Tories keep the faith, such as it is

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It's amazing how quickly the Harper government, faced with the prospect of its imminent demise, came to appreciate the importance of pumping money into our recession-wracked economy.

Desperate to avoid defeat in Parliament last January, the Conservatives overcame their first instinct -- do nothing to counteract the most brutal recession since the 1930s -- and produced a stimulative budget.

Then, with two auto companies facing bankruptcy, the government again acted out of character by coming up with money to save jobs at GM and Chrysler, realizing anything else would mean death to Conservative hopes in vote-rich Ontario.

None of this should lead us to conclude that the Harper crowd has moderated its commitment to a survival-of-the-fittest ideology.

Indeed, with the political pressure off now that Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff is propping up the Conservatives, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has already begun talking about "an exit strategy" from government stimulus policies.

An exit strategy! With the shovels barely in the ground and unemployment expected to hover above 10 per cent for a couple of years, an exit would be highly premature.

Meanwhile, away from the cameras, the Conservatives remain strongly committed to right-wing economic policies. In a recent letter, Flaherty urged selected Bay Street players to come to a dinner in support of a new think-tank, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, being set up by prominent conservative economist Brian Crowley, who already heads the right-leaning Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS).

Flaherty ended his letter with: "My office will follow up with you."

It's no surprise Flaherty likes the policies long peddled by Crowley. But is it appropriate for the finance minister to use his prestigious government position to essentially fund raise for a right-wing think-tank?

A Flaherty aide denied yesterday that any fundraising was involved. But what then went on at the private dinner that Flaherty hosted for Crowley's new institute at Toronto's swank Albany Club this month? (Flaherty's letter mentioned that he'd like to see the institute become a "well-financed organization.")

Certainly Flaherty's letter suggests a level of coziness between his department and right-wing think-tanks that might make many Canadians uncomfortable.

The department recently put out a press release celebrating "Tax Freedom Day," thereby lending credibility to the controversial anti-government propaganda campaign promoted by the ultra-right Fraser Institute. Flaherty also spoke at a gala Fraser Institute event in Ottawa last November (along with his former boss Mike Harris).

As for Crowley, Flaherty already showed fondness for his work at AIMS -- which includes attacks on public health care -- by bringing him into finance as a high-level adviser.

Flaherty is clearly keen to see yet another high-powered think-tank churning out material supporting tax cuts, smaller government, deregulation, privatization -- the business-favoured agenda that's shaped economic policies for the past few decades and led to a dramatic rise in inequality.

Given the extent of the economic crisis that's happened under this agenda, one would hope Ottawa would be rethinking its faithful adherence. And in their public posture and apparent support for government stimulus spending, the Harperites have tried to present themselves as open to new approaches.

Don't be fooled. When it comes to stimulating the economy, Flaherty is already tapping his foot impatiently at the exit. And, as his letter in support of the new think-tank suggests, what he really wants isn't fresh economic ideas, but lots of Bay Street money to help him flog the ghastly old ones.

Linda McQuaig is author of It's the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet.

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