Saturday, November 29, 2008

Bennett replayed

Wow, R.B. Bennett is back.

At the very time when fearful and uncertain Canadians are looking to elected leaders to put aside their petty squabbles and work toward staving off a looming economic recession, what does our newly elected Conservative government do? They pull a complete flop on the economic front and use the crisis instead as an opportunity to attack their opponents.

It sounds like an earlier Tory Prime Minister,
R.B. Bennett, who came to power amid the Great Depression only to declare it over in 1930 when it was really just getting underway. His then-refusal to provide anything in the way of economic stimulus sounds like our current finance minister's declaration that no more spending is presently needed and, in fact, that cutbacks are the answer!

Bennett's ideological devotion to laissez-faire-style government and his belief that "the sole function of government is to favour private enterprise" is strikingly similar to the thinking of the current government, whose worship of tax cuts as the cure for all ills is so devout that they actually believe that last year's tax cuts will somehow prevent next year's recession.

Another tenet of R.B. Bennett's Tories was that government assets = bad. Modern day Tories believe the same and so have proposed a
fire sale of $2.3 billion of crown corporations and other federal property in a supposed attempt to prevent a deficit. As blogger NDP Outsider suggests, maybe the best time to sell one's assets isn't in a buyer's market. Once again, blind ideology trumps common sense.

R.B. Bennett also took the opportunity to beat up on anyone he thought a political opponent. Under the guise of preventing communism, he revised Section 98 of the Criminal Code to do away with the fundamental democratic right of being innocent until proven guilty where association with supposedly subversive organizations was concerned (you could be put away for simply showing up at a rally or meeting). This was used to arrest members of far left organizations as well of members of that old Tory bogeyman: labour unions.

The thinking among Tories apparently hasn't evolved much since Bennett's days: they made sure to
ban strikes and bypass collective bargaining for public sector workers in this week's economic update, something that's puzzled even the Globe and Mail, which is hardly a pal of the unions. Maybe the Tories didn't want to be outdone by Bennett in repealing rights (collective bargaining is a charter-protected right) or attacking political opponents. Why bargain when you can simply take out the club?

The federal Conservatives also decided to open a new front against the opposition by doing away with federal public financing of political parties, hardly an issue at the top of the public agenda. So much for the new era in civility that the Tories seemed to be all in favour of
a mere two weeks earlier. So much for putting aside the House's characteristic squabbling to focus on our most pressing common problem. So much for real leadership.

One might have thought that here was Harper's golden opportunity to cement his brand as statesperson and leader by reassuring Canadians, by listening to ideas from all sides, and by working together to move forward. In such a scenario, it wouldn't be hard to envision him being rewarded with a majority government in our next trip to the polls. Instead, he squandered the chance and now faces the prospect of losing power to an opposition party coalition no one dreamed possible a week ago. Thursday's smugness became Saturday's
backpedal. My favourite reporter question to a fuming Harper: “Sir, did you make a mistake?”

Of course, R.B. Bennett eventually relented and opted for a big fiscal dividend in an effort to boost the economy, but by that time, Canadians had suffered through more than five years of tough economic times. In what we can only hope is another parallel with R.B. Bennett's Conservatives, the Tories went on to be crushed in the following election and then spent the following 22 years in the political wilderness. Let's just hope we don't have to endure five years of clueless leadership before repeating that history.

Further reading: The
economic update and responses by Jeffrey Simpson, Dan Lett, Thomas Walkom, The Globe, and Pierre Berton's book The Great Depression.

Photo: A Bennett Buggy, named after Depression-era Prime Minister R.B. Bennett, was the term used for a car pulled by a horse, after the owner could no longer afford gasoline.


J.Cotton said...

The thing is , the Conservatives blew the bank when they got in. I am against going into deficit because of this economic downtown, but if Harper cut spending and sold the assets in the good times, he could do more now to help out. People are going to suffer, but we have to ride out the storm.

Dylan said...

Your post has some similarities but this demonization of Bennett ignores King's free-market loyalty.

Remember, King was the one who spoke "our market is strong" all the way until the Depression hit. Remember, it was King who didn't listen to the provinces when they saw the crisis first (many of which were run by Conservative governments).

It is true that Bennett was extremely slow to react to a depression - the likes of which the world had never seen. However, it was Bennett's New Deal that was proposed and it was King's opportunism that held it back until he was elected Prime Minister. Then, the New Deal was implemented.

Bennett, like King, was a free-market believer as Prime Minister. That's the truth. And it wasn't until Bennett went through the ringer did King perk up. Furthermore, King had the benefit (and I use that word extremely loosely) of a war to create jobs and stimulate the economy for him. What would King's legacy have been if Britain didn't send Canada to war? How would he have managed the economy then? (There were only so many parts of Bennett's New Deal he could claim to be his own!)

Lastly, two-decades of one party ruling the country isn't good for any government or country. To pray for another quarter century of Liberal rule would be ludicrous!

Harper isn't Bennett, because he'll posture and try to manipulate the media to his favour instead of becoming creative. I doubt there'll be any measure a Coalition Government will siphon from Harper's idea box to launch the economy.

Bennett and King were, in my opinion, similar in their adherence to free-market principles. Bennett differed from King in his loyalty to the Crown and his Imperial Preference plan - a noble but outdated idea. Bennett needed cooperation with Washington, not London, to turn the economy around but in that age, there wasn't the sense of brotherhood between Canada and America that there is today.

Like I wrote yesterday, this ain't 1925, nor is it 1935. Comparisons between then and now, are shady at best and require more than knowledge of history from an Op-Ed piece.

Prairie Topiary said...

Dylan, you make some great points and you're right that we can take the Bennett-Harper comparison only so far. I'll admit the comparison is superficial, especially given its span of 80 years, though it's appropriate to the degree that it shows both Prime Ministers as out of touch and ideology-driven when in comes to addressing the challenges of their day.

You're also right with respect to King who was, if anything, more ideological, bitterly partisan and out of touch than was Bennett. In my opinion, King's behaviour doesn't excuse Bennett's, and I think that's borne out in the historical record (of which my reading is based on more than an op-ed, by the way). Pierre Berton's book, to which I referred in my post, is equally harsh in its critique of Bennett.

Finally, I also agree with you that two decades of unchallenged Liberal rule wouldn't be the best thing for the country. I'm not a Liberal supporter, nor do I believe that longterm, unchecked rule of any political party is the best thing.

In Harper's case, I do have to say I'm really surprised at how empty his economic update was and at how poorly he read the opposition. While I'd never vote for the guy, I was of the opinion that his political skills were far superior. Now, I'm of the mind that never has a Prime Minister squandered so much political capital in so little time!

Jonathon Narvey said...

That's odd. Harper hasn't actually declared anything remotely like these bad times are "over"... although the opposition has certainly characterized it that way. All he has actually said is that Canada is better positioned than any other G-8 country to weather the storm -- which is perfectly true on a number of metrics, not least of which would be the relative size of our national debt and deficit.

Harper has also talked about expediting infrastructure spending to help the economy out, so he's not just leaving Canadians to rot until the second coming of Adam Smith. True, he hasn't talked about a stimulus package yet for, let's say, Ontario's hard-hit manufacturing sector. But to be fair, there's not much point in giving money away to GM and Ford plants, and certainly not before the US starts handing over buckets of cash to these white elephants.

Harper may be a lousy judge of the opposition's ambitions. But it's looking more and more like the odds were weighted against him no matter how he played his hand.

Prairie Topiary said...

Some good points, and you're right that Harper hasn't suggested the crisis is over. It's safe to say, however, that most observers were underwhelmed by Flaherty's update and surprised when he announced that no more fiscal stimulus was coming or needed until the economy declined further.

While I agree that Canada's in a lot better shape than some of the other G8 countries, that might actually mean we're in a lot better position to step in and help alleviate some of the hardship that's on its way. At the very least, Canadians are looking for someone to lead and project stabiliy at this time rather than focus on hammering opponents.

My feeling is that, if the government can't lead (and backtracking for days after releasing an economic update only further weakens any sense of confidence that the update was to instill), then other parties representing a majority of seats are within their rights to do the job. If they can't pull it off, and they might not, then I suppose we're back to an election campaign.

I'm not yet convinced the opposition parties were plotting to topple the government before getting a whiff of their economic update, but it's certainly possible. If so, it might significantly weaken the perceived legitimacy of any new government that emerges. We'll likely find out more in the coming days.

Jonathon Narvey said...

Good observations. The next few days will be interesting, indeed.

By the way, what's up with the GG not even being back in Canada as of this morning? It's not like she might be needed imminently to help resolve a political crisis... :-)

Prairie Topiary said...

Yeah, the GG was still in Prague, last I heard. I read somewhere today she was heading back immediately, so I'm assuming she's on her way and will arrive tomorrow. The opposition parties made their letters to her public, so she's definitely already part of the unfolding drama.