The Conservative Critique IV: Why Stephen Harper Really is Scary

It’s not because of hidden agendas or the Mr. Angry personality. The only phobia that dogs the opposition parties is this: fear of the unknown. Despite the truckloads of evidence that the federal Liberals have grown corrupt and arrogant, Canadians are still living well. They have no guarantee that any of the opposition parties can do a better job, and their fertile imaginations can come up with a dozen reasons why each party might end up doing worse.

Consider the 2004 federal campaign, when the Liberals, the NDP and the Conservatives unveiled their planned programs over the next five years. The numbers were radically different. The NDP promised significant increases in government spending to address such issues as municipal infrastructure, economic development, the environment and education, and they did so without a significant increase in Canadian taxes. On the other hand, the Conservatives promised significant tax cuts, without the pain of a massive reduction in government spending. The Liberals promised more of the same: modest spending increases and tax cuts.

Then some experts noted that the NDP’s taxless spending increases were based on fiscal assumptions that were more optimistic than the Liberals to the tune of $60 billion over five years. The Conservatives were even more out of sync: expecting the economy to grow to such an extent that they would have $90 billion more to spend. The Liberals were able to portray the Conservatives as being, well, not conservative, and gained in the eyes of voters.

Since then, the Liberal government has seen two consecutive surpluses that have more closely matched NDP assumptions, and the Conservative supporters are understandibly perplexed as to why Canadians aren’t hanging the Liberals over this. They were right and the Liberals were wrong. Surely Canadians should see that they have nothing to fear from us.

The Conservatives, like any opposition party, promised a no-pain, all-gain budget. Lots of tax cuts. No major spending decreases. Anything the Liberals committed to as they announced municipal improvements and new regional development initiatives, the Conservatives weren’t going to repeal. But they forgot that Canadians are used to some level of pain. We experience Canadian winters, after all. Twenty years of Trudeau, Mulroney and Chretien have taught us to accept some pain in taxes, and some pain in having certain priorities (like our military, or our roads) underfunded. Any “no pain, all gain” budget is going to be viewed with suspicion. Rather, we look at the platforms and see which ones are more likely to decrease pain, and which might increase it.

And if there is any possibility that the pain might increase, especially if it’s not acknowledged by the party bringing forward the proposal, it becomes a serious disadvantage.

Yes, the Liberals are probably deliberately underreporting expected revenues to produce unexpectedly large surpluses. Yes, this is dishonest, but Canadians don’t feel any pain from this, and the Liberals have actually finessed this in a very subtle way. Let us assume for a moment that, under this government, the Liberal projections were right and the Conservative projections were wrong. Well, then the Liberal plan would unfold exactly as it was printed. Now, consider what happens if the Conservative projections are right: what the Liberals do with the extra money is not an unknown. We’ve seen how they handle previous surpluses, and the legislation stating that unspent money be transferred to debt reduction is on the books. It’s easy for the Liberals to spin the extra debt reduction as a gain for all Canadians. There are no negatives if the Liberals lowball the numbers.

On the other hand, if the Conservatives govern, and the Liberal numbers turn out to be accurate, the Canadian electorate has no idea how the Conservatives will respond. It has not been written down. And that’s the opening for the scary thoughts to enter. Will the Conservatives repeal the massive proposed tax cuts in order to balance their budget? That provides the least amount of pain for Canadians, but probably wouldn’t play well to the Conservative base. Will they run a deficit? That’s also unthinkable (and it would be an embarrassment if it came to pass). So what programs get cut? Does the CBC vanish? Do EI benefits get reduced? What about regional development and the Atlantic Accord? Or the myriad Liberal spending promises that the Conservatives pledged to keep? Any way you look at it, the Conservatives get charged with lying. And as they’re politicians just like all the others, it’s easy for Canadians to predict that they will lie.

This criticism applies equally well to the New Democrats. If they entered government and had to deal with Liberal projections, would they back away from their promised spending increases? Unlikely. So, what taxes would they increase, in spite of the fact that they promised no significant tax increases? That’s what Canadians would ask, with a wince in their wallets.

Combatting this is simple, but it seems beyond the ken of either Stephen Harper or Jack Layton: submit alternate plans. All parties’ projections are based upon how much the Canadian economy will grow, and the economy has rarely matched expectations. Sometimes they exceeded them. Sometimes they didn’t. So, write down what your plans are if the economy grows by 2.5% instead of 3% a year. Or by 2%. List your priorities: will you repeal tax cuts or will you cut programs? Which programs get cut first? Or what taxes would you increase?

In the past twenty years, there hasn’t been a single mainstream politician that has campaigned on program cuts and tax increases. The Conservatives and the NDP will be hammered by the Liberals for admitting what programs they’d cut and what taxes they’d raise. But, you know what: the effectiveness of such attacks would be far less than the damage done by what fearful Canadians think might be possible. You can defend what you know you’re going to do. You can’t defend against people’s assumptions of what you’re going to do. So cover yourself. The opposition parties need a detailed four-year plan explaining every aspect of their government. They need to show their work, and state what they will do if the economy doesn’t perform to their expectations.

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