Why federal Conservatives should drop their fixation with smaller government

OPINION: The Tories are doing a post-mortem on why they came up short in the 2019 election. They may want to think about abandoning a vision voters don’t share
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Nov 11, 2019
Conservative leader Andrew Scheer could face a vote from the broader party membership next spring. (Justin Tang/CP)

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Andrew Scheer still has his job, for now. The Conservative Party of Canada caucus met in Ottawa last Wednesday and opted not to invoke its power to force a leadership review. But Scheer could still face a vote from the broader party membership next spring. To try and salve the wounds he suffered during a bruising election defeat, Scheer has tapped former Ottawa-region MP (and former MPP) John Baird to lead a review of the party’s performance this year.

Scheer’s fate was being decided around the time his Ontario counterparts were trying to change theirs: after a year of misery that started with the 2018 fall economic statement and continued through the 2019 budget announcement and beyond, the Progressive Conservatives at Queen’s Park have adopted the revolutionary policy of trying to make fewer voters angry with them. That they’re spending billions more than anyone anticipated — as we explained last week — is one thing.

Here’s another: in 2021-22, they anticipate $155.9 billion in program spending. Keep in mind that, in the last budget the Wynne government presented before it was defeated, the Liberals’ long-term plan anticipated spending $159.5 billion. So, for all the right-wing bellowing about runaway spending under the Liberals, the revised Tory plan is to spend 98 per cent of what the Liberals intended to. Margins can sometimes be important, but this is more like the margin of error.

Conservative activists should take this reversal seriously. In 2014, the Tories tried to be straight with the public about the consequences of fiscal restraint (Tim Hudak’s infamous “100,000 jobs” thing), and they got defeated handily. In 2018, Doug Ford told voters that Tory spending cuts would be painless, and when that turned out not to be true, he quickly became one of the least popular premiers in the country (and later played a role in Scheer’s defeat).

Scheer isn’t just collateral damage of the Ontario fiasco, either. The Conservatives suffered in part because of their hostility to a carbon tax and their unconvincing efforts to slap together a climate policy. But conservative voters aren’t hostile to climate action because they love pollution (though recent moves by the White House do make a person wonder). Rather, they see it as a progressive Trojan horse that would lead to an expanded state — perhaps even to socialism. American conservative writer George F. Will memorably called environmentalism a “green tree with red roots,” and plenty on the right have never felt the need to revise that assessment.

So this is what the fixation with shrinking the government has to offer conservative politicians: defeated outright if they talk about it honestly; forced to retreat under fire from furious voters if they lie about it; and incapable of putting together a compelling election platform on one of the signal issues of our age because of it.

It’s not as if the forces for smaller government haven’t had real victories: taxes and government spending per person are lower than they were during the high-deficit years of the mid-1990s. At the federal level, policy ambition in government is mostly constrained to fiddling with the tax code. Current federal deficits may run afoul of certain voters’ dogmatic insistence on achieving fiscal balance, but under the current Liberal plans, the federal debt-to-GDP ratio will continue to fall.

The Liberals actually provide a lesson for conservatives here: for most of my adulthood, the party of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin was proud (to the point of obnoxiousness) of their role in “slaying the deficit” and balancing the federal budget. But 2015 was a generation removed from Chrétien’s first election win, and Justin Trudeau correctly judged that deficit-fighting wasn’t paying dividends for the Liberals anymore and that voters weren’t quite as terrified of the prospect of deficit spending as they once had been. Objective factors changed — Canada’s fiscal situation went from terrifying to managed — and so the Liberals changed with them, and they won.

Today, objective factors have changed on conservatives — voters aren’t clamouring for a replay of Mike Harris’s so-called Common Sense Revolution. The question for Canada’s right is whether it will be clever enough to change with them.

Nobody expects conservatives to become boosters of the planned economy and centralized federal power, but if they’re willing to move on from trying to reduce the size of government, there are things they could offer that voters might actually want.

I’ll discuss some of those ideas on Tuesday.

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