Game Changer

They’ve been popping organic champagne corks in the NDP war room this week as poll after poll is showing that party ahead of the Liberals in a race for second place.

The surge of the NDP seems to be most pronounced in Quebec where there are certainly more than a few former NDP staffers, thinking they were taking one for the team, who may yet find themselves with seats in the House of Commons come May 3rd.

The larger effect of all of this is of course the psychological block experienced by many on the left regarding cheating on their idealism to act pragmatic. For those that have traditionally held their nose voting Liberal to “stop Harper”, this week has been a game changer for the NDP.

What happened? Jack Layton gave phenomenal back-to-back performances in the debates. Walking into this campaign, with the visible assistance of a cane, reporters had asked him how his health would fare during a grueling 35 days while leaders crisscross the country on an intense schedule. Instead, we’ve learned that Layton may toss his cane aside by election day.

Indeed, Layton now appears to be dancing circles around the Liberal campaign led by a leader many in the press expected to do better given lower expectations set by 2 years of negative advertising against him. Instead, the Harvard professor was schooled by Layton in the moment of the English language leaders debate that was the closest thing we saw to a “knock-out blow” in those two nights. Called out for his poor attendance record, Layton asked rhetorically how Michael Ignatieff could speak convincingly on democracy if he didn’t show up for votes in the Commons.

Many leftwing voters are now asking how Ignatieff can represent their views if he’s not present for votes. And as we’re seeing in the polls, many wonder if Ignatieff can do much to stop a majority Conservative government.

The other fatal blunder for Ignatieff this week came during an interview with CBC’s Peter Mansbridge when the Liberal leader admitted that regarding a coalition, Mr. Harper could try to form government yet if he could not command the confidence of the House, Mr. Ignatieff would try to form a government with the support of the other parties, including the Bloc Quebecois. Yet most Canadians are more grounded than Ignatieff appeared to be during that interview. It is widely understood that such cooperation would come with concessions to any partner that would support the second-place Liberals in the formation of a new government. And while Mr. Ignatieff is willfully ignorant that such concessions would relate to cabinet, Canadians remember the last time the Liberals negotiated a scenario for taking power without the support of the majority or plurality of the electorate.

Canadians are going into the Easter weekend tomorrow with a few truths to consider. First and foremost, Stephen Harper will be the next Prime Minister. Second, if Michael Ignatieff cannot be counted on to stop Stephen Harper from forming a majority, left-leaning Canadians will look to the much more likable and ideological Jack Layton to oppose Mr. Harper in the 41st parliament. Third, Canadians will consider a coalition government to be explicitly on the table as Layton may be in an increased position of strength to negotiate its outcome.

Infertile Ground

This week, the Conservative government in Ottawa nixed a $39 Billion takeover bid of Potash Corp by Australia-based BHP Billiton. Industry Minister Tony Clement broke his rhythm as he read a prepared statement in the foyer of the House of Commons reading his “Canada’s open for business” preamble and then taking a deep breath and then delivering his verdict against foreign investment.

Economically, this shook the faith of fiscal conservatives. The Investment Canada Act mandates compulsory review of such foreign takeovers when they exceed $299 million in assets exchanged. But as fiscal conservatives can we be surprised when our ideas don’t sprout when they have not taken root?

The blocking of the potash takeover put to shame our principle of free investment and our global reputation of being open to business. By the time Clement had finished speaking, it was front-page news on the Wall Street Journal’s site. The blackberries of Ottawa-based consultant lobbyists buzzed with bewilderment from clients in Frankfurt. However, this wasn’t a decision made in the broadest political context of global economic stimulus, it was one made in the more raw and narrow context of saving 13 Conservative seats in Saskatchewan. And by doing so, acting wholly unconservative.

Politically it was the right move, but it should not have been. More votes were saved in Saskatchewan this week than were lost on Bay street. Yet as with the stimulus, for Conservatives both in name and in principle, it ripped at our guts and gave us great pause as to what we’re doing in Ottawa if not acting to advance rational objectives and liberal free-market principles.

Back in early 2009 when other developed nations doing it and spending at least two percent of GDP on government make-work projects, this government caved to peer-pressure and took a hit of illicit economic enhancing stimulus. In order to participate in the global pork project, Canada — while best-positioned to whether the global economic downturn — conceded by jumping into the sordid business of direct economic intervention in order to keep borders open to other countries (especially the US) who were looking at stimulus out of conceived necessity rather than as a go along. Indeed, if we had eschewed stimulus, our access to markets would have been closed to government projects in other countries. That 2% of GDP was rationalized by our government in Ottawa as a small price to pay for shelter from a global wave of protectionism that lapped at our shores and border. Yet, I have never heard my government discuss this concession to fiscal conservatives so plainly. But in turn, we fiscal conservatives also fail the governments we elect.

I’ve written before that parties and governments are only principled up to a point. By definition, a government must win a majority or at least a plurality of votes or seats to act. This week the government acted according to a majority of opinion where it counted as votes — in Saskatchewan. Eighty five percent of the residents of that province were firmly against the foreign takeover. As Conservatives with populist roots we should at least take comfort that provincial rights were respected. While acted as a central planner, the plan recognized provincial autonomy.

What should shock and concern us though is that a great number of Saskatchewans either thought that their government still owned the resource or that the majority of shares in Potash Corp were actually owned by Canadians. A Conference Board of Canada report held the sobering truth. For the knee-jerk economic nationalists, it was unknown that a majority of shares of Potash Corp were foreign owned. What should shock us further is that a great number of Canadians are not passionate about the free market principles that have brought more people out of poverty than any other miracle in our history.

These past couple of years have been jarring for a town filled with reporters that cover five news beats with an inch of depth and politicos that write policy on the fly between their stints in undergraduate and business school programs. From constitutional crises, to prorogation, from censuses to potash, if Wikipedia were a publicly traded company, the government would have already nationalized it as a “strategic resource”. Hours before the announcement, many reporters were scrambling to justify their gut feeling that the government was about to go in the wrong direction on the file and approve the takeover. “Apparently potash is some kind of fertilizer made of salt,” one remarked. “‘Pawd-ash’ not ‘pot-ash’ is how its pronounced,” remarked another. When you pair understaffed newsrooms against an army of online amateur “experts” and professional rent-seekers willing to step into the void, you have a recipe for reactionary policy that grows like a weed.

The major communications challenge unmet by this government and by the movement that puts its hopes in the same is that the ground on important issues such as foreign-investment in potash has not been prepared; the studies sit on dusty shelves, the advocates recline unprepared or over-confident. In the new world of Facebook populism, where activism is made more broadly accessible, parties struggle to cultivate grassroots activism and observers sometimes fail to calibrate to measure the significance of an online uprising.

In recent memory, the government has only once prepared the ground for a key showdown on a contentious issue: the long-gun registry. But as for other issues that matter, policy has only been jarringly announced and clumsily if not sparsely advocated. And still, the government is but one megaphone for conservative issues. If conservatives want to see their values implemented in any government (whatever its name), a government that can only a plurality of votes, we must also prepare the soil.

Globally, conservatives must entrench free-market principles as the de facto standard. If protectionists were political pariahs, parties in various countries would compete over who could make the economy freer, not who could protect and reclaim the most from foreign investment. My pride in Canada should be its openness to investment and international growth, not its stagnation for the sake of the failed practice of economic nationalism. Yet, our principles cannot exist in a vacuum; our ideals face competition from special interests. Conservatives cannot believe that government should be small and with limited influence while investing their hopes on it to make transformational change. Our challenge is greater than any government; we have a lot of soil to till because until then our ideas cannot sprout in infertile ground.

Census change is about smaller government

I received a call today from a reporter around noon about what he conceded was “the story that just won’t go away”. He was, of course, talking about the census. He wanted to know if I could pass on a few names of possible interviews for right-wingers that support the government’s stand to scrap the long-form census. Of course, there are the folks over at the Western Standard who are taking up their obvious position against the mandatory “burden”, but in broader view, it got me thinking about who opposes the government’s plan and why the story would not just go away.

Every day it seems that there’s a new group of people lining up to bemoan the Industry Minister’s announcement that the census would forego the long-form. Certainly, this illustrates a serious problem that Stephen Harper faces as Prime Minister. Facing an opposition that can’t get its act together is one thing, but a nation where the voices of special interests are louder than ordinary citizens is another.

Indeed in this country, there are two groups of people. In fact, some would call these groups the haves and the have-nots. This is an not inaccurate way of describing it, but those that would might have the two switched. Canadians form two groups: those that receive from the government and those pay to the government. Those who form — or are constituent to — organizations dependent on government policy (and spending) are firmly against the changes to the census. Those on the other side are largely ambivalent because they are the large, unorganized and unsubsidized net taxpaying masses.

The conservative/libertarian Fraser Institute think tank’s motto is “if it matters, measure it”. The untruth of the inverse of this statement is at the centre of why this government should follow through. “If you measure it, it matters” is the motto of those net tax receiving organizations who only matter if they can make their case. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has tried the ideological argument against these groups for years. But ideology is by its nature debatable; removing the framework of debate is his shortcut to victory.

If Stephen Harper succeeds in moving in this direction, he will be in the initial stages of dealing a huge blow to the welfare state. If one day we have no idea how many divorced Hindu public transit users there are in East Vancouver, government policy will not be concocted to address them specifically. Indeed if this group were organized (the DHPTUEV?) and looking for government intervention, they’d be against the census change. The trouble is that in Canada, the non-affiliated taxpayers not looking for a handout have not organized. Indeed, the only dog they have in this fight is the amount of tax they pay (aka “transfers”) to sustain the interests of others.

QMI’s David Akin exclaimed surprise that from his cell within the beehive of special interests that is Ottawa, he was shocked to find that a full half — that other half — of Canadians aren’t upset about the changes to the census when it seems that’s the only thing the other bees seem to be buzzing about. The story that “just won’t go away” is a flurry of activity “inside the beehive”, because until you go outside, you can’t see the forest for the trees.

The other recent Lockheed Martin-related news story of the past couple of weeks was the Conservative government’s huge sole-sourced $16 Billion contract with Lockheed Martin to buy F-35 fighter jets. Perhaps I was a bit naive to think that every part of that sentence should be offensive to the Ottawa media… sole-sourced… American arms dealer… flying war machines… Conservative government. No, this largest military purchase in Canadian history didn’t even make a significant blip on the Ottawa establishment radar, simply because it didn’t challenge the position of any special interest groups. There’s no bevy of community/cultural/government organizations ready to line up to criticize/laud such a move. If the government had taken $16 Billion out of HRSDC’s $80+ Billion annual budget to pay for it, however, there’d be a swarm.

I believe that this Prime Minister has a few objectives in mind as he integrates seemingly transactional initiatives into something transformative. First, he merged the Progressive Conservative party and the Canadian Alliance to challenge what seemed to be entrenched Liberal electoral domination. Through initiatives such as financial starvation via election finance reform and ideological force-feeding on the policy front, Stephen Harper seeks to diminish or destroy the Liberal Party to replace them with the Conservatives as Canada’s default choice for government. His greatest challenge is to dismantle the modern welfare state. If it can’t be measured, future governments can’t pander. I imagine that Stephen Harper’s view, Canada should be a country of individual initiative, not one of collective dependence “justified” through the collection of data.