Canada finds itself now, in a time of urgency, if not emergency -- with the waters poisoned or muddied and distrust between our politicians honed to razor sharpness. It is in these circumstances that Harper's government brought down its budget. It prompts several observations.
The country, effectively, has been taken back to the 1970s and 1980s. Brian Mulroney will surely appreciate the irony in this. His government was attacked and his party ultimately shattered by neo-conservatives who, disliking him for many things, absolutely hated his record of huge budgetary deficits. The Reform party was the chief vehicle and beneficiary of those attacks, and one of its most promising new MPs in 1993 was Stephen Harper. Harper subsequently morphed into leader of the Canadian Alliance and then leader of the Conservative party (with progressives and Progressives expunged); throughout he was a true believer, asserting his unshakeable fidelity to a cardinal principle of neo-conservative doctrine: Thou shalt not run deficits.
He is now the author of one of the largest deficits in Canadian history. Its magnitude is stunning, but the rationale and policy behind it will strike many people as sensible, indeed, inescapable. That rationale was provided 70 years ago by the British economist John Maynard Keynes, who argued that the best way to mitigate the worst excesses of the business cycle was for governments to run deficits in tough times and balanced budgets or surpluses in good ones. Though much honoured in the breach, this was arguably the foremost economic policy lesson of the Great Depression and for roughly 50 years thereafter. It was Keynesianism that neo-conservatives denounced and sought to discredit in the 1980s and after: Think Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and, closer to home, Mike Harris in Ontario. Though Harper is now embracing Keynesianism, he cannot admit or proclaim it: It has become the new love that dares not speak its name.
The character of the budget is also a reminder of yesteryear, recalling "winter works" projects of an earlier era which, though immediately focused on real problems, did not necessarily take long views of long-term benefits. As the Globe and Mail observed this week, "There is no single great, stirring national project in this budget, no compelling direction." For a party, many of whose members are long committed to reducing the scope and power of the national government, the capacity to see a crisis as creating an opportunity to employ government constructively is not in their DNA.
Michael Ignatieff, facing his first real test as leader of the Opposition, delayed an immediate comment on the budget which allowed for a more nuanced response than can usually be provided on the hoof. Besides proposals of dubious merit, he observed that a good many others are things that neo-conservatives don't really believe in: Here, one cannot assume the government will proceed wisely, appropriately or with conviction. Accordingly, he proposed an amendment requiring the government to report (in March, June and December) on what actions have been taken and on their progress and effects. His amendment was quickly accepted by the government.
He also argued that many elements in the budget might not have been there but for the pressure of the coalition formed in December and from the suggestions of the Liberal party in particular. Indeed, he spoke of the coalition doing good work and of the possibility that it would do more -- even as he spoke in terms that effectively doomed it.
If the opposition parties had agreed, Ignatieff's amendment would have carried with or without the government's agreement. That didn't happen: Jack Layton rejected it out of hand. He had announced his opposition to the budget days before it was actually brought down. Given recent history, it is understandable that he should have low expectations and little trust of the Conservatives. Not understandable is how a sensible person, and particularly one who aspires to provide leadership, would publicly dismiss something sight unseen. Teachers and adults encourage children to hear both sides of an argument: Our Jack must have missed those classes.
The Conservatives have poisoned the atmosphere and Layton proposes to keep it that way. If the political warfare is to be suspended even for a day or two, it will be no thanks to him. Indeed, he accuses the Liberals of entering a coalition without getting anything in return and brags about his own experience of extracting multi-million dollar commitments for supporting Paul Martin's minority government. He did not characterize that support as a coalition: Rather, it was more transactional -- like bartering, horse-trading or prostitution. Jack Layton is truly a piece of work.