Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Future of Democracy in Canada: A Personal Journey. Part VI: Dark Days of Deficits and Disillusion

The Future of Democracy in Canada: A Personal Journey
Part VI: Dark Days of Deficits and Disillusion

Neither the Conservatives or the Liberals want to tell you how they’re going to reduce the deficit created by the on-going orgy of "stimulus" spending. This stimulus spending must represent the single biggest mis-allocation of governmental funding in the history of Canada. With economists throughout the world shouting "spend, spend, spend", we were presented with a golden opportunity to begin investing in the green economy, and in the projects which we will need for our communities tomorrow. Instead, the spending has been entirely ad hoc, and if some green projects ended up receiving funding, it was purely happenstance, and certainly not from a co-ordinated effort.

The deficits we’ve accumulated, federally and provincially, are truly massive. The Conservatives want you to believe that we’ll be able to pay them down through increases to economic activities. They don’t want you to connect the dots between what economists are referring to as a "sluggish" recovery and the aggressively bullish recovery we would have to see occur to pay off our deficit through this means alone.

Both the Conservatives and the Liberals have committed to a course of action whereby they will not raise taxes, therefore foregoing this revenue stream in favour of another. So, despite the fact that we have loaned ourselves several hundred billion dollars in the fiscal years 2009-2011, ostensibly to meet our needs as a nation, the Conservatives and Liberals have decided that we’re not going to pay for them, and instead we’ll hand this burden over to others to look after.

Well, the truth is, we will all pay for this massive ejection of money from government coffers, but disproportionately the burden will fall upon those of us who can pay the least. That’s because the only way in hell we’re going to pay this deficit off is through cuts to government programs. Economic growth is going to cut it, no matter what the Minister of Finance says. And tax increases really do appear to be off the table; certainly the Conservatives aren’t about to increase your taxes. That only leaves tightening the government’s own belt as an option, and that means cuts to programs coupled with asset sales.

Welcome to the privatization of the public realm. This is what we Canadians have voted for consistently over the past 25 years. It seems that we’ve bought into the notion that the private sector can deliver services more economically than the public sector can. And perhaps that’s the truth. But the problem with private sector service delivery is that not everyone can afford private sector prices.

Think about one small example here. You used to be able to go to the eye doctor and receive a check-up. That used to be covered by OHIP here in Ontario. No longer. You must pay for it yourself now. Sure, the cost of an eye exam isn’t a significant burden at $60 or so. Well, not to me anyway. But how many amongst the least well off have decided that healthy vision is something which they can no longer afford to pay for?

Since someone is going to have to deliver many of the services which are bound to be cut, clearly the private sector stands to gain significantly. Other programs, though, which may be considered "nice to haves" (such as subsidies to low income renters or money to assist with legal aid), could disappear outright, and will certainly shrink in the name of fighting the deficit. I can’t help but wonder if the all of the roads being repaved throughout Canada for all of the new cars being produced by the bailed-out auto sector are going to be worth the ultimate price we’re going to pay.

Isn’t it funny how all of this spending just kind of seemed to happen without any discussion of how we’re going to pay for it? Sure, there were a few who questioned, but mainly they were not elected. The Liberals and the NDP, you will recall, only shouted for more, More, MORE! when the budget was handed down in January. The NDP voted against the budget not because it was irresponsible with its profligate spending, but because it was not irresponsible enough.

I believe that much of this spending was necessary in order to provide confidence to Canadians that our sagging economy was not something our government was going to ignore the way governments did back in 1929. However, the investments in the public realm have in many cases been misguided, and the corporate welfare hand-outs received by ailing mega-corporations such as Ford and General Motors were absolutely misguided, particularly in that there was little that these businesses would have to show to Canadians in the way of positive outcomes for the cash received.

Spending was necessary, but it should have been targeted in such a way as to be a net benefit to Canadians. We should have invested in the green economy of the future, rather than in the brown economy of the past. But we did not. So, instead of streetcars being purchased, new roads for new cars are being paved. Instead of investments in wind energy, we get carbon capture and storage.

The next 10 years are going to be very difficult financially for governments in Canada. Forget the climate change and Peak Oil crises for a minute here, and look at what Canada might be like in a "Business as Usual" scenario: with the baby boomer demographic beginning to retire and health care costs increasing, that one extra burden on government resources along will necessitate significantly larger investments in our health care system. Couple that with current deficits, and where does this leave us?

Pretty much up the creek, that’s where. Even in a Business As Usual scenario, we’re going to have to find new money somewhere...or cut, Cut, CUT! And the choice which Canadians seem ready and eager to make will be to call for spending cuts, rather than raising taxes. That way, it seems that someone else will likely suffer more than we ourselves would (well, those of us who think we’re middle class anyway).

But that’s the big lie. In a scenario where public services have been outsourced to the private sector, the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer, and the disparity between the rich and the poor will continue to grow. Factor in the fact that energy prices are going to rise continually, and jobs are going to be lost as a result, the stagflation which we will experience is liable to wipe out middle class savings completely.

Yet your government doesn’t want to talk about this. And the media refuses to hold them to account. And Canadians continue to turn away from all of the political nonsense, because it’s just so much crap.

This is how our democracy is liable to die: through abuse and apathy. By the time that most of us have become dispossessed of the quality of life which we expected to inherit, our voices will have become silenced.

Think about the chain being created here: Increased energy costs leads to fewer jobs. Fewer jobs means less economic output. Less economic output means that Jim Flaherty’s plan for recovery is out the window, and either taxes will be raised or spending will be cut. Public services become increasingly expensive. Services to the poor and unemployed suffer. Homelessness increases. Yet, people need to live somewhere. Third-world shanties start appearing in greater abundance (like the tent towns in the Don Valley in Toronto, and even here in Sudbury). Increasing numbers of people begin to live outside of "civil" society, and are subject to the lawlessness inherent in those situations. Civil society demands more protection. "Law and Order" politicians promise to deliver, despite the costs. Gated communities are formed. Society begins to split into "Us" and "Them". Food, energy and education become scarce for those who can no longer afford to pay for it. Civil unrest begins. Those on the margins have become entirely separated from the democratic process by this point: they are powerless to effect change except through demonstrations of strength. Class warfare on the horizon. Governments forced to use Emergencies Act to impose law and Order (formerly known as the "War Measures Act"). Freedoms are curtailed, increased security measures become the norm. Fear predominates. Elections may be stolen. Fringe movements invalidated. Voters rights restricted (we can’t let those homeless people vote, they don’t contribute!). Maybe we end up looking something like China by 2025. But a colder, crueler China. A China without the state assistance for the least well-off amongst us.

Goodbye, Democracy; we hardly knew you.

Yes, that’s a rather dark depiction of the near-end point of this personal journey I’ve been on. I can not, however, see how this can be avoided, unless enough of us begin the process of rising up sooner rather than later, in protest of what our governments aren’t doing. I don’t see that happening, though. Not until some sort of crisis compels action to be undertaken. It’s sort of like the position that the neo-conservatives were in at the tail end of the Clinton administration. They knew that we were running out of cheap oil, and that existing stocks of the stuff were largely in parts of the world unfriendly to Americans, like Iraq. But they just couldn’t invade Iraq; they needed a "new Pearl Harbour" to whip up support for a War for Oil.

But I can’t hope for a catastrophe on the scale of Hurricane Katrina or a pandemic which kills thousands of Canadians as the cattle-prod to action. Right now, while there is a growing sense of disillusionment with our government, Canadians remain largely complacent, and lacking in motivation. Even a federal election isn’t something likely to stir us out of this complacency.
If there is one thing which may move us, it will be rising energy prices. And I fear that this may actually have the opposite effect on the action we need to take in order to get our act together as a nation. In the face of rising energy prices, Canadians will probably clamour for greater tax relief, thus subtracting even more resources from our budget.

Do you think that our government doesn’t know what’s on the horizon? Do you think that they aren’t planning for the contingencies, planning for the energy and climate crises? They are. They know what the score is. Even if Canada’s plan might be no more than just to go along with the United States. And the U.S. certainly has been planning for some time now with regards to their place in a future where energy, food and water will become increasingly scarce. Their actions have indicated as much. They are preparing for this bleaker future in many ways.

What will it take for Canadians to demand action from their governments? What will it take for the media to start reporting on the growing unease Canadians have with decisions being made on their behalf? What will it take before we start having meaningful and intelligent discussions of what the Canada of the future ought to be like? Are we willing to simply let these decisions be made for us, by those amongst us who likely do not have our interests at the fore-front of their decision making processes? That seems to be the road that we’re on. Canada, we need to find another way to get to the future.

(Continued in Part 7...)


Toronto realtor said...

This was excellent. You have expressed my thoughts better than I would. Everything seems to be going from bad to worse in Canada. I'm just curious who to vote for in elections. Seriously, who could significantly change this situation?


Sudbury Steve said...

Julie, although my next installment will offer my own opinion of what I think is likely to be the outcomes for democracy in Canada in terms of us actually starting to take needed action (which I will argue we will not do), there still may be an opportunity to turn a corner, but the timing is starting to whither.

Right now, if you cast a ballot for a Party on the losing end of an election, you've wasted your ballot: it has no influence on government, save and except for a small donation of a little less than $2 a year to be received by the Party you've voted for.

If your vote mattered, along with the votes of cast by millions of other Canadians, then we might actually get to see some MP's elected to Parliament who are not afraid to have the needed conversations. Right now, MP's duck and run for cover when the terrible issues come up, because there is nothing to gain politically by saying we need to change the way we live.

With some form of proportional representation in place, smaller parties like the NDP would have more voices at the table; the Greens might even finally get a voice. But more importantly, all parties would finally have a chance to break free from their self-imposed silence on the major issues, being assured that they are still likely going to elect MP's once all of the votes throughout the nation are added up.

Is proportional representation likely to happen? I don't think so. The Liberals and Coversatives have too great a vested interest in the current system to think about making it a more democratic system. And since by and large the system is controlled by those two parties, it's not likely that any of the others are going to be let in the door any time soon.

The same is likely the case at the Provincial level. However, if one province were to finally move and adopt proportional representation, there could be a domino effect.

But time is truly running out for our democracy. We've already sold a significant portion of our sovreignty to our neighbour to the south, and every time our government dithers and waits for the U.S. to lead in policy matters, clearly we've lost our way as a nation and a leader on the world stage.

Since Canada itself might not be around for a whole lot longer, perhaps its best for us all to focus our efforts at improving the provincial/municipal relationship, and figure out ways to grant our municipalities more rights and tools to actually govern themselves. Since the future is going to be far more intensely local than the present, we might want to assure ourselves that local decision makers are better equipped to make decisions. Right now, there are so many straight-jackets impairing local government's abilities to govern, it's not even funny. This must change, or we really will be in trouble.


Sudbury Steve said...

(continued from above...)

I wouldn't say that Canada is doomed; but the notion of a sovereign democratic Canada pretty much ceased around about the time we signed on to NAFTA. And public perception still hasn't yet caught up.

Thanks for your encouraging comments about my blog, by the way. For the most part, I'm keeping this blog simply as a means to vent my frustrations. The fact that anyone actually reads this stuff is a bit of a pleasant surprise (even when the comments are negative!).

A short answer to your question, then, is vote for a Party which really does advocate proportional representation. Of the mainstream parties, right now only the NDP and the Greens are on-board. Keep in mind that I am very partisan when I say the following (so please take it with a grain of salt, although I really do believe this): the NDP is, in my opinion, completely compromised on the issue of proportional representation. Successive NDP governments throughout Canada, in B.C., Ontario, Manitoba and just recently in Nova Scotia, have done nothing to further the cause of proportional representation when in power. The NDP talks a good game, but when action could have been taken...nothing.

Last year during the televised debates, a question was put to the Leaders of the Parties regarding what their number one priorities were. All except one mouthed something about taking action on the economy. Almost to Steve Paiken's unnerving did Green Party Leader Elizabeth May say that she would act on proportional representation. She put this ahead of issues pertaining to the environment and economy. She did so because she understands that there will be no action on the environment or re-ordering of the economy without first democratizing our electoral process. She gets it.

So I, wearing my very partisan hat, say only the Greens might actually be able to do something about the shape of democracy to come. But for that to happen, Greens have to find themselves in Parliament.

And I'm not certain that's going to happen in the near future. If it does not happen very soon, I believe that the Green Party as a political entity is in significant trouble.

Another cost-cutting measure on the horizon: remember that $2 your vote gives to a political party of your choice? What an easy target that would be to cut. Nevermind that taxpayers fund individual contributions to political parties by up to 70% on a $1000 contribution (so in effect only costing the contributer about $300, while taxpayers finance the rest). The Big Donors tend to give to the Liberals and Conservatives, while the NDP and Greens rely on smaller donations and, in the case of the Greens, transfer payments based on votes.

Without money, you can forget about a political party even trying to challenge their way into parliament.

One last example: a new political party (relatively new) in Alberta, the Wildrose Alliance, is already being billed as a contender in the next provincial election. Why not the Greens, who have been around longer? Well, Wildrose is attracting supporters with deeper pockets. Green supporters tend to be younger and in hoc up to their ears. Some of our supporters here in Sudbury are currently homeless.

And all of this is part of why I'm not that optimistic that we're going to get our act together in the coming decade so that we're even somewhat properly equipped to enter into the post expansion age.