Saturday, February 25, 2006

A Canadian Future

The Globe and Mail is reporting that the new Conservative government is going to cancel the Liberals national day care deal. The Liberals only worked out a national day care deal out of a desparate hope that they might hold on to power. I simply don't believe that Paul Martin who, as Finance Minister, engineered the most grevious cuts ever made to the welfare state, suddenly realized his true self and moved to defend, even expand, it. Sure, there are left wing Liberals. Sure, there is a solid rationale in liberal political theory for supporting a national day care plan. None of this, however, had much play before the Liberal Party found itself in a minority position in the federal legislature. But ... at least we finally had a national day care plan that would pump millions, perhaps even billions into childcare. Canadians could finally say we had put our money where out mouth is, stood up for children, and stood up for families. The Conservatives don't see matters this way. They think the that families with child care givers at home should be subsidized as much as those that need child care outside the home (IOW, need does not matter). At the heart of this cancellation -- if The Globe is right -- is a core conservative value. The traditional family should be supported by the state. The state should do all it can to prevent a redefinition of marriage (reserving the term for straight people only), it should not subsidize day spots because Conservatives (in their heart of hearts don't want people using them), and it should subsidize wherever possible the traditional family.

I make all these points to make anotherone that actually has nothing to do with child care. We can expect the Conservative government of Stephen Harper to act on principle. One might believe that principle was in pretty short supply in the dying days of the Liberal government, and maybe it was. The problem that we will confront is not "will the Conservatives act on principle" but will we Canadians like that principle. I lived in Ontario during the Harris years and, heck, everyone loved his principles ... until they found out what they meant. Tax cuts impoverished the provincial treasury forcing cut backs in health care, education, and shelters for poor and battered people. They simultaneously ensured that the provincial government did not have the cash to deal with the provincial debt and ensured that the federal government did not take their claim to need more money seriously (you cut taxes and ask us to give you more money?). People quickly found out that "back to basics" in education meant that parents had less control over what their kids learned in school. A free market in insurance caused prices to go up. Law and order did not translate into lower crime rates (remember, the Harris government was going to build youth boot camps all over the province) because it does not address the cause of crime and it proceeds from the assumption that the decision to commit a crime is a calculated cost/benefit decision.

None of this was unprincipled. In fact, it was completely in keeping with neo-Conservative principles and I suspect that the neo-Cons who ran Ontario were shocked to discover that tax cuts did not increase provincial revenues. Their ultra capitalist principles said it would. I think they were shocked to discover that there still is crime after they "got tough" because their ideology told them that the reason for crime was social laxness. And ... we could go on, but I will take it that the point has been demonstrated: the issue is not principle, the issue is what the principle is. About half of the people who voted Conservative in the last election said afterward that they did not support Conservative principles, but instead wanted to get rid of the Liberals. Well ... I hate to tell you this: by voting for Conservatives, what you actually get is Conservatives. If you elect a Conservative, that is who goes to Parliament.

For me, a key concern is how the Conservatives will respond to cultural regulation in Canada. Canada's distinct existence as a separate nation in North American -- with vibrant music, tv, and other culture industries -- is ensured by a host of cultural regulations. This includes everything from tax subsidies to movie production companies, to Canadian content legislation, to preserving the National Gallery. It is a lot. What are the Conservatives going to do about this? What does there principle tell them they should do?

Frankly, I don't know. No one talked very much about cultural policy in the last federal election. In fact, no one talked much about anythying other than to tell us over and over again that the Liberals were so corrupt we better vote for someone else regardless of the type of public policies we actually wanted (I find this shocking, by the way: don't vote for what you want in terms of policy vote for what you don't want so you can elect someone with principle who will actually give you want you don't want. This is an odd logic). In the past, conservative thinkers in Canada used to defend the CBC and cultural regulation. It is true: read George Grant if you doubt me. Today, however, they tend to be pro-market, opposed to anything that smacks to them of "special interests" and I suspect that the state regulation of culture will be one of the things that they will go after. I hope not because, frankly, there are good reasons to regulate Canadian culture, not the least of which is to preserve Canada's distinctive national existence in North America. If we don't, the future for Canada is actually pretty bleak. Let's face it folks: if Canadians don't defend Canadian culture, is anyone else going to do it for us? If Canadians don't act in their own interest, do we really expect the US will? Contemporary conservative principle says "the market will protect us" but then, contemporary conservative principles said tax cuts increased provincial revenue, putting bureaucrats in charge of education was "back to the basics" and that cutting health care and safety monitoring was a good risk.
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