Hello everyone. I'm looking forward to this discussion. There were literally thousands of comments in the thread attached to the original story, and I received many emails as well. I'm keen to hear your thoughts.
Thanks for joining us today, John. Your article has so far racked up more than 2,000 comments which is no small feat, and you mention you received many e-mails. From the response so far, are there many common themes in the feedback? Did anything in particular really touch a nerve among readers?
One thing that many people commented on was my use of the word "principled" as in "principled Conservative." There are a lot of people out there who think our PM has no principles. I used the word to mean that Mr. Harper believes strongly in, and generally adhere to, conservative principles. Whether he's a principled politician is, of course, a matter of some debate.
In your piece, you write that Mr. Harper's "notorious personal reserve incities suspicion", which is something that I see frequently among responses from commenters. What is it exactly about Mr. Harper that causes so much concern? His trustworthiness seems to be something that comes up again and again.
Mr. Harper is anything but charismatic. Although he's getting better at it, he seems genuinely uncomfortable in the sorts of forums that politicans are usually immersed in--shaking hands on the street, the rally, the political barbecue. He is anyting but a natural politician. People picked up on this long ago, and for those who oppose his agenda, it feeds into their conviction that there is some hidden agenda that he's hiding.
There are three phases to the Tories' fiscal conservatism, Aaron. In the first, they cut taxes but didn't rein in spending.
In the second, they ramped up spending and deficits to combat the recession, which was hardly conservative, but which every government was doing.
Now, in the third phase, they are eliminating the deficit by reinging in spending. So this year there are actual cuts. But going forward, they plan to limit spending increases to two per cent annually, which is less than the rate of inflation and population growth. Any economist will tell you, that's incredibly hard for a government to do.
So yes, the fiscal agenda going forward is definitely conservative.
Good question, David. I think the Conservative approach to these "strivers" or middle class suburban voters, is to keep taxes low, to support immigration, because many of them are immigrants, to offer incentives such as tax credits for children's sports equipment, and to stress law and order, since community safety is a large concern for many of them, even though the data shows crime rates actually decreasing.
The interesting thing regarding Ontario, Hound, is that both the Harper Conservatives and the McGuinty Liberals are supported by the same voters--those strivers in the so-called 905 area surrounding Toronto. I think part of the Harper demonization of the Ontario Liberals is part partisan politics, part genuine concern over the size of the Ontario gov't deficit and part sheer cussedness on the part of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. And no, I don't see it ending anytime soon.
You may be right, Mr. Hewitt. But it seems to me the shift is indeed fundamental, because it marked the alliance of suburban Ontario voters with Western voters. If I'm wrong then, yes, you'll see those Ontario voters shift back in the next election. But my own take is that the shift is not going to happen anytime soon, because there is a values consensus developing within that 40 per cent. Now, how the other 60 per cent respond, and which of the other political parties they respond to, is the big question. But for now, this is my thesis and I'm sticking to it.
I think the Harper government is unique, Martini, in the extent to which they try to control the message by limiting access by the media to people and information within the government. But you are also right that, just as governments everywhere are centralizing the decision-making process within the office of the executive--the PMO, the West Wing, 10 Downing et al--so too governments everywhere are working hard to try control the message coming out of government. The Conservatives just do it with particular enthusiasm.
One way in which they are trying to make their reforms permanent, Jesse, is by permanently shrinking the federal footprint. By cutting taxes, they make it harder for the next government to raise taxes...
by getting out of federal oversight of health care, which they're at least partly done, they make it harder for the next government to exert greater control over health care...
And, of course, by deregulating and dismantling, especially in the area of environmental controls, they make it harder for the next government to reregulate. Even if a future government
does restore controls, pipelines that are built stay built.
They do need serious funding, Jesse. That said, the health-care transfers will remain robust for a couple of more years, and then will rise at the rate of inflation and economic growth, which is not a bad rate. If needs exceed that available funding, then the provinces may have to occupy the tax room vacated by the federal government--increase their own taxes, in other words. That will be easier for big governments with a large tax base than for smaller or poorer provincial governments, however.
Scott, you are right to argue that there is a generation bias going on, with the boomers earning a disproportionate amount of government attention and resources, and with the younger generations expected to bear the burden. My generation has always been selfish that way. That said, a reasonable increase in the retirement age, given our much greater lifespans, is a reasonable policy, and one being emulated throughout the developed world. The one area in which I would take great exception would be if education and child support funding were cut back, simply because the Boomers children are now grown up. That would not only be deeply unfair, but damaging to both the economy and to society. We should all watch governments carefully to ensure nothing like that happens.
Well I think "the dismantling of the country as we know it" goes a bit far, DK, but there is no question that the Conservatives under Harper seek to permanently and significantly shrink the role of Ottawa in domestic policy, focusing instead on defence, crime and economic growth. I have argued in the past, and still believe, that this is how the federation is supposed to work, and how the Constitution originally intended things to work. But many will disagree, arguing that Ottawa should play a greater role in advancing and protecting national standards in social policy. For such folk, yes, the Tory policies do represent at least an unravelling, if not quite a dismantling, of what came before.
While John is working on his next response, I'm going to post some of your thoughts on issues brought up in the discussion so far.
You would think so, Mr. Beattie, but here's the problem: The Conservatives target older voters, generally, who are more likely as a group to vote. Younger voters are less likely to support the Conservatives. But they are less likely to vote, and every year the number of those entering the voting years who actually vote declines. Once you start at a lower level, it proves impossible to increase that level up to that of previous cohorts. So the other parties are working with a steadily shrinking voter base. Which is not good for them or for the democracy.
I think you are right to be concerned about the increasing disengagement of Quebec, Russ. But then, Quebec has been disengating since at least 1988, which was the last year they voted in substantial numbers for a governing party. Many federalist Quebeckers worry about what will happen if the Parti Quebecois comes to power in the next election. We will have to hope that the Harper policy of leaving Quebec alone is sufficent to ensure the support of most Quebeckers if there is a referendum. Though it doesn't hurt that the premier of Alberta is bilingual.
I can't begin to say, Maynard, whether the Consevatives will lose the next election. But for that to happen, either the NDP or the Liberals would need to get their support up into the high 30s, at least. The NDP is getting there, but the open question is whether that level of support would stay intact during an election campaign. My hunch is that, right now, the country isn't ready for an NDP government. But whether they will be ready in three years time, that's the question that makes this gig so much fun.
As for the government's greatest weakness, governments usually fall through incremental accretions of scandal, bad news, missteps. Like a minister who bills a $16 glass of OJ to the taxpayers.
The biggest obstacle to uniting the right, Kim, is that the Liberals and NDP are separate parties with separate histories. It took the Tories a decade to heal their rifts, and they were one party to start with...
So a union of the two parties, if it happens, will take a long time, and will only come about if everyone outside the Conservative tent gets so tired of losing that they are willing to do what it takes to win. How long could that be? Labour lost power to Margaret Thatcher in 1979, and it took 17 years until Labour got so sick of losing that they followed the advice of Tony Blair.
Thanks to everyone for the excellent questions and discussion today. Unfortunately we've reached the end of our time. Many, many thanks to John Ibbitson for joining us and sharing his insights. John, any final thoughts before we wrap up?
Thanks, everyone, for coming on here and asking such well-considered questions. I'll be writing on the Liberals for the online version of the paper tomorrow. See you then.