Tories choose expediency over Canada
November 03, 2007
This city has better prospects than this country. With its Parliament buildings, museums and World Heritage Rideau Canal, Ottawa is a future Canada theme park, a crowd-pleasing magnet for nostalgia tours.
No weirder than Walt Disney's Epcot illusion of circling the globe without leaving America, Ottawa as fantasyland edged closer twice this week. First, the government willingly accelerated its own irrelevancy by trimming the GST and then scored on its own goal a second time by opening the door to 2,000 more family immigrants.
Seemingly unconnected, those decisions are linked by dumb and dumber policies as well as by politics too smart by half. Look hard and maybe find an economist to praise taking a point off the GST and an expert to argue that reuniting kin is a priority. But the overwhelming evidence is that the tax cut and quota shift are as bad for Canada as they are good for Conservatives.
No question both will be popular. Imposed by Tories and saved by a Liberal broken promise, the GST is a hands-in-your-pocket daily irritant. Bringing the folks over here from over there is a feel-good exercise that warms ethnic voters to the party in power.
Trouble is, one is lousy economics, the other damages the economy. Together they reduce federal relevancy by further limiting its ability to make this a better country. Tilting to a consumer tax cut pours kerosene on an already overheated retail sector, while personal and corporate relief would stimulate productivity, savings and investment. Skewing to family members rather than to economic immigrants inflates social costs and deflates the benefits of attracting the brightest and best to a country that needs the brains and, more contentiously, the numbers.
Conservatives hungry for a majority calculate that Canadians won't notice or care. Trickle down GST savings and relatives arriving at the airport obscure bigger problems as well as the larger truth that Ottawa is retreating from its core responsibility to lead. Fearing the political consequences of asking citizens to consider policy options, this government does what's clearly expedient even when it's demonstrably foolish.
Still, there's no free lunch even in the city that entitlement made infamous. Saving each of us pennies on coffee will cost us all $34 billion over five years, money more profitably spent on health care, education, cities, poverty and the environment. Heck, it would be far better invested integrating new immigrants into a Canada that no longer delivers what it promises.
Those aren't central to Stephen Harper's vision or among his priorities. Rolling back the GST is just another, more immediate, less controversial way of limiting federal spending powers, of devolving the country into a community of communities. Government with less money will be less intrusive even if it's less able to do those things that make successful countries more liveable at home and competitive abroad.
True, Ottawa's evolution into a theme park is its self-fulfilling prophecy that transcends parties. A bullying executive, a weakling Parliament and a bureaucracy better known for scandal than efficient service delivery is an edifice easily dismantled by those who sacrifice policy to politics.
Let this continue long enough and all that will stand between the capital and the wrecking ball of irrelevance is its future as a tourist attraction. Bet on a high price to take a peek.
James Travers' national affairs column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.