Tag Archives: Canadian politics

A Leaner, Meaner Politics in the US: What About Canada?

In his book The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity will Remake American Politics Thomas Byrne Edsall argues that shrinking public and private resources will make politics leaner, meaner and less civil.  It’s not just that right and left disagree on how to distribute resources, it is a fundamental rift in the understanding of the purpose of the state itself.   It’s also not just a fight over ideas:  it is a battle for survival.  The supporters of the right, to pearth_tighten_belt_800_clr_7668araphrase Edsall, are ageing, embattled, middle to upper class whites living in decimated and depopulated suburbs who are increasingly bitter about the direction of the redistributive state.  In the past, the right’s call to arms was a kind of negative freedom (‘Don’t Tread on Me’) which fought to preserve the individual’s ability to choose their own forms of happiness unimpeded by state regulations.  The premise of this, we know now, was the expectation that everyone could gain from a growing pie.  No more.  Programs for which supporters of the right are the primary recipients (including Medicare and social security) are considered sacrosanct.  Programs from which others benefit (read black, immigrants, poor or public sector workers) like Medicaid, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or income supports, are untenable ‘entitlements’.  On the left, there is a counter-move to protect the public sphere from erosion while simultaneously trying to remain coherent in the face of a fiscal crisis and an unrelenting personal attack on Obama during an election year.  The left is increasingly turning to middle class minorities, immigrant and young voters who are far less steady in their support and are on the whole less well-established and more vulnerable both economically and politically.

These kinds of politics reveal rifts that have historically deep-soil_money_canada_pc_800_clr_2385eated roots but which linger below the surface until austerity and crisis reveal them.  What rifts lie below the surface of Canadian society that have been eroding the social consensus gradually and unrelentingly?  Could Canada go down a similar route?  Recent battles paint a picture of the possibilities.  With vitriolic flourishes the Harper government and environmentalists are fighting an increasingly pitched battle over oil resources.   The push for a pipeline to expand foreign markets for oil, whether through a Northern route or Keystone, has as its root a long-standing fear that overproduction of oil will drive the price down and shrink profits.  This is a real fear, since the flattening of oil prices will make the billions of dollars already invested uneconomic, and capital will flee.  On the one hand, it seems more like an embarrassment of riches than a problem of austerity: oil consumption is maintaining a steady stiff pace overseas and is set to grow, along with its negative climate impacts.  On the other hand, it has all of the set piece features of a zero-sum fight over a shrinking resource.  As anti-fossil fuel efforts grow, and as more bitumen-type oil production facilities are being developed in Latin America and more unconventional oil is prospected in the Arctic and other areas, the chances of oil revenues becoming restricted in the future is higher and higher.  If this happens, look for politics here to follow a similar path to those in the US, with the centre of the storm being the role of shattered_dollar_coin_800_clr_8730the state as a (re)distributor of resources.  With potentially shrinking state revenues due to tax reductions and few other signs of growth outside the resource sector, the temptation to retrench at the expense of the poor, immigrants, the disabled and other marginalized groups may well be irresistible.  On the other hand, another fight between regions in true Canadian fashion may be brewing.  I want to end on a positive note here.  Everything I’ve learned in teaching young people about politics in the last 15 years has taught me that if anything, youth are more accepting, welcoming, compromising and diverse than ever.  I can only hope that these qualities will enable the cultivation of a middle ground in the future in Canada that seems increasingly elusive in the divisive and paralyzing politics down south in the US.  If we are to believe Edsall, however, austerity could bring out the worst in all of us.

Harper: Solving Problems that Don’t Exist, Ignoring Ones that Do

Governments operate on two distinct tracks.  In one track, they make decisions according to an ideological architecture.  This is developed by the party elite, elaborated during the election campaign, and either refined or even jettisoned upon taking power. Governments also operate on another track, which involves making decisions ‘on the fly’ in response to rapidly-changing circumstances or urgent problems that require solutions.  Governments that follow the first track but ignore the second track,  risk being derailed by emergent or unexpected circumstances and problems that refuse to fade away. Governments that follow the second track exclusively, risk losing coherence and becoming bogged down in compromises that prevent bold action when needed on deep-seated and longer-term issues.

Whatever one might think of their ideological architecture, the Harper government’s program of action since achieving a majority has been rigidly and ideologically focused on the first track.  Conservative governments often tout their superior fiscal management and efficient governance, but when problems are ignored because of ideological short-sightedness, then this sacrifices the ability to be functional, efficient and fair.

The government’s single-minded pursuit of the purchase of F35s for the military is a good example.  In the face of disappointing progress on its development, buyers like Turkey, Australia and Britain have delayed or reduced their orders.  Not Canada, at least not yet.  Where is the urgent need to spend millions of dollars on military hardware?  What pressing requirement is driving this purchase?  With Canada standing down in Afghanistan and few urgent threats to national security looming on the horizon, the only explanation is ideological.

With a continuing budgetary deficit and the economy showing signs of weakness, the government is forging ahead as well with its tough on crime bill, which involves building more prisons, without releasing any information about its impact on the budget.  This is despite the fact that violent crime in Canada has been on the decline for the last thirty years, and the American experience has proven that increasing incarceration rates have actually increased the crime rate in that country.

The elimination of the gun registry similarly exhibits a puzzling and almost obsessive focus on problems that don’t need fixing.  All the evidence points to a decline in gun homicides since the introduction of stricter gun control in 1995.  Whatever information has been gained will be lost as the records are destroyed, to what end?  Given the willingness to spend on defence and in other areas, it does not seem that the savings (which are relatively minor) justify the loss.

Meanwhile, it took a housing emergency in Attawapiskat, only one of several Northern communities facing serious problems this winter, for the government to take remedial, and (as it turns out) heavily delayed, action.  This is despite the fact that Auditor General Sheila Fraser identified serious problems in May 2011. In her report, Fraser described the ‘unacceptable’ discrepancy in  government funding of education, housing, and services for First Nations.  These structural problems remain persistent and call for more than band-aid solutions.

Electoral politics do not explain these decisions particularly well, given that the Conservatives have a secure majority in Parliament and the Opposition parties are in disarray.  The first track (the ideological one) tends to dominate when  other problems do not make headlines or intrude in unpleasant ways on the government’s radar.  Deflection and diffusion can work to a point, but the underlying problems of poverty, discrimination, and environmental destruction continue.  These problems are not usually spectacular, but they are urgent.  Ignoring them has costs.  These costs will continue to mount up, in increased health care spending, crime problems, pollution, and other social ills, until such time as the government is unable to ignore them. This neglect is ultimately self-defeating.