Thursday, May 28, 2009

Politics: Nixonian Indeed

OTTAWA, ONTARIO - It's hard not to pass through the epicenter of Canadian politics without paying some attention to recent happenings here. The talk of much of Canada in recent days has been the announcement by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty that the budget deficit for 2009 will be $50 billion, a substantial increase since the last official estimate in February, which was $19 billion.

In many ways, I have some sympathy for the current government in general and Jim Flaherty in particular. It is his job (and that of the government as a whole) to be a cheerleader for the economy to encourage people to behave as normally as possible. They have to balance not overstating a deficit--which would cause unnecessary panic in financial circles--and underestimating the deficit by so much that their competence is called into question. Unfortunately, they appear to have taken the latter course and missed the mark so widely that the opposition is rightfully questioning their competence. The general consensus is not that the deficit is necessarily too large in a severe recession--most of those who think that are Conservative supporters anyway--but that the government doesn't seem to have a clue how big it will actually be.

So, the opposition in general and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff in particular have been having a field day criticizing the government. The government's reaction has been more than a little odd, increasing their running of attack ads against Ignatieff, many of which focus on his time spent outside of Canada. Besides alienating the substantial number of immigrant voters in Canada, which makes the whole tactic somewhat questionable, this play to patriotism also seems to head straight toward the old adage about patriotism as the last refuge of scoundrels. By trying to make the patriotism of the opposition leader an issue, the Conservatives may be marking themselves as scoundrels.

Then there's the recent statement by Prime Minister Stephen Harper that he is happy that Ignatieff is the opposition leader because of the tapes he has of the Liberal. It's not entirely clear what that meant. Ignatieff has responded by calling the statement "Nixonian." Funny, I think accused Harper of being Nixonian in one of my first blog entries. I rather hoped it wouldn't prove to be the case, but now it seems to be an increasingly common opinion.

The Harper government is in a tough position in this economy and I suspect most voters understand and appreciate that. But, missing deficit estimates by nearly a factor of two and not offering much of an explanation while making questionable accusations and implied threats to the opposition is not a good strategy for winning the confidence of voters. The government needs to start trying a new strategy, or their worst fears may be coming in the next election.

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