A common response from many pundits on the recent Conservative budget seems to be: sensible, dull, uncontroversial. David Frum recently published his analysis and went a bit further asking whether or not this budget definitively proves that Canada is the "best-governed country in the advanced democratic world." He thinks it does. His question is especially interesting given that democracy is one of the areas that the Conservatives would get a failing grade on most comparisons with other developed nations.
I find myself in the situation, common after reading Frum's articles, of wanting to agree and disagree with him simultaneously. I agree with him because Canada does strike a middle way on many policy issues between a European approach on the one hand and an American approach on the other. On the issues of bank regulation, healthcare, financial regulation, and government intervention in the market he is mostly right. There is a strong case that we lead the world in sheer reasonableness. However, I take issue with his argument because this latest budget has nothing to do with making that assessment.
On a purely economic basis this budget is prudent in many ways. But as a policy document, which is the more important aspect, this budget is a dismal failure that continues this government's disregard for the health of our democracy and its inability to envision solutions for (or even acknowledge the existence of) the real long term challenges that Canada will face as a nation.
I say this budget is more important as a policy document for precisely the same reason Andrew Coyne recently penned the budget as unambitious. If ever the Conservatives were going to put forward a budget that exemplifies everything they stand for, now would be the time. In fact, it is more important as a policy document than it would be in other countries precisely because Canada is in such a good position economically compared to our peers.
So we must assume that a policy document is exactly what this budget is. We can see clearly that what is important to the Conservatives is not economic issues such as tax reduction or the deficit, or at least no more so than it was for the Chretien/Martin Liberals. No, what is important to them as a legacy is a long-term shifting of the national conversation towards their philosophy.
So when cuts need to be made, where do they come from? The cuts come from the public broadcaster which ensures all voices are heard in the national discussion even if they don't have financial resources. The cuts come from government aid for youth in our own country and aid for the needy aound the world. The cuts come from government bodies which ensure there is a scientific basis for important decision making such as the First Nations Statistical Council, the National Round Table on the Environment, and the Economy and the National Welfare Council.
Is this part of Flaherty's claimed "responsible choices" showing "common-sense, moderate restraint?" If they keep on attacking the independent analytical infrastructure of the government in this way then common sense will be the only kind that is left on which to base policy. I suspect if they could get away with cutting Statistics Canada itself they would, after their attempt to neuter its independence last year -- oh wait, they also cut seven per cent of StatsCan's budget, at least they're consistent.
Finally, the cuts come from the organization tasked with running and monitoring the very elections which are the basis of our democracy, Elections Canada. This isn't surprising given the swiftness with which the Conservatives struck down the per vote subsidy last year and their continual disregard for democratic tradition and fairness. This has been shown again and again over past years by shutting down parliament to avoid defeat, the way they attack other parties as un-Canadian, and manipulate the financial and advertising advantage of their committed base and position in power. This is especially unfortunate timing given the ongoing and growing robocall scandal from the last election. If it turns out that the Conservative party was deeply involved in the fraud that occurred last year then cutting the funding of the body investigating it will be worthy of a scandal all its own.
In terms of vision for the future we see just as clearly what the Conservatives want Canada to be by what they don't spend money on. The Conservative vision for Canada succeeding in the 21st century seems to rely on making it easier to develop more resource projects with less risk of being slowed down by environmental concerns.
They are clearly betting that setbacks to Canadian oil development, such as the recent canceling of the Keystone oil pipeline to the U.S., will be more the exception than the rule in the future. Now they are also targeting charities that have spoken out against our environmental record. The Conservatives are assuming that demand will only increase for our oil and other resources even as the impact of climate change accelerates over the next century and new technologies change how resources and energy are used.
A truly bold vision would chart a way forward over the next 50 years shifting from our current dirty resource industries towards developing new renewable technologies. With Canada's skills, resources, and experience there is no reason Canada could not aim to become a sustainable energy superpower which would make it more likely Canada will remain prosperous in an uncertain future.
So if Canada is a leader in policy reasonableness in some ways, it will be despite this budget rather than because of it. In fact, after the next couple years of majority Conservative rule, we may have a few more things that need fixing than when they started.