week to cling to the assumption that Stephen Harper is
smarter than everyone else. Not after Elections Canada raided his party headquarters and his press shop couldn’t even organize a three-envelope leak. But Harper has been down before and, so far at least, he usually winds up on top later. So despite the current disarray, let us assume, and try to find, the elaborate Harper strategy behind a simple and persistent question: why is the guy so angry all the time?
I’ve never seen a leader attack the other person’s motive as reliably as Harper does whenever he is crossed. Linda Keen was worried about nuclear safety? Must be a Liberal hack. Fire her. Elections Canada enforces the Elections Act? Some kind of weird vendetta. The Senate, the CBC, the parliamentary committee system, the military complaints commission-anyone who gets in Harper’s way will have their motives denigrated and their progress halted, by any means necessary, courtesy of the Harper PMO.
“It is the angry style of this government that leaves it stalled in the polls,” Rex Murphy said on the CBC after the Keen firing, calling Harper’s style a “reflex streak of vindictiveness.”
Sure. Unless there’s more to it than that?
This will take some explaining. Return with us now to the thrilling days of late 2001, when Harper was a private citizen contemplating a run for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance. He popped up at an Alliance breakfast meeting on competitiveness policy outside Vancouver. For a fellow mulling a comeback, his speech was no barnburner. Indeed it was built to make a point only a wonk could love: that the optimal size for a nation’s government is about 30 per cent of gross domestic product. A bigger government simply wastes money and gets in the way, he said. “Canada
is 50 cents on the dollar above that level,” he told Alliance competitiveness junkies. In other words, Canada’s various levels of government were spending closer to 45 per cent of GDP and needed pruning.
And what a pruning it would have to be. Total federal spending in 2001 was about $120 billion, so Harper sounded like he was calling for $40 billion in cuts to government spending. Shutting down a half-dozen government departments wouldn’t begin to do it.
There’s another way, however: simply ensure the government grows more slowly than the economy. Eventually you’ve got a smaller government than you’d have if you’d let up on the brakes. And indeed that’s the result governments in Canada have achieved after
He’s out to shrink the size of government. Bureaucrats better keep their heads down.
15 years of (relative!) restraint.
Figures from the OECD show that in 1990, Canada’s federal, provincial and local governments together spent about 48.8 per cent of the country’s GDP. By 1992 that figure had grown to 53.3 per cent. But then you get Jean Chrétien, Ralph Klein, Mike Harris and the Bill Clinton boom of the mid-1990s. Growth returns and governments across the country cut spending. By 2001 government outlays as a share of GDP had already shrunk to 42 per cent, a little below the 45 per cent Harper mentioned in his speech. By 2006 when he became Prime Minister, the figure was down to 39-3 per cent. The OECD figures suggest that by next year it will have nudged down just a tad, to 38.5 per cent. For a guy who set a target of 30 per cent when he launched his second act in politics, this is interesting progress.
Here’s how interesting: average government outlays across the OECD have stayed roughly constant as a fraction of GDP between 1990 and 2009, so the size of Canada’s government has fallen from well above the OECD average to a little below. And whereas Canada’s gov-
ernments were spending 11.7 points more of GDP than U.S. governments in 1990, by 2009 the gap will have nearly disappeared. If you look at taxation instead of spending, the Canada-U.S. gap will have been cut in half. By the crude yardsticks of total taxation and total spending, Canada’s governments have converged sharply with their U.S. neighbours.
Whether this is a good thing depends on your perspective. My friend Andrew Coyne will say Canada’s governments are still monumentally profligate, that it’s absurd to ask government to grow as fast as the economy does, and that lopping another third off the state could hardly hurt. I’d argue that a decade and a half of (relative!) restraint was a good thing, but that a politics that values
only tax rebates and debt reduction has lost a certain sense of possibility. The latest federal budget predicts tax rates next year will be “the lowest since 1963-64.” Isn’t it time to loosen up a little?
But that’s precisely the reaction Harper fears. He wants a government the size of a dinner muffin. Canada is still far from that goal. And the pendulum could start swinging back at any moment.
So he needs to salt the earth. If the Tories manage to lose the next election, Harper wants to ensure the Liberals don’t reverse the (relative!) restraint of the Chrétien years. So he’s working hard to delegitimize the very idea of government action by denigrating any public organization dumb enough to stick its head up. That’s also why he sent a few cabinet ministers, armed with paint bombs, after Dalton McGuinty’s Ontario government.
Reflex vindictiveness? It’s probably reflex, all right. But indulging the reflex is strategy. M
ON THE WEB: For more Paul Wells, visit his blog at www.macleans.ca/inklesswells
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