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...)
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