yes, the New Democratic Party wants to increase corporate taxes on large companies, but the rate would remain lower than when the Conservatives took office and began dropping it. Moreover, the NDP proposes to reduce the small business tax rate by two points, which is red-meat Conservative policy.
Yes, the NDP and Liberals would not do income-splitting, or raise allowances for tax-free savings accounts. But they would not raise personal income taxes either (except for the Liberals, on people earning more than $200,000 a year), nor undo the myriad tax breaks the Conservatives have directed at all sorts of little subsets of the electorate. Indeed, the opposition parties have paid the Conservatives the ultimate compliment by dreaming up similar types of little tax credits for other subsets of the population.
Would either the NDP or Liberals raise the goods and services tax by even one of the two percentage points the Conservatives cut? Not on your life. The two-point GST reduction sliced about $12-billion from federal revenue. It was denounced by almost every economist in Canada and remains terrible tax policy, but apparently is politically sacrosanct, or so it would seem judging by the opposition parties' silence.
The Conservatives are campaigning on having balanced the budget and passing a new law stuffed into an omnibus bill requiring balanced budgets except in certain circumstances. What does the NDP promise? A balanced budget from Year One of a New Democrat government. What did the Liberals promise until very recently? A balanced budget. Now, for tactical political reasons, the Liberals have switched to promising a deficit for three years.
On helping the middle class, the Liberals are promising to give even more money to families in this tax bracket than the Conservatives, albeit with certain different twists. The NDP, while promising $15-a-day child care (at a guesstimated cost of $5-billion), will also keep the very expensive Conservative child-tax benefit, again paying the Harper government another compliment. The New Democrats could have paid for a big chunk of its daycare scheme by scrapping the Conservative child benefit program that sends cheques to families, but they dared not.
The Conservatives have reduced federal spending as a share of the overall economy. Nothing suggests that the NDP or Liberals would tamper much with that share. On trade policy, the Liberals will support the trade and investment deal with Europe and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership; the NDP is more or less on side with the European deal, and badly torn by the TPP.
Speaking of compliments, what is to be said about the other parties' attitudes toward criminal justice, or what the Conservatives like to call their "tough-on-crime" policies? Many of these policies have been denounced by criminologists, sociologists and other experts in combatting crime. A few have encountered judicial opposition.
Some of these Conservative policies were inspired by "tough-on-crime" approaches in the United States, which are now widely under attack, even by Republicans who are coming to understand that they drive up prison costs and do nothing to reduce crime. Those failed policies include mandatory minimum sentences and solitary confinement, both Conservative Party favourites.
Do you hear root-and-branch attacks on these policies from the opposition parties? They attack these policies sotto voce, because they fear (and perhaps know) that these counterproductive policies are politically popular. The policies were sold as slogans, and the slogans remain powerful.
What we did hear from NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, campaigning in Surrey, B.C., was a promise to hire an additional 2,500 police officers, a rather Conservative reflex. The opposition parties also promise a judicial inquiry into the disappearance of aboriginal women – a sop to elements of public opinion, but entirely the wrong vehicle for doing anything constructive.
There are more fundamental differences on the environment, aboriginal issues, the style of government and some other matters. But on the two issues that the Conservatives consider hallmarks – tax and fiscal policy, and criminal justice – their essential legacy will remain largely intact.