Unite what right?
by Don Cayo


Unite the right?

This “national” preoccupation isn’t causing much stir down here in the Maritimes. Who cares who gets to drive — the fiscal or the social conservatives? Why worry our heads about the fine points of a philosophy so obviously out of favor?

Oh, the PC party may be alive and well in Eastern Canada, and the Reformers itching to get a toe in the door. But the point is, Reform is finding the door wedged shut. And our Tories often veer to the left of modern-day socialists like Roy Romanow or Tony Blair.

In fact, the last influential conservatives in this region are both Liberals. And both have departed the political stage. Nova Scotia’s former premier, John Savage, was pushed out as thanks for spending cuts and a balanced budget. New Brunswick’s former premier, the legendary Frank McKenna, bowed out gracefully last fall, but — judging from the polls and the way his party pooh-poohs his legacy — none too soon.

Meanwhile, the new national Tory leader Elsie Wayne, the MP for Saint John, N.B., peppers her comments with pious reminders of the different needs of different regions. We who live down here know that to be a thinly veiled code for “Send more money.” Subsidies are still welcome in the East — and our politicians are still expected to deliver them.

At the same time, the New Brunswick Tories continue to cast around for ideological ground. For years they’ve dodged occasionally to the right, more often to the left of McKenna, who dominated the centre-right turf that once was Tory. The new PC leader, Bernard Lord, shows no sign that he wants to reclaim that ground. Instead he’s set to arm wrestle for the centre-left with whichever of the three Liberal leadership hopefuls wins a party vote next month.

And in Nova Scotia the current political scene is both unique and bizarre in the wake of last month’s election. Two parties, the Liberals and the NDP, are in a dead heat with 19 seats each, and the Tories snap at their heels with 14. That’s unique because never before has a Maritime province seen a genuine three-way race. And it’s bizarre because all three parties ran on minutely different versions of the same platform. Trust us to be fiscally responsible, they all said, but we’ll look with sympathy at every big-spending cause.

So what’s shaping up in the Nova Scotia legislature is a sort of beauty contest. Each party wants to look the best in the eyes of the many interest groups who’ll judge them before the next election, expected in a year or two at most.

Yet at the same time, Premier Russell MacLellan will be under immense pressure to balance his budget — or to appear to balance it. The NDP and the PCs are equally adamant about this. Both talked a lot about it in the campaign, the NDP pretending they were Tony Blair and the PCs pretending they were real conservatives. And both hammered MacLellan for calling the election with a promise to balance the budget, but nothing on paper.

If the MacLellan government falls soon — and it might — it will likely be on the budget or one of only two issues of the day that are even remotely ideological. And on both, the Liberals appear to be to the right of both opposition parties.

The first is sales tax — the HST (Harmonized Sales Tax) to those in power and the BST (Blended Sales Tax) to critics who sneer the word with emphasis on the first two letters. It’s a legacy of Liberal Premier Savage — a business-friendly tax that combines the old provincial sales tax and the GST. It’s 15 per cent, quite a bit lower than the old combined rate of 18.77 per cent. But people hate it because it extends to things like low-end clothing and home heating oil — things exempt from the old provincial tax. Both the NDP and Tories pledge to dump the BST; neither will say how they’ll replace the $680 million a year it brings in.

The second issue that could defeat MacLellan is the question of public-private partnerships — or what passes for them in this intellectual and policy wasteland. During the campaign, the premier floated a scheme to have private companies build and own 30 badly needed schools. But his agreements, arcane and complex, guarantee all benefits to the builders and all the risk to taxpayers — not quite the essence of the concept. So it’s no surprise that both friends and opponents of such partnerships condemn the move as merely a transparent ploy to spend huge amounts off the books. In other words, “Liberal” spending as usual.

But by all means, let us know if you folks in other parts of Canada ever succeed in uniting the right. We’ll book a phone booth and have someone down for a meeting.

Don Cayo is on a two-year leave from the Saint John, N.B., Telegraph Journal, where he was editorial page editor. He is currently serving as president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a social and economic policy think-tank.