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The Liberals' lock on power

Two articles in the National Post today (both subscriber only, unfortunately) sum up how the Liberals plan to maintain their grip on this country in perpetuity. In the first, Andrew Coyne describes how 'clientism' works, and why it's so effective:

There are many ways in which the Grits have set about barricading themselves in power over the years -- we are about to see this taken to its almost literal extreme, with the party declaring it will refuse to recognize a non-confidence motion as a motion of non-confidence -- but what is common to all is a strategy known as clientism: the cultivation of a vast array of dependent client groups, who in exchange for regular infusions of federal cash can be counted on to tout the party's cause at critical moments. Like, say, an election.

True enough, they have delivered. Not only Ontario has "hailed" the generosity and wisdom of the far-sighted Prime Minister and his dedicated Social Development Minister, Ken Dryden, in recent days. The governments of Saskatchewan and Manitoba have been no less anxious that you should know about the many wonders they will be able to perform with their own shares of the same funding, each one separately announced and each given the same lavish attention by the media -- each with the warning that all this could be lost if, well, you know.

City governments, for their part, have lately been added to the Liberals' client list, thanks to the Liberals' promise of $5-billion in cash -- to be delivered, irrelevantly, in the form of a share of the federal gas tax. Again, dire warnings are issued of what would happen to this funding should an election intervene, though again, the Conservatives have promised much the same. But the beauty of this system is that the Liberals don't even have to be the ones to say it -- they can let their surrogates do the talking, including such unimpeachable non-partisans as the mayor of Vancouver, Larry Campbell, or the mayor of Toronto, David Miller.

And in the second, Terence Corcoran actually reads the legislation that will alter the budget according to Jack layton's demands and finds it creates an enormous and perpetual slush fund that the government can spread at will without the consent of Parliament:
Never before has a Canadian government given itself such freewheeling fiscal elbow room. Certainly Don Drummond, former finance official and now chief economist at TD Financial, has never seen anything like it -- a $4.5-billion slush fund that government can dip into at will. "For years government has wanted an instrument that would allow it to allocate spending without having to say what it's for. This act will do it."

Readers can check out this blank-cheque spending legislation below. Here's how it works. Sometime in August, 2007, the federal government will check the final numbers from fiscal year 2005-6. If there's more than a $2-billion surplus, that extra money above $2-billion can be spent. For example, if the surplus is $5-billion, the first $2-billion will be used to pay down debt, but the remaining $3-billion must be spent on the grab bag of unspecified areas. Same thing the following year.

As Don Drummond put it yesterday, this is the first time Ottawa has been able to "define the money before it defines the program." The Layton list, sprawling over a dozen broad issues -- environment, housing, transit, training programs, foreign aid, energy, education, aboriginal, tuition fees -- is an open field. Not only are there no programs, Ottawa doesn't even have a jurisdictional outlet for tuition fees, for example. (Oddly missing from the list is a $100-million union pension fund bailout, mentioned in earlier news leaks.)

Just to be doubly safe that the government's ability to spend freely without parliamentary approval will be protected in future, Mr. Goodale threw in a clause giving the Cabinet power to "specify the particular purposes for which payments referred to in subsection (1) may be made and the amounts of those payments for the relevant fiscal year."

In a brief news release, Mr. Goodale called all this "new investments" that build on the "fiscally responsible manner" Ottawa is spending money. Here's how it works: Ottawa spends what it gets, when and how it wants, without parliamentary approval.

So. The Liberals have almost unlimited funds to direct at any nutty project that will help them consolidate their power.

If the Conservatives want to become the next governent, they'll have to fight this system. And the way to fight it is not by trying to match it, but by informing the country of how wrong it is and vowing to end it. This can be an issue in the next election if the Tories will push it. Somehow I doubt it will happen. Already they're saying they'll match all the Liberals' promises. It's a losing strategy.

UPDATE: Coyne's complete column is here.

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