Nothing is ever quite as it appears in federal politics. Take, for example, the cosy relationship between guns and Conservatives.
Things that go bang in the night are the gift that keeps on giving for the ruling party. Guns help define less intrusive Conservative government at home and more muscular foreign policies abroad.
So it’s hardly surprising that a law-and-order administration associates itself with arms raffles or that Stephen Harper made the Afghanistan war his own and so often uses soldiers as props. What’s remarkable is that keeping gun control alive is better for the Tories than keeping the promise to kill it.
Liberals did Conservatives a lasting favour by introducing the long-gun registry and then letting a break-even proposition become a $2 billion embarrassment synonymous with red tape. With the possible exception of same-sex marriage, nothing alienated more Western, centre-right and rural voters. Once-safe Liberal seats swung Conservative and haven’t budged.
How valuable is the registry to Harper? Precious enough that Tories continue to bash it as symbolic of the Liberal nanny state, but have not abolished it in three years in power. Harper is now leaving its fate to a private member’s bill — a process prone to failure.
Revealing in itself, that choice masks a greater contradiction. This government is perpetuating the system that allowed gun-control costs to spiral out of control before Parliament noticed. Worse, Harper is exacerbating the problem by insisting on more spending freedom while yanking the leash on the budget watchdog he apparently wishes he hadn’t created.
Where parties stand in Ottawa depends on where they sit in the Commons. The opposition righteously demands financial transparency; the government defends the opaqueness that makes following the dollars impossible.
If Conservatives listened to their own rhetoric — and weren’t hunting eastern, swing and urban voters — shooting the gun registry would have been a first-term priority.
If they believed in protecting the public purse, then the prime minister wouldn’t be asking for $3 billion to spend behind closed doors.
If accountability was more than a slogan, parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page wouldn’t be fighting for the independence and funding necessary to do his job.
What Conservatives grasp — and what the forecast of deficits for years to come makes so much more important — is that adding oversight to loose spending exponentially increases the risks of political damage.
Just as the gun registry separated Liberals from their voters, an expose of, say, a bailout gone wrong or infrastructure millions somehow finding their way into politically friendly pockets could abruptly distance Conservatives from those who hoped changing ruling parties would also change government behaviour.
That risk began rising in September when the stock market fell. It pushed into the danger zone last week with U.S. outrage over AIG’s relatively small yet hugely telling use of a public bailout for private bonuses.
Along with bringing simmering anger to the boil, that utterly callous decision brought voters back to their senses. Public scrutiny is never more essential than when politicians are throwing around wads of public money.
Liberals paid the highest political price for avoiding that discipline. Now Conservatives are making the same mistake even as they continue pointing fingers at the Liberal folly.
What both missed or ignored is that ruling parties put themselves at greatest peril when they spend fast, loose and in the dark.
Jim Travers writes for The Toronto Star Syndicate.