03/30/2012 12:27 EDT | Updated 05/29/2012 05:12 EDT

Budget Only Confirms Harper's Dullness


The 2012 federal budget was the last silky adornment to be peeled off in Stephen Harper's long dance of seven veils with Canadian Conservatives. Turns out there's not much underneath.

For the last six years, anyone who's turned to the Conservative Party for a coherent agenda of smaller government, lower spending, substantially reformed taxation, and a fundamental reexamination of the cause and purpose of all three, has been forced to nurse on a series of defensive excuses.

First it was all about making conservatism "electable" in Canada. This entailed merging the Canadian Alliance with the Progressive Conservatives -- a party that had long since abandoned any pretence of being on the right -- and Harper's subsequent Orwellian obsession with keeping all candidates of his new big-tent as muzzled and ideologically neutered as possible. There'll be plenty of time to be feisty and right-wing once the Conservatives actually took power, they were told, but in the meantime, for heaven's sake, don't frighten the poor voters!

Then the Conservatives actually did take power, but only under the embarrassing circumstances of a minority parliament. You can't honestly expect genuinely conservative government when the House is dominated by three leftist parties, the new narrative went. Just stay quiet and hug the centre a little longer. Before you know it we'll have a majority and then the real fun can begin.

The whole totemic notion of a Conservative "hidden agenda" was thus always as much a covert promise to the right as it was a fearful conspiracy theory of the left, but with the big budget reveal Thursday -- the first in Year Zero of the Harper majority -- it seems the whole thing truly was just a big lefty lie.

Five billion in surgical spending cuts (over the course of three years) for a government with revenues totalling over $250 billion is neither radical, nor particularly right-wing (the Martin-Chretien years, as the budget itself notes, were harsher), nor is the elimination of 19,200 bureaucrats (largely through attrition) in a country that employs over 250,000, nor is a 10 per cent cut to the billion-dollar-a-year CBC.  What it is, as John Ivision quickly noted, is "a grand vision of still-big government."

There are no more excuses left. The world must now make peace with the fact that middling moderation is not merely a Harper "tactic," but rather an end unto itself. We've wasted a lot of time assuming otherwise, so a rhetorical update is long overdue.

You can't blame the man too much. Moderation and piecemeal reform does "work" to an extent, at least in the sense that one of the easiest ways for a government to remain in power is to govern as blandly and offensively as possible, though this is rarely the stuff from which memorable legacies are made. In botching his last opportunity to introduce an identifiably unique vision for Canadian governance, Harper has unambiguously stated that greatness is not within his grasp.

In his epic 2002 survey on political leadership, King of the Mountain, Arnold Ludwig concluded that the success rates of world leaders is ultimately determined just as much by bravery and risk-taking as any actual policy outcome. This is why, for instance, public polls routinely rank Pierre Trudeau and Ronald Reagan as among the greatest leaders of their respective countries.

Both men were obviously flawed, relatively ineffective, and (to a point) hypocrites, with wide gaps between promise and delivery, but also marvellous visionaries and storytellers capable of tapping into some powerful instinct of hope and ambition deep within the hearts of those they ruled. There was, in short, a core of principled authenticity in these leaders -- in Reagan's case, a love of individualism, in Trudeau's, a deep passion for national unity -- which either tempered, softened, or otherwise made palatable their unimpressive chore of managing the federal government.

No one has ever offered such a defence of Harper, and I very much doubt anyone ever will.  He has no story to tell, and his leadership has mostly highlighted, rather than hid, the ugly pettiness, vanity, arrogance, and authoritarianism that motivates the majority of democratic politicians who are too untalented to try harder.

The Prime Minister is an intelligent man, and in terms of his own ideological development, chronicled in books like William Johnson's heroic biography, he may still be one of the most brilliant men to ever run the nation, at least insofar that his depth of understanding of Canada and the greater "Canadian system" of interlocking relationships between government, business, interest groups, bureaucracy, media, and conventional wisdom is far more well-rounded and critical than any of those who have come before him.

Harper was well-equipped to be a Canadian Reagan, but his legacy will be that of a Bush. It may be a very long time indeed before the leadership of Canada is entrusted to another man capable of conjuring up an inspiring and engaging conservative path for Canada distinct from the over-governed, special interest marbled morass that this unspectacular budget seems so eager to preserve.