Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Political Actors & Shape-Shifters (History in the Making)

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Political Actors & Shape-Shifters (History in the Making)

It’s hard to believe there can be anyone left in Canada who still might actually believe anything Stephen Harper has to say about a blueprint for balancing the country’s inexcusably massive deficit. Conservatives will desperately want us to believe in their fiscal credentials and alchemy, but history tells a different story.

The Harper/Flaherty “stewardship” of the economy has been nothing short of disastrous, built upon a recorded history of fiscal blunders with the GST, willfully ignoring the signs of the coming recession, bizarre "no-deficit-at-any-cost" forecasts of surpluses, followed by a succession of repeated and wildly inaccurate monthly guesses over the past years about an ever-expanding deficit.

To paraphrase John Kenneth Galbraith on economics, these boys make astrology look respectable.

The Conservative government’s dismal record is a four-year history of economic and recession myopia that has shown up in everything from massive government overspending, resulting deficits, badly timed and ill-advised GST and corporate tax cuts. In particular, the latter two items together now account for close to half of this year’s projected $57 billion deficit. Given the Conservatives’ history as the last ones in the country to have even recognized the economy was in deep trouble, it should come as no surprise they are ironically positioning themselves once again as this country’s fiscally responsible party. Since taking office, "Deficit Jim" Flaherty and his boss have become the poster boys of miss-the-mark economic forecasting. More to the point, though, is the uncertainty this creates in the mind of the public, especially when the response of the Conservatives is to badger, cut funding, withhold information, obfuscate, and generally undermine the credibility of Kevin Page, the parliamentary budget officer they hired to police the job in the first place.

As our governing parties in Ottawa chase each other willy-nilly towards a coming election, Stephen Harper, Jim Flaherty and their Conservatives spin-meisters will be working hard to try and make us believers in an economic and budgetary miracle. However, the only blueprint around a surplus that can apply to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty happened a few years ago when the defeated Liberal government handed a surplus to him.

With the Conservative’s last budget, Mr. Flaherty’s on-the-job training continued to show no encouraging signs of fiscal insight or accuracy, nor do the Harper Conservatives seem to fully appreciate the need now for much more innovative, aggressive action against both the deficit and in support of job creation. Their invocation of innovation is a laudable technical objective, but the Conservatives, through their unfocussed corporate tax incentives, clearly have no idea how this might be brought about. It all seems like more window dressing and bafflegab.

By refusing to act now, this “wait-and-see” government is once again condemning Canada to an economic action plan that has no meaningful actions at all. With this kind of approach we can expect the deficit to grow in the coming years, and to be with us for at least a decade or more.

Stephen Harper has become an expert in saying one thing and doing its opposite. From yo-yo fiscal policies and binge deficit budgeting to reversals on Senate reform and inconsistency on Afghanistan, he has become the consummate shape-shifter, staying in power at all costs by almost weekly moving policy down whatever road the winds are blowing. But these contradictions are mere pragmatic detours for Harper along what is for him a much longer ideological road, one that, should he ever attain a viable majority, will bring massive structural shifts to Canada in the form of political decentralization and altered Canadian values. The recent budget is both an economic and strategic diversion for Harper, keeping him in power but also, more importantly, diverting our attention away from what he actually wants to accomplish. For those wishing to look closely, even the budget itself isn’t what it seems, with huge portions tied to improbable projections for the economy, unrealistic provincial participation or pie-in-the-sky future deficit reductions unlikely ever to see the light of day. Canadians can expect more of these illusions and contradictions to be revealed in the coming months, especially where the economy and budget are concerned.

Probably one of this country’s best historical examples of a petty, malevolently partisan and ideologically driven politician, Harper routinely whipsaws his audiences with performances from nice to nasty, from hero to hyperbole. His party is scared to death of him, but, as is the case with all such abusive players, I expect his fellow Conservative actors would be willing in the blink of an eye to jettison him at the first sign of weakness. Mr. Ignatieff certainly is no better, being completely and irrevocably blind to his own endlessly destructive deficiencies in leadership, timing, vision, and political intelligence. He lingers, stage left, like a dark, comedic character, transforming simple ideas in complex theories, advantage to disaster, opportunity to humiliating political errors. Mired in the mud of their own political sloughs, these two “leaders” are characters out of a bad play, unable to let go, refusing to recognize that the stage lights are dimming and that the audience is rapidly leaving the building. Maybe the problem for Canadians really isn’t about Liberal or Conservative. Maybe it’s just the truly dreadful lead actors we’ve hired. Most days I think a lot of us wish we could get together and simultaneously throw them both out. I say to you, and to all who would listen, a plague on both their houses.

So, the truly pressing question here today is: twenty years from now, when Stephen Harper’s Conservative/Reform/Alliance coalition has long departed the halls of power in Ottawa, what kind of country might we expect to find as a result of the myriad blunders in economic planning he is now implementing? Can we expect Canada to be a better place, more stable and secure? Or will history look back upon these early Harper years of the new century as the beginning of economic policies and actions that profoundly threatened the long-term well being of the country?

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Edward Carson

Edward Carson is twice winner of the E. J. Pratt Poetry Award in Canada and is the author of three books of poetry — Scenes, Taking Shape and Birds Flock Fish School.

Go to Edward Carson’s Author Page