Could the Budget Have Exposed the Tories' Right Flank?
If there's one thing everyone can agree on regarding the federal budget, it's that it was rather unexpected. Jim Flaherty, the right-wing neo-conservative Finance minister under Mike Harris, delivered a budget for Stephen Harper that is, quite unbelievably, the highest spending budget in Canadian history. Paul Martin under Jean Chretien was actually more, well, conservative than the Conservatives. Hard to believe, but numbers don't lie.
Stephen Harper, being the long game strategist that he has shown himself to be, probably has a few more tricks up his sleeve, but by and large, I think this budget tipped the Tories' election hand. Their plan: to spend more liberally than the Liberals. It is true that most observers were predicting a big-spending budget, I don't think anybody was expecting a big-spending budget that didn't include large tax cuts, targetted specifically at the middle class. That these cuts were not included means that the Tories are probably planning to promise them to voters in the next election. But the problem this creates is - why should fiscal conservatives trust the Harper government to implement their program when the Liberals under Martin and Chretien were doing a much better job of that?
This raises the question - are the Conservatives at risk of losing their right flank? Not the social conservatives - the Tories have them in a bag at the moment, because they have nowhere else to go. Maybe if the Tories fail to do anything substantive on the big social conservative issues, they will lose those voters to a splinter party, however not for many years yet. But the tax cut craving supply-side conservatives could possibly be wooed - by the Liberals.
I'm aware that it is probably crazy to be speculating about the Conservative Party of Canada losing its right flank to the Liberals; nothing like that has ever happened before in Canadian politics. Well, unless you count the PC/Reform split in 1993. But certainly neither major party has ever defeated the other by cutting into its base. Well, unless you count the Diefenbaker Progressive Conservatives' two victories in 1957 and 1958 - victories achieved in large part because Diefenbaker campaigned to the left of the Liberals. Hmm. Well, alright, maybe there is precedent for that happening.
Fiscal conservatives can't be happy with this budget. I'm not really a fiscal conservative myself - not in the sense of people like Mike Harris and Ralph Klein - but Coyne is, and he makes an excellent barometer of the eco-con mood. And he is not happy with this budget. Really not happy. (Incidentally, he also explains why the Tories are being dishonest when they say this budget actually does have tax cuts.)
The appeal the Liberal Party could make to voters with an eye for the deductions portion of their paycheque is simple: look at the 90s and early 00s. A decade of fiscal discipline, spending cuts, and tax cuts. Compare to the last two Conservative budgets - one of which saw a tax increase, and one of which saw large spending increases, but no real tax relief. "Why bother going with those guys when we've already proven that we're better for you?"
It's an appeal they might be able to sell. Or it may flop - but it's certainly a move worth considering. After all, with polls showing Harper in majority territory recently, it's clear the Liberals need a radical change in direction if they hope to end up anywhere after the next election except the Opposition benches across the aisle from a majority government. If Harper wants to fish in our pond, fine - let's fish in his.