In today’s Toronto Star, one of that publication’s best columnists, Thomas Walkom, has an excellent piece articulating with uncanny precision an argument that I have been making for years. This article truly is well worth the read for any engaged freethinker.
“Parties far closer than they admit”
By Thomas Walkom
Both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion paint their rivalry in near-apocalyptic terms.
Dion insists that Harper is defined by a “narrow-minded right-wing agenda…
“There has never been a federal election that has more clearly provided Canadians with such a stark choice,” he said on Sunday.
Harper says the choice is equally stark – between what he calls his solid, middle-of-the-road government and the wild-eyed notions of a radical academic.
“Canadians want prudence, not risk,” he said this week. “They want practical actions for the many, not theoretical ideas for the very few.”
All of this is vibrant rhetoric.
But in terms of deeds, the Conservatives and Liberals are far closer than their partisans admit.
Harper, in particular, has been careful not to stray too far from the centre-right orthodoxy of previous Liberal regimes. His critics insist that this is a ruse, that he has a hidden agenda ready to unleash if he wins a majority of Commons seats.
Yet there is little evidence of such an agenda.
As prime minister, Harper has deftly avoided most of the so-called culture war issues, from abortion to gay marriage.
Instead, he has taken aim at relatively low-budget federal schemes unpopular with his base – from a program that allowed disadvantaged groups to take on the government in court, to cultural grants that benefit those with whom the Conservatives disagree.
He has not dismantled what’s left of the welfare state, such as employment insurance. He hasn’t had to. Jean Chrétien’s previous Liberal government did it for him.
Like the Liberals, Harper has been happy to fund medicare.
But – again like the Liberals – he has ignored its creeping privatization, refusing to enforce the Canada Health Act.
Dion accuses Harper of squandering the $12 billion budgetary surplus he inherited.
If so, Harper has simply followed the Liberal lead, using this surplus to pay down debt, reduce taxes and boost federal spending.
In fact, most of Harper’s tax cuts (with the important exception of his decision to slash the GST) were supported by the Liberals.
Conversely, the Harper Conservatives have not been exactly parsimonious. During their two full years in government, federal spending on programs rose by about $20 billon.
During the last two full years of the previous Liberal government, program spending also rose by $20 billion.
True, the Conservatives favour military spending. But the Liberals are hardly peaceniks. They support Harper’s decision to keep Canadian combat troops in Afghanistan until at least 2011.
Even the parties’ scandals are eerily similar.
Four years ago, the RCMP was brought in to sort out the fabled Liberal sponsorship program.
This year, the RCMP was brought in to sort out a Conservative financing scheme that Elections Canada says is illegal.
This is not to say the two parties are identical. Dion says he would cut income taxes and impose new levies on commodities whose production involves carbon emissions. Harper says he wouldn’t.
But even this distinction is more complex than it seems. Dion’s scheme may help the environment. But by replacing progressive income taxes with a regressive consumption tax, he could help the rich at the expense of the middling classes. Conversely, Harper – in tax terms at least – could emerge here as the more leftish of the two. Which isn’t quite how he’s usually seen.
While I profoundly agree with Walcom’s argument in this article, I personally tend to go further insofar as I argue that while the NDP, Bloc Québecois and Greens are better than the two primary capitalist parties, they still have much more in common with them than any of the five would readily admit.
Those interested, can read my thoughts and arguments for why I believe this to be the case in these pieces: