Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Taxpayers Association Practices Politics of Division in Greater Sudbury

I’ve been observing with growing interest the emerging campaign to influence public opinion in Greater Sudbury. Mostly, this campaign is being waged through traditional and social media sources. While there has been a lot of focus on specific issues in our community, the goal of the campaign appears to be much broader in scope: to win over the hearts and minds of Sudburians to what can only be described as a right-wing neo-liberal cause in advance of the next municipal election in 2014.

This campaign is being waged by what appears to be a small group who are at the head of a new not-for-profit organization in our community, the Greater Sudbury Taxpayers Association (GSTA). The GSTA recently incorporated last fall, after a number of headline-grabbing pronouncements on issues which the GSTA executive deemed to be of importance to Sudburians.

Up until yesterday, the GSTA appeared content to rail against a number of individual municipal councillors (those that appear not to share their neo-liberals values) and against municipal staff. Yesterday, the GSTA broadened their attacks by dredging up a three-year old issue involving United Steel Workers Local 6500 related to tipping fees waived by our former municipal council after arsonists burned down the former Steelworker’s Hall in 2008. The story was covered in both the Northern Life (“Union should repay tipping fees: taxpayers’ association”, published online January 24 2012) and the CBC (“Pay back tipping fees, taxpayer group tells union”, published online January 24 2012).

USW Local 6500 and Tipping Fees

On the surface, the tipping fee issue appears to be a strange avenue for attack by the GSTA. However, as part of an orchestrated campaign to influence public opinion in our community, this latest salvo by the GSTA makes a lot of sense.

Council’s decision to waive tipping fees for USW Local 6500 back in 2008 raised some eyebrows in the community at the time, as it was estimated that Local 6500 would have been on the hook for approximately $100,000 to dispose of debris from the demolished Steelworker’s Hall. By voting to waive those fees, our municipal Council decided to forego this revenue. I recall reading comments from anonymous posters at the Sudbury Star’s UR Sudbury website that Local 6500 would not have been on the hook for these fees in any case, as it was assumed that the Steelworker’s insurance policy would have covered these costs. I don’t recall whether there was ever a definitive answer to the question about insurance coverage, which may be why this issue continues to have some resonance in the community (if anyone can point me in the direction of a definitive answer regarding Local 6500’s insurance coverage, I’ll gladly update this blogpost).

Later this week, USW Local 6500 will be officially opening their new home on Brady Street. The former Steelworkers Hall was considered to be a focal point in our community for decades, and its loss due to arson was tragic not just for current and former Steelworkers, but for our larger community. It is hoped that the new Hall can reoccupy some of that lost sense of place.

So it’s likely not a coincidence that the GSTA chose this week to publicly call for Local 6500 to repay waived tipping fees, in a cynical attempt to tarnish what otherwise might be a feel-good moment for the union. Keep in mind that the City of Greater Sudbury has never asked that this matter be revisited, and that this issue has been completely off of the public radar shortly after it was resolved through a vote of Council. In fairness, it did resurface during the 2010 municipal election, as those bent on unseating former Greater Sudbury Mayor John Rodriguez were eager to use this decision of Council in an attempt to paint the former Mayor as being in the pockets of the Union. But no motions have been brought forward at Council to request repayment of waived tipping fees.

It would appear, then, that this issue is coming out of nowhere and being advanced by the GSTA for its own purposes.

A good question to ask then is what purpose is served by dredging up this old issue?

A Polarizing Media Campaign

The GSTA, through an aggressive media campaign, which involves press releases and press conferences, has inserted itself into conversations about a number of local municipal issues. These issues have mainly been the sorts of things which one would expect a taxpayer’s association to express concerns about: municipal spending and accountability. However, the GSTA often pursues a very provocative tone in its discourse, one which appears to be designed to foment anger, rather than to inspire collaboration. Indeed, the GSTA has already become a force for polarization in our community. Yesterday’s attack on USW Local 6500 will only up the ante.

Greater Sudbury has not been a stranger to municipal controversies since the creation of the amalgamated City back in 2001. Since the GSTA’s own recent creation in the fall of 2011, it has called for the resignation of Greater Sudbury’s CAO Doug Nadorozny over his perceived role in what the GSTA refers to as the “fraud case” involving a former vendor of transit tickets. The GSTA has also been outspoken on something called “the Healthy Communities Initiative”, which they (and others) have compared to being an unaccountable slush fund available for the use of municipal Councillors for re-election purposes. The GSTA and its supporters have also been publicly critical of Councillor Terry Kett (Ward 11) over the municipal budget, and of Councillor Ron Dupuis (Ward 5) over the process of naming of Workers’ Memorial Park (which in part has been another issue involving USW Local 6500, given that USW head Leo Gerard’s name was the one to be attached to the Park).

What appears to be a partial list of press releases is available to the public on the GSTA’s website (although nothing has yet been posted about yesterday’s tipping fee announcement).

The GSTA lists its organizational objectives on its website.

-maximize the value of every tax dollar spent;
-keep tax increases at or below the rate of inflation;
-ensure the focus on City council is on core services;
-promote transparency in all aspects of Municipal Governance;
-promote the positive aspects of a smaller municipal government.

On the surface, there may not appear to be a lot which would be considered problematic with these objectives. Once you start digging a little deeper, it quickly becomes apparent that these objectives are largely in keeping with an ultra-right wing neo-liberal agenda.

The Neo-Liberal Agenda

I’ve been using the term “neo-liberal” a lot more often in my blog over the past several months, but perhaps its best to explain the idea a little more fulsomely here. Neo-liberalism is an economic theory which suggests that economic problems can best be solved by removing barriers which restrain businesses operating in the market (such as environmental regulations), and promoting the need for investment as the highest priority. You may be familiar with the term “trickle-down economics” (made popular in the 1980s by U.S. President Ronald Reagan), and I believe that’s a good starting point in understanding what neo-liberalism is about, which is the notion that everybody’s lives are improved as a result of rich investors creating growth.

To a point, and with a few significant caveats, I believe the theory generally works. The first significant caveat, however, is that the system can only work with the right type of local investment, that being places which employ workers who provide goods and services needed within communities. Unfortunately, with globalization, what neo-liberals have accomplished has been to outsource jobs from existing communities, in pursuit of maximizing profits. This has left once-stable communities twisting in the wind of the global economic cyclone, and has attributed to a hollowing out of North America’s manufacturing sector (something we here in Ontario are very familiar with).

The second caveat is that the entire economic system on which neo-liberalism depends requires growth. That hasn’t been much of a problem in the past, save for a few recessionary hiccups, but it’s certainly going to be a problem in the future with resource depletion. Constant economic growth is not sustainable on a planet of finite resources, and I believe that we are already running into some of these natural barriers to growth.

The third caveat has to do with how much of the investment success has really trickled downwards. Clearly, our economy has continued to expand, as evidenced by rising GDP. The average person appears to be better off today than an average person was several decades ago, at least in terms of personal income (when you add debt levels into the equation, though, it might come out as a wash). What is clear, however, is that while its arguable whether or not everyone has gained from a neo-liberal economic approach, what can not be denied is that a very small percentage of individuals have gained significantly more than the majority of us. These rich elites, branded the “1%” in 2011 by the Occupy Movement, have seen a seriously disproportionate amount of created wealth accrue to them. So while the average person might arguably be marginally better off today than 20 years ago, given the explosion of wealth which has been created in that time period, the distribution of that wealth has largely been consolidated in the hands of a very few.

However, even though I concede that some wealth may have trickled down to the 99%, the fact remains that neo-liberalism as an economic ideology poses a clear and present danger to the vast majority of society, including the middle class. Neo-liberals, in the form of an ultra-right wing political agenda encompassing political movements and established political parties, promote the interests of the rich at the expense of the rest of us. Neo-liberal political organizations practice a particularly repugnant form of politics, given their propensity to subvert our democratic institutions in the pursuit of their agenda.

The success of neo-liberals in politics, though, is apparent. In the United States, with the rise of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and the astroturf movement known as the Tea Party, neo-liberals have seized control of the Republican Party. Here in Canada, Preston Manning’s western-based protest party, the Reform Party, eventually annexed what remained of the Progressive Conservative Party. Although Republicans in the U.S. and PC’s in Canada have tended to historically occupy the right of the political spectrum, today’s “conservative” parties don’t bear much resemblance to the Republican Party of Richard Nixon (which gave the United States the Environmental Protection Agency) or even the PC Party of Brian Mulroney (who introduced regulations on industrial emitters to fight acid rain).

The impact of neo-liberals, however, has not been limited to just the Republicans in the U.S. and Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party in Canada. Indeed, massive deregulation of financial institutes occurred under Democratic President Bill Clinton in the United States, and Liberals Jean Chretien and his Minister of Finance Paul Martin downloaded significant federal responsibilities to the provinces at the direction of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). For more about the role which the IMF has played in promoting the neo-liberal agenda, I sincerely urge you to read Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine”, which is a real eye opener (to put it mildly).

Here in Canada, neo-liberals are now firmly entrenched at the federal level, and with a false majority delivered to the Conservative Party through an archaic electoral system which distorts the will of voters, Stephen Harper has essentially free reign to apply the neo-liberal agenda with impunity for the next few years. And now, here in Greater Sudbury, the same forces appear to be at work.

Core Public Services

Organizations referring to themselves as “taxpayers associations” have been on the rise throughout Canada in the past few decades. What most of these organizations have in common is a desire for smaller governments and a return to what they believe to be “basic services”. The Greater Sudbury Taxpayers Association is no exception. Of course, one of the first noticeable issues with this approach is the identification of what, exactly, in a municipal context, constitutes basic, or “core services”?

Taxpayers associations like to define core services as those services which benefit businesses and land owners in a municipality, with maybe a little lip service paid to the perceived interests of renters. Generally speaking, the propositions advanced by taxpayers associations actually impede the quality of life aspirations of a majority of City residents, especially those who are less well off from an economic standpoint. However, the middle class is often impacted too, although that’s not always as apparent initially, as the mantra of lower taxes has a certain appeal to all hard-working individuals. In the long run, howeer, where taxes are cut, so cuts to public services often follow, and often those cuts can directly impact quality of life experiences for middle class families. Indeed, neo-liberal successes at all levels of government have relied on co-opting the middle class to vote against its own interests.

The definition of “core services” tends to include such things as road maintenance, waste disposal, and policing. There is recognition of the need for some minimum level of bureaucracy. Essentially, though, neo-liberals believe that the market is best suited to handle the delivery of most other services which have in the 20th century accrued to the public realm. Of course, it’s clear that for some forms of service delivery, such as those related to homelessness, the market simply isn’t the right vehicle. For neo-liberals, that’s where the role of charity comes into play.

The Cost of Service Delivery

Now, that leaves a pretty broad list of services currently being delivered by our municipal government, on the table to be potentially handed to the private sector or axed all together. In Greater Sudbury, the sale of Pioneer Manor, a municipally-run home for the aged, has recently been brought up as a service which would be better removed from the public realm. In Toronto, public libraries, educational facilities (such as zoos), children’s programs, immigrant settlement services, bike lanes, and (of course) environmental initiatives have all been under attack by neo-liberal politicians.

One of the biggest targets of neo-liberals are the municipal public sector unions which often deliver our public services. Neo-liberals argue that unionized employees are impediments to cost-efficient service delivery. Just as private corporations have outsourced manufacturing jobs to the lowest bidder (usually one located on another continent) in order to maximize their profits (and at the expense of the economic health of their domestic employees, who overwhelmingly lost their jobs), neo-liberals would like to see public service delivery put into the hands of private enterprise.

This approach to outsourcing public services has been implemented in many parts of the world, and has certainly made inroads here in Canada (think about who picks up your curbside waste for example – in Greater Sudbury, it’s not a municipal employee). This outsourcing can save money, but it does come at a cost; sometimes, that cost is in the form of reduced service delivery capacity, or higher user fees where private corporations have decided to further maximize their profits in monopoly situations. Certainly the loss of good paying jobs and employment security for some residents is an inherent cost.

But those sorts of costs tend not to trouble neo-liberals, who are far more focussed on their narrow interpretation of the “bottom line” (and I say “narrow” because neo-liberals are infamous for failing to include externalities into their equations – things such as environmental costs and social costs, such as those related to healthcare. Indeed, the holy grail of neo-liberal economic indicators, Gross Domestic Product, actually puts a positive economic value on such things as oil spills, due to the jobs created to clean up the spill! Its no wonder than neo-liberal governments, such as George W. Bush’s in the U.S. and Stephen Harper’s here in Canada, tend to be the worst managers of the economy and run up the highest deficits).

Rather than looking for a healthy balance in terms of costs and service delivery, neo-liberals are motivated by increasing private sector profits. Rather than wanting to build better communities for the benefit of all citizens, neo-liberals want to dismember existing structures and redistribute wealth from the hands of the many (the public) and into the hands of the few (the private sector). The history of the past 30 years is rife with examples of these actions. Once a service or good exits the public realm, it’s almost impossible to return it. And that’s why neo-liberals are dangerous when they are handed the reigns of power.

The Small Government Manifesto

Here in Greater Sudbury, we are witnessing the opening moves of an orchestrated campaign by neo-liberal elements and their supporters to gain influence with decision-makers, and likely to replace existing decision-makers. Toronto’s Mayor Rob Ford has only been able to achieve his successes due to the presence of his allies on municipal council. As a result, Torontonians will be experiencing cuts to services (such as transit), and a loss of public sector jobs. And its true that these cuts may lead to smaller tax increases for property owners, but at what overall cost to the community?

Look, I’m absolutely not an advocate of big government, as I believe that big government usually ends up being yet another kind of impediment to democracy. But I do believe that our governments have a strong role to play in creating the circumstances which lead to an enhanced quality of life for all residents, and not just those amongst us who may be paying the most in taxes. I believe that each government should find the best size and approach to meet its own specific circumstances. A slash and burn approach of the sort advocated by neo-liberals is the sort of one-size-fits-all solution that we can no longer afford to make.

Our tax dollars are scarce resources, and the elected officials whom we entrust to spend them should do so with careful consideration, and with the express interests of the community in its entirety at the heart of any decision. Decisions regarding revenue expenditures at the local level are only going to become more important as the world moves away from the clearly failing economic experiment known as globalization. The neo-liberal approach, which requires growth at all costs, is no longer sustainable. As a result, our collective future is going to become much more locally-focussed. And that’s why neo-liberal efforts which seek to slash and burn public services in the name of “small government” and a focus on “core services” represent a clear and present danger to communities such as Greater Sudbury.

Again, to be clear, I am not at all suggesting that a big government approach is the answer. What I am suggesting is that it is important that our local democratic institutions become as healthy and robust as necessary to suit local circumstances, with an eye towards responsible and accountable decision-making, for the benefit of the community. We are living in a time of increasingly scarce resources. As a result, we can no longer continue to afford to subsidize the special interests of the rich elites at the expense of the rest of us.

In Whose Interests?

While some of the concerns raised by the Greater Sudbury Taxpayers Federation are important issues which deserve a public debate, many in this community have already begun to question in whose interests this association is speaking, given their apparent desire to foment change by issuing divisive press releases, rather than actually working with decision-makers, municipal staff and other community stakeholders to find a collaborative solution. It’s hard not to compare the tactics of the GSTA to those we see at work in the Republican Presidential nomination process, where it has become more important to engage in personal attacks than to discuss the issues. Certainly the GSTA appears to have an axe to grind with USW Local 6500, and are eager to point out what they perceive to be ties between the union and elected officials in our community, such as former Mayor John Rodriguez. In that context, the union-baiting press release regarding tipping fees certainly makes a lot more sense.

When I first heard about the formation of the GSTA, I was initially optimistic that this association would be acting in the interests of the community, and working towards creating real and sustainable change. But instead, what this organization appears to be is a group of largely unknown individuals with a very specific right-wing agenda, purporting to speak on behalf of not just its members, but indeed of all taxpayers in the City. And instead of engaging in a collaborative process to work towards real change, the GSTA seems to have chosen to engage in the politics of division.

I’m certain that USW Local 6500 is now aware of what’s going on in our community. It’s time that more of us question in whose interests the Greater Sudbury Taxpayers Association is speaking. Although I share a number of their concerns, I can tell you as a citizen of the City of Greater Sudbury who pays taxes, they are not speaking in my interest.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views of the Green Party of Canada)

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