I consider Stephen Harper a friend. Not a close friend, but a friend.
Over the years, especially when he worked at the National Citizens Coalition, we collaborated on some projects of mutual interest and I learned to appreciate him. This is why writing this column isn't easy for me since my natural tendency is to be loyal to a fault with those I consider to be friends.
But let's start with the positive stuff first. I recognized in him at least two qualities that I deem very important for a political leader. First of all, I saw a man of principle, someone with a vision of a better society, and not an opportunist looking after personal aggrandizement and power at any cost.
Second, I saw the fine mind, the mind of an economist who understands the logic of a free economy. Such a mind would not fall for the usual sophisms that justify the zillions of interventions by today's bloated governments.
When he became prime minister, I had great hopes of change. Harper is a prudent man, so I didn't expect any quick reduction in the size of government, especially during minority rule. But I thought the federal government would at least stop growing. What else would you expect from a Conservative government headed by a principled man with a deep understanding of economics?
Unfortunately, six years later, and now in a majority position, there is still no indication this is going to happen.
His government has certainly pursued some excellent economic policies, such as lowering corporate income tax and signing free trade agreements with as many countries as possible.
But in terms of spending, we could as well be governed by Liberals and it would make no difference. Come to think of it, it might even be better. I miss the good old days when Jean Chretien and Paul Martin actually cut the size of government!
It's no surprise that people in France, the U.K. and elsewhere now study this period as an example of successful reforms. Between 1994 and 1996, program spending (everything that the federal government spends apart from servicing the debt) decreased to $111 billion from $123 billion. That's right. They didn't simply diminish the speed of increase in public spending; they really decreased public spending by 10%. In terms of fiscal responsibility and political courage, that's an amazing achievement which barely any other government has matched.
Now, what's the record of the Harper government? During the last year of the Liberal reign in 2005-2006, program spending was $175 billion. During the fiscal year ending in a couple of days, it will have been about $243 billion. That's an increase of almost 40% in only six years.
The Public Service Alliance of Canada — a union representing civil servants — has been demonstrating against planned budget cuts of $4-8 billion to be announced in Jim Flaherty's upcoming budget at the end of the month. They say this is going to "destroy public services in Canada."
Don't make me laugh! Contrary to cuts made by the Liberals, we're not talking about an actual decrease in total spending here, but about cuts applied to projected increases in spending that are planned for the coming three years.
And what's so dramatic about cutting $8 billion when spending was increased by a whopping $37 billion just between 2008 and 2009 in that Keynesian-style stimulus program that a free-market economist wasn't supposed to believe in anyway?
Whatever the reason, unless Harper's government changes course quickly, he unfortunately may not have much of a conservative economic legacy to call his own when he leaves office.
Michel Kelly-Gagnon is president of the Montreal Economic Institute (www.iedm.org). The views reflected in this column are his own.