Monday, September 15, 2008

'Conservative' in name only

For Canadians who embrace environmentalism, confiscatory tax rates and comprehensive government programs, the October 14 federal election offers an embarrassment of riches. Folks who believe that meaningful tax cuts are overdue, however, and that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has neglected his specific promises as well as conservatism in general, have fewer options. To wit, the former group has at least four parties to vote for; the latter, none.

Admittedly, Harper’s Conservative government has been in minority status since being elected in 2006, necessitating multi-party consensus to legislate. Indeed, perhaps this is Canada’s longest-standing minority government precisely because its movement toward conservative ideals has been glacial. But the fact remains that campaign pledges, such as leaving income trusts untouched and sticking to fixed election dates, as well as long-standing principles, like significant income tax cuts and reforming the CBC, have gone unfulfilled.

Lest we forget how this campaign started, it was the Harper government that opted to force an election, even after legislating the date of the next vote for October of 2009. Fixed election dates have been a tenet of the Conservative Party and its antecedents for at least a decade, but they abandoned that principle because they see a temporary advantage.

This government has moved to eliminate income trusts, which allow corporations to pay out earnings to unit-holders before paying taxes, despite repeatedly and explicitly promising to leave them intact.

Tax rates have yet to come down from the stratospheric range Canadians have endured for generations. A government cannot call itself conservative while citizens are still surrendering half their income in taxes.

And what about the CBC? Should Canadian taxpayers still be shelling out more than a billion dollars a year for a supposedly public broadcaster with a line-up that includes Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune? A true conservative would tell the CBC to buy its own vowel, but what is Harper’s plan?

In discussing these issues with several members of Harper’s cabinet and caucus, I have found their reactions range from apologies for the slow progress to outright denials that commitments were broken or that conservative ideals have not been served. It is this latter response that is particularly disconcerting.

On taxes, for instance, their talking points seem to be that the GST has been cut, as promised, reducing the federal government’s haul by billions of dollars, and Tax Freedom Day, that glorious dawn when Canadians stop working for the government and start working for themselves, comes earlier.

But the point of tax cuts is not to reduce government revenue. The idea is that giving folks the freedom to spend and invest their own money, rather than handing it over to the government, spurs economies and leads to higher tax revenues. Myriad examples, from North America to Europe to Asia, bear this out, but do Canada’s Conservatives believe in the concept? How can we know? Certainly not from their record.

On income trusts, they say that circumstances changed since they committed to leave them alone. But the point of making a promise is that you keep it even when it is difficult.

The issue isn’t even whether income trusts are good for the economy, or whether corporate taxes foregone would have been made up by personal income taxes and foreign investment. The point is, one thing was said and another was done. It is not the end of the world, but it’s a fact. More important, what does this say about the Harper government and how it would legislate with a majority?

On fixed election dates, they claim that pledge was only applicable to majority governments – such a by-the-book technicality might strike hockey-minded Canadians as a “chintzy call” – and, since the Liberals would probably have forced an election this fall anyway, this broken promise doesn’t count.

As to the CBC, they see it as a sensitive issue at election time, so they become refreshingly mute.

The question becomes, then, if those who hold conservative views cannot find much reason to support Stephen Harper’s party, where else can they take their votes?

Harper is helped by having opponents who would dissolve the fabled wall between church and state by making the religion of environmental druidism the law of the land. Beyond the Liberal and Green parties, Harper is facing straightforward separatists and unreconstructed socialists. Harper is probably the best leader on offer but, as comedian Dennis Miller might opine, that is like being the smartest kid in summer school.

For years, Harper’s handlers have been unsure as to just how to package him. They have fluctuated between having him glare out at voters from campaign posters to the most recent incarnation, which has him sitting by the fireplace in comfortable clothes, discussing what it’s like to be a dad. It’s a shift from scaring children to talking about them. But shooting a steel blue gaze straight into the camera is not leadership, nor does donning a sweater-vest evince character. For all the image-making, he remains an enigma.

Fundamentally, Canadians still don’t know what to make of the man who has been their Prime Minister for almost three years, or what to expect if he is re-elected. If Harper does have a Hidden Agenda, as his detractors claim, it is hidden even from those who would be his supporters.

On specific issues including income trusts and fixed election dates, Harper’s government has not been straight with the voters, and on bedrock conservative principles like meaningful tax cuts, it has been absent. These are not unforgiveable transgressions but, if the Conservatives are returned to power, they should start living up to their name. - Theo Caldwell, president of Caldwell Asset Management, Inc., is an investment advisor in the United States and Canada.