Saturday, May 15, 2004
Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper in Toronto Friday. (CP/ Derek Oliver)
[ PHOTO OF HARPER REMOVED ]
There are two big stories in the leaked election platform of the new Conservative party. One is the saga of the leak itself and the possible political damage caused by the premature release of what may well be the most important determinant of the party's fortunes. The second story is the platform itself, a little masterpiece of political strategy and a brilliant mirror of the soul of the New Conservatism.
Let's face it. Demand Better, the theme of the document, is not the platform of an ideological machine hellbent on turning Canada into a radical libertarian free-market society. Nor is it the redneck social conservative caricature the Liberals hope to pound into oblivion during the election. The new Conservatives, under Stephen Harper, are clearly making a bold and genuine attempt to forge a fresh Canadian consensus.
As a result, Demand Better will disappoint Conservatives whose many heartfelt ideas will have been watered down or ignored. More disappointed, however, may well be the Liberals. They should certainly be worried. This is no time for Liberal arrogance, because Demand Better, for all its flaws and irritations, comes across as a deeply honest effort to create a political alternative that has broad appeal, an alternative that has some chance of giving the Conservatives a shot at overthrowing the Liberals.
Honesty and a sense of integrity may be exactly what Canadians will be looking for in this election. There is also a simplicity to the program. It sets grand objectives aimed at raising Canada's economic performance, improving ethics, lowering taxes, boosting the armed forces and improving relations with the United States. But the specific measures are modest, within reach, easily doable. The significant 25% tax cuts are aimed directly at the middle class, $50,000 wage earner -- but the annual cost will amount to only $6-billion once it's phased in after four years.
Every part of the platform seems grounded in reality. These are things that can be done without stretching any budget or program or anyone's imagination. The platform laces into Liberal scandals and spending, for example, and then makes concrete proposals to improve governance in Ottawa. It would increase the role of the auditor-general and end corporate and union donations and the Liberals' taxpayer subsidies to political parties. Federal elections would be held on a fixed date every four years. The infamous election gag law would be killed.
The Conservatives could bring in their entire platform within their first year in power without rocking any boats. These are promises that can be kept. More than a few would be better not kept, unfortunately. The party's commitment to the farm marketing board system and its plan to transfer gasoline tax revenues to the provinces would be better off left in the Liberal platform.
What Demand Better lacks most of all is cynicism, and in this the platform seems to reflect the party's leader. At a C.D. Howe Institute luncheon yesterday, an hour or two before the unfortunate leak, Mr. Harper made no attempt to hide or fake his objectives. His stance, and the platform's stance, on the most contentious social issues reflects the membership of the new Conservatives. On the volatile gay marriage issue, the party sticks to policy that differentiates it from the Liberal policy. It will leave the issue to Parliament rather than the courts.
It's a platform designed to win an election, a consensus-building agenda that aims to bring diverse views together. To pick one example: after Mr. Harper outlined his plan for a new Registered Lifetime Savings Plan -- a sound, modest and responsible proposal if ever there was one -- a member of the business audience raised a business question. An RLSP is fine for small investors, but what about venture capital and Canada's investment and capital gains taxes.
Unfazed, Mr. Harper -- who has an economics degree -- said that while he personally felt that "the capital gains tax is on its face counterproductive" economically, he had no intention of launching the new Conservatives into a major reform of corporate or investment taxation. His objective, he said, is to remain focused on a platform that is clear, understandable, doable and will win the election.
On taxes, Stephen Harper is no George Bush. But as the polls seem to say, Canadians don't want George Bush.
© National Post 2004
I saw the original story on Canada.com (what an ugly site!), here http://www.canada.com/national/natio...2-4f6b5c2fdbd1