Harper Conservatives More Canadian Than Conservative

Are the Harper Conservatives changing Canada or is Canada changing the Harper Conservatives? Much as I like to complain about the government, I tend to think the answer is closer to the latter. One big reason? I follow American politics closely and so I inevitably find myself comparing Conservatives and Republicans. And from that limited perspective our erstwhile Reformers look remarkably moderate – which is to say, sweetly Canadian – and are getting steadily more so.

Consider two important conservatives who just got new jobs.

Peter Kent is Canada’s new environment minister, taking charge of the climate change file. Republican Congressman John Shimkus is the new chairman of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Environment and Energy, which will play a key role in the U.S. government’s handling of climate change.

And that’s where the similarities end.

Kent is a don’t-frighten-the-horses kind of conservative. Nothing extreme about him. He will be handling climate change on behalf of a government that publicly accepts the science behind anthropogenic climate change, and promises to curtail Canada’s emission of greenhouse gases, but seems far more concerned about PR damage to the tarsands industry and Canada’s reputation than climate change itself. The same was true of previous Liberal environment ministers. So you could say this approach – bland hypocrisy – is traditionally Canadian.

Republicans have a different approach. Relative moderates such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie doubt whether science has established the reality of climate change, while growing numbers of hardliners say the whole thing is a socialist scam. Shimkus is more relaxed about the issue, for reasons he explained at a 2009 Congressional hearing.

The Book of Genesis decrees that “as long as the Earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease,” Shimkus noted. So why sweat it? Everything will be fine. “I believe that’s the infallible word of God,” Shimkus said, “and that’s the way it’s going to be for His creation.”

Try to imagine Peter Kent reading from the Book of Genesis on the floor of the House of Commons.

Yes, Conservatives and Republicans may both be “conservative” but they are remarkably different creatures. Name the issue. Health care? If the most right- wing member of the Conservative cabinet gave a speech about his government’s policies to Republicans, he’d be tarred, feathered, and put on the no-fly list. Multiculturalism and bilingualism? The Conservatives have said nothing that would offend a San Francisco city councillor. God, gays, guns? Stephen Harper is slightly to the left of Barack Obama on all three.

And so on down the list.

Most Canadians – especially most non-conservative Canadians – would insist that crime is the big exception. After all, the Harper government has passed a long list of stiff mandatory minimum sentences and prison construction looks set to be the growth industry of the future. But again a little perspective is in order.

A decade ago, I was in a hotel room in Northern California, after a day spent in the terrifying supermax prison known as Pelican Bay. I turned on the TV. There was a story about a 13-year-old boy who had killed a playmate and was convicted of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in an adult prison, with no chance of parole for 25 years. A Republican Congressman expressed outrage at the sentence. The boy should have been convicted of first-degree murder, the Congressman thundered – and given life in an adult prison with no chance of parole, ever.

There are lots of hardliners in the Conservative government but I can’t think of one who would say that. A decade ago, some Reformers may have gone there. But not now. And that’s significant. It is a little-noticed fact that the “tough on crime” policies proposed by Reform and the Canadian Alliance were almost as punitive as the policies of Republicans. But over the years, they moderated. And the Harper government’s crime policies – as blockheaded and bloody-minded as I think they are – are nowhere near as brutal as the stuff most Republicans support.

On economics, there’s an even bigger gap.

“Appropriate, well-timed stimulus measures have yielded dividends in jobs and growth,” Stephen Harper said in a press release this week. Got that? In effect, Harper said, “our Keynesian approach worked!” If he were a Republican, he would have been excommunicated.

To today’s Republicans, economic policy begins and ends with tax cuts. No matter what the circumstances may be – boom, bust, surplus, deficit, whatever – the solution is always the same. Always. “Nothing is more important in the face of a war than cutting taxes,” Republican Tom DeLay once said.

But not just any old tax cut will do for Republicans. The focus has to be on cuts for the rich. Why? Because according to supply-side dogma – famously and correctly called “voodoo economics” by George H.W. Bush – this will spur economic growth like nothing else. Cutting taxes on the rich is such an all- consuming passion that Congressional Republicans recently refused to pass a bill to support sick 9-11 first-responders until President Obama agreed to extend tax cuts for people making more than $250,000 a year.

Much to their credit, Canadian Conservatives seem to recognize that cutting taxes won’t magically erase the deficit. And back when they had a surplus to spend, they took two points off the GST, which made the overall tax burden more progressive. In supply-side terms, that’s heresy. But supply-side is a religion with few followers among Conservatives – which explains why, in the index of Lawrence Martin’s Harperland, there are 16 entries under “Teneycke, Kory” but only one for “tax cut.”

Martin’s thesis, incidentally, is that Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are changing Canada, not the other way around. He may be right. But spending as much time watching Republicans as I do, it’s hard not to think the Conservatives are looking awfully Canadian these days.