The lessons of having power

Conservatives and Canadians are clinging to steep learning curves. Three years into power, Conservatives are just getting the hang of government and Canadians are getting the lowdown on Conservatives.

Conservatives and Canadians are clinging to steep learning curves. Three years into power, Conservatives are just getting the hang of government and Canadians are getting the lowdown on Conservatives.

With deficits soaring and election drums beating, the time is ripe to review the most memorable lessons. Stephen Harper and clustered loyalists should now be fully aware that what in opposition seems so simple, so self-evident, is in power so complex, so layered in ambiguity. Voters and taxpayers should know that what sounds so good when Conservatives say it too often turns out so badly.

Examples are in sadly ample supply. Cutting taxes, standing tall in Afghanistan and making government accountable have the immediate appeal of free beer. But it’s the country now nursing the hangovers.

Twice trimming the GST while spending ran wild accelerated the slide from surpluses to deficits. Exaggerated Kandahar expectations deflated with Harper’s glum admission that the Taliban won’t be beaten. Binding bureaucrats in red tape created a work-to-rule slowdown that’s turning a raging stimulus into a tiny trickle as civil servants refuse to put themselves at risk cutting corners.

That pattern is as current as this week’s news. Buying into a bankrupt car company seemed liked sound politics until mad-as-hell forest workers marched on Parliament demanding equal treatment. Letting victims pursue terrorists and rogue states into court looks great in bold type and may tilt diaspora votes but the small print warns the chances are pretty slim of getting compensation, not to mention the risks to diplomats serving abroad.

All parties make mistakes and those in power for the first time make the most. Freed from the discipline imposed by experience, they go boldly where the prudent haven’t gone before.

So it’s more worrying than surprising that Harper consistently ignores available evidence in setting a course that can only lead nowhere good. Economists flagged that GST fiddling was lousy tax policy. History and regional tensions guaranteed that snuffing a few “scumbags and murderers,” in Rick Hillier’s gung-ho words, wouldn’t make feudal Afghanistan a modern democracy.

Dissing bureaucrats while blaming them for political sins was certain to create gridlock when the ruling party inevitably came begging for favours.

Leaders learn as well as bend to gusting winds. But while Harper’s policies shift, his politics are constant. Positioning is paramount in a dysfunctional minority Commons locked into serial elections and this prime minister consistently wrong-foots opponents by promising more than his government delivers.

That may never win Conservatives a majority; but it does keep rivals on the defensive. Liberals in particular are forced to rebut tape-loop charges that they will raise taxes, don’t support the troops, are ethically challenged, soft on crime and indifferent to the concerns of real, hard-working Canadians.

Muddled, inconsistent messaging and the internal bickering common to parties wandering the political wasteland helped make that strategy successful enough to carry two Conservative campaigns to victory. But recession, the hard truths of counter-insurgency and the tests of time all governments and their decisions must pass eventually flatten the steepest learning curves.

Conservatives now are but a rough facsimile of the party that in 2006 came to power, and Canadians have precious few reasons to be confused about the ruling party’s tactics, character or purpose.

James Travers is a national affair columnist for The Toronto Star.

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