Monday, October 13, 2008

Nearing the finish line

Canadians will go to the polls on Tuesday (if they haven't already), and most likely elect a Parliament that will probably have a few fewer Liberal seats, and a few more Conservative and NDP seats. The Greens will likely fail once again to elect a single MP. Harper tried to beat the clock on the financial crisis, and failed. But this only means a minority instead of a majority; not a Liberal government.

I'm a little depressed about this outcome, because I think the Liberals had by far the best platform of the major parties, with a bold (but not radical) attempt to address both climate change and a changing energy economy in one swift stroke, and also the promise of competent economic stewardship in a time of crisis.

On the other hand, Harper's Conservatives offered very little in the way of new ideas, preferring to run on "leadership", and present Harper as a cuddly teddy bear in blue sweaters, as opposed to the cold, emotionless robot that much of the public believes he is. The latter met with limited success, but the "leadership" thing was enough for some, including MacLeans and The Globe and Mail, both of which endorsed Harper.

I must say that I am troubled at the ease by which Harper shifts positions whenever convenient. Afghanistan is a good example; just a year ago, Harper was positively Mavericky, insisting that a timetable for withdrawal was a bad, bad idea. Now, he has announced a set date for a complete pullout, in direct opposition to NATO strategy overall. Then there was income trusts. And fixed election dates.

Harper has attempted to govern from the center, but he has one undeniable conservative accomplishment: getting money out of Ottawa. That was the rationale behind the GST cut, which was bad economics, but brilliant politics. That was the rationale behind "equalization" payments. And it has gone pretty much unnoticed.

Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on your own beliefs. But there is a strong undercurrent of cynicism inherent in Harper's style of politicking.

No stranger to dirty politics, having been smeared as a crazy right wing nutjob who would put troops on our streets, Harper has turned the tables on his adversaries, and used much the same tactics in defining Dion as weak and indecisive, and convincing a sizable percentage of the Canadian population that a carbon tax is something to be feared, and a potentially disastrous blow to our stumbling economy. Harper knows this isn't true. Hell, the Conservative environmental plan (which would include indirect cap and trade markets, through carbon "credits" that can be earned by firms that beat their regulatory targets) kinda sorta puts a price on carbon too, but it's slightly more opaque. Here's Andrew Coyne:

In sum, the Conservative plan is just as costly (per tonne of emissions reduced) as the Liberals', twice as complicated (emissions trading markets are, as Europe has learned, fiendishly difficult to design: just the task of ensuring credits are based on "real, incremental, verifiable" reductions would take several pages to explain), and probably half as effective. (Not that there's anything wrong with cap-and-trade. But to get anywhere near our targets, we're probably going to need both a carbon tax and cap-and-trade, as indeed the Liberals propose.) The Tory plan has, however, proved unassailably superior in political terms. The very thing that makes the Liberal plan less risky economically — the costs are known up front — makes it more risky politically. The Conservatives have succeeded in implying, without quite saying, that the choice is between a costly scheme and no costs at all. They've hit the political sweet spot: enough of a plan to say they have a plan, but not so much as to get in anyone's face.

He goes on to note that while the Green Shift is unconvincing in its committment to revenue neutrality, and far from a perfect plan, the Conservatives take the cake in demagoguery:

But it is the Conservatives who have been the demagogues-in-chief in this affair. Among the long-term costs will be Conservative credibility. The same Conservatives who have told us for years that prices, in a market economy, are to be preferred to regulation as a means of changing economic behaviour, suddenly forget their economics when it comes to pricing carbon. The same Conservatives who have long insisted that tax rates are critical to incentives seemingly cannot comprehend the logic of shifting taxes from income to carbon. And the same Conservatives who have long lectured us that "corporations don't pay taxes, people do" — that any costs imposed on business will inevitably be passed on, usually to consumers — would rather we forgot they ever mentioned it.

Dion tried, and mostly failed, to make the argument that a Green Shift is not too expensive to risk, but too expensive to put off. We need a green economy to compete in the 21st century. No one who seriously considers the issue will deny this. And it isn't going to happen with intensity based targets and a 2006 baseline.

So yeah, I'm a little unhappy with the way things are going.

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