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Jeffrey Simpson

Whistlin' past the graveyard of conservative vows Add to ...

North American conservatives are a bizarre political breed because, on the economic issues they define as important, they almost never deliver what they promise.

Canadian Conservatives and U.S. Republicans have spent at least three decades pledging three things: lower taxes, smaller government and a balanced budget. Their record has been so dismal, and the gap between promise and fulfilment so large, that citizens have to wonder what's been going on. Conservatives, who are very good at attacking other ways of thinking, might reflect themselves on why their ideology has so frequently produced this performance gap.

In the U.S., Republicans held the White House for 20 years under Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes, and enjoyed majorities in Congress for some of that time. They could largely do what they wanted in those years.

The party cut taxes, all right, but the size of government grew and, predictably, so did deficits. In other words, U.S. conservatives, given a shot at implementing their ideology, succeeded on one count (cutting taxes) but flunked on the other two (smaller government and a balanced budget).

Today's Tea Party has many sources, but one is frustration with the mainline Republicans for failing those two tests. The Tea Party's incoherence, however, lies in believing that the budget can be balanced with smaller government alone, while exempting from serious cuts the biggest spending item in the U.S. federal government: defence. Worse, the Tea Partiers also rule out any tax increases that two bipartisan commissions recently said, quite correctly, had to be part of any attempt to restore fiscal balance.

In Canada, the Harper government is preparing for the next federal budget, hinting that spending restraint will be the order of the day. There won't be big cuts, the Prime Minister has said, just overall restraint.

That would be a first. The Harperites presented balanced budgets before the recession, but not because they showed any restraint. Instead, they rode on the magic carpet of the surpluses bequeathed by previous governments.

The balanced budgets of the early Harper years, therefore, were the legacy of what they inherited rather than anything they did themselves. As promised, they cut taxes; but they let spending rip, something they were able to do because they'd inherited a surplus. They let spending rip by creating new programs, adding money to existing ones, buying into the mythology of the "fiscal imbalance" and transferring billions to provinces, and poking holes in the tax system through a series of tax expenditures.

Now, however, the federal budget is seriously in deficit. But this ostensibly conservative government seems in no hurry to rectify the situation. Even the government's five-year time frame for the deficit's elimination seems too optimistic, according to the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

To this point, the Harperites have been much like conservatives everywhere. They've cut taxes but let spending rise in real terms and balanced the books only because of what they'd inherited. There's every chance Mr. Harper won't be in office the next time Ottawa shows a surplus.

Provincially, it's been much the same story. In Ontario, the Harris-Eves Conservatives cut taxes and left a big deficit. In Saskatchewan, the Grant Devine Conservatives left a fiscal hole for the subsequent NDP government. In Alberta, the Conservatives cut taxes, but spending kept rising, so Alberta has one of the largest per capita governments in Canada. Only resource revenues let the government show surpluses. Once the recession came, the government dipped into the sustainability fund to help with shortfalls.

Prudent, then, would never be a word assigned to the Ralph Klein and Ed Stelmach governments. Indeed, a real conservative government (conserve should mean just that, conserve) would have amassed a huge Heritage Fund from natural resources.

The conservative record across the continent for the past 30 years has been rather clear. Despite all the rhetoric, conservatives tend to deliver lower taxes, bigger spending and large deficits. The gap between promise and delivery has been, and remains, huge.

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