To blame the public service for the deficit-cutting battles of the 1990s is equally misguided.

What Eugene Lang fails to appreciate, absent senior experience in government, one suspects, is the total disconnect between opposition fantasies and “the discipline of power,” as Jeffrey Simpson so aptly framed it a generation ago. 

Party platforms are never valuable guides to a government’s realities, no matter how sincerely they may have been framed. They may serve as a guide to values and as broad frameworks for decision choice and little more. This is not always cynicism, but merely a reflection of the yawning gap between how public office looks from below and how terrifying it can be when thrust into it.  

Equally, even as a Canadian social democrat, I feel Lang is far too hard on the “value-free” portrait of the Liberal Party he paints. The party, now almost a unique rarity in Western democracies — a centrist party with experience as a sole governing party — has at its best attempted to govern from a position of social justice leavened by economic reality. Sometimes it has failed badly: its anti-inflation campaign of the 1970s was a parody of egalitarian policy, and its energy policy a decade later a misguided fiasco impossibly deaf to the resentments of western Canadians. 

But to characterize the Martin policies of the 1990s as “Thatcherite” is simply jejune, unfair and wrong. Having lived through Thatcherism at the time, one can only say that no Canadian Liberal could be fairly accused of crushing the trade union movement, selling off public housing and launching a gratuitous war for partisan purposes. Further, to blame the public service for the deficit-cutting battles of the 1990s is equally misguided. 

The politicians and their political advisers were not naïfs led to humiliating policy reversal. They led a process of cutbacks and, more importantly, funding downloads to the provinces and even municipalities, which they believed were essential — and which received wide public support. One may disagree with them, but they were not gulled into these tough political choices by a Sir Humphrey from Yes, Minister.

Finally, the faint praise for Tom Mulcair’s efforts to frame a “ready for government” policy agenda is similarly gratuitous. Mulcair has, after all, an estimable record as a minister himself, and has many times made it clear that the record of New Democrats in provincial power receives better grades for fiscal probity than the mythology Lang cites would have one believe. As Mulcair likes to jab about the Rae government, “There is one exception, but as we know that premier turned out to be a Liberal, in any event.”

The calendar is perhaps to blame for the claim that neither Mulcair nor anyone else will face a “fiscal or economic crisis,” so perhaps he need not blush at that clanger. But it is far from clear that an incoming government will not face the most challenging fiscal winter since 2008. 

This dramatic turn of economic events is perhaps the best proof of the need to always be cautious in opposition about your claims of performance. To always under-promise even when in government. To understand in policy analysis that one should always leave oneself a “back door.” And to recall the most prescient words about the unwelcome and surprising challenges any newcomer to power will always face: What is there to be afraid of? In the words famously attributed to Harold Macmillan, “Events, dear boy, events!”

Robin V. Sears is a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group and was an NDP strategist for 20 years.