Sometimes the best way to put present circumstances in perspective and to figure out what to expect in future is to look back on the past.
With that in mind, I dug out an old report card.
The comments started out well:
“The positives are impressive: he has a brilliant strategic mind, a sound grasp of public policy, and good communications skills in both French and English.”
Not bad. On the other hand:
“The negatives – his mistrust of the grassroots, his tendency not to be a team player … and the tendency to withdraw – are manageable if they are acknowledged and compensated for by the strengths of others.”
Well, there you have it. The good and the bad. A blunt assessment of protégée by mentor.
The protégée, in this case, is the Prime Minister of Canada. And the mentor is no political detractor, but rather Preston Manning, the man who gave Stephen Harper his first job in politics, as his trusted lieutenant in the Reform Party that Manning founded and led.
The Reform Party, of course, morphed into the Canadian Alliance, which Stephen Harper eventually led into a merger with the old PC Party. The united Right party – the big-C Conservatives – then took power, Harper became Prime Minister, and the small-c conservative revolution that Manning championed became reality in Canada.
Not so fast.
Did you happen to hear about the federal budget released the other day? Huge deficits, massive spending, the addition of a forecasted $85-billion to the national debt over five years, the creation of a new Trudeauesque regional development agency – this one for recession-ravaged Southern Ontario, and… hard to believe, but true… money for culture and the arts.
The old Reform Party – indeed, the old Harper – would have furiously attacked any government that dared to propose this kind of a budget. The old Harper would have called it wasteful, irresponsible… liberal.
Instead, it was his party and his government that introduced just such a budget.
Clearly, Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
What we’re in, of course, is a global economic crisis. And the budget is a reaction to that. Governments – conservative and liberal alike – all over the Western world are proposing similar measures to stimulate their economies.
In their budget document, Canada’s Conservatives described their measures as “timely”, “targeted” and “temporary”. Whether or not they turn out to be any of those things won’t be evident for many months.
What the measures clearly aren’t:
The government anticipates that once things improve, it will be able to revert to its more traditional approach of slashing spending, paying down the debt, and shrinking the role of government in the economy instead of expanding it.
This may be wishful thinking. History has shown that it’s much easier to open the spending taps than it is to close them again.
Of course, every budget is not only an economic blueprint, but also a political document. This one perhaps more than others because it comes after the government’s near-death experience last fall. The budget was designed to save the government from defeat at the hands of a newly united opposition.
In that respect, it seems to have succeeded, at least in the short run. The morning after the budget’s release, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff told reporters he was putting the Conservatives “on probation” and the Official Opposition would support the budget as long as the government agreed to regular reports to Parliament on the progress of the economy.
That’s a heck of a lot better for Harper than what Ignatieff’s predecessor, Stéphane Dion, was offering last fall – namely, an immediate vote of non-confidence in the government and its replacement by a coalition government.
Which brings us back to Preston Manning’s observations about Harper, taken from Manning’s 2002 autobiography.
Global economic crisis aside, the reason the government had to move as far as it did from its core philosophical beliefs in introducing such a budget is tied to some of the negative characteristics that Manning observed in his former lieutenant.
Harper’s mistrust of consultation, his go-it-alone instincts, led him astray, revitalized his political opposition and created a situation where his government will be forced to consult Liberals more than ever before and put a tremendous amount of water in its ideological wine if it wants to survive.
If you disagree with the Conservative Party’s ideology, you’ll see that as a good thing for the country. But if you’re a true believer, you may be pining for the days of Reform.
Programming note: I produced an interesting televised panel discussion on this very topic the other day, where smarter minds than I weighed in. You can download a podcast here.