Stephen Harper, too, shall pass into history,
recorded as one of the most destructive, personally malignant personalities
ever to have soiled the Canadian political landscape.
But in the meantime, Canadians are so
distracted by his political blitzkrieg through the agencies, policies, programs
and institutions that make Canada what it became over five decades, that we are
in danger of losing our imagination regarding what is truly possible in this
While it may seem counter-intuitive, now is
the time for Canadians who actually believe in government and nation-building
to be contemplating big ideas – the ones that will take us the next step to
equality, economic stability and environmental sustainability.
Why? Because if we don’t try to get what we want
we won’t even get what we need.
Is this just pie in the sky – are Canadians
actually open to big ideas? Absolutely. Here are just a few of the signs. CARP,
the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (membership: 330,000) has just
witnessed a sea-change in its members’ voting
intentions. For most of the past year just over 50 percent of them chose
But suddenly, two issues reversed that –
giving the NDP (which had consistently run a distant third) first place with 39
percent and the Harperites 31 percent. The first issue was the changes to the
But the “political game changer,” according
to Susan Eng, vice-president of advocacy for CARP, was the omnibus bill.
Eighty-five percent opposed bundling so many legislative changes into a single
bill. Seniors, a key part of Harper’s broader base, apparently care about
democracy even more than their own safety net.
Sign number two: perhaps we should call it
free market fatigue, as increasing numbers of Canadians are questioning the
Conservative ideology of minimalist government and a free hand for
As I detailed in a recent column,
large majorities of Canadians are calling for higher taxes on the wealthy and
corporations and are willing to pay more themselves to preserve what we have.
And they see the tax issue tied directly to that of inequality – the new
Number three: The Alberta election which
seemed for weeks to heading towards the election of a Harper clone reversed
course as Albertans suddenly paid real attention. This wasn’t just a vote
against bigotry – though it was that, too – but a vote for good government,
something the iconic Tory Peter Lougheed reminded voters of just in the nick of
Four: The re-election of Liberal and NDP
governments in Ontario (where the NDP did well, too) and Manitoba respectively
was not just a vote for incumbency – it was a vote for rational governance and
against libertarian recklessness. So will be the almost certain election of the
NDP in BC next year.
Five: The Quebec student rebellion. Deep
rooted rebellions are always messy and imperfect but while many are
uncomfortable with the scenes of violence the students are absolutely right to
be protesting tuition fee increases.
And now the demonstrations are as much about
human rights and the reactionary government of Jean Charest as they are about
tuition fees. They are sustained by tens of thousands of our fellow citizens
prepared to make real sacrifices for what the rest of us pay lip service to:
But this is also a good example of the role
of big ideas. Why wouldn’t we be demanding zero tuition fees – so that all
education is free and paid for collectively?
We are now, as a nation, well over twice as
wealthy per capita (in real, inflation adjusted dollars) as we were when
Medicare was established in 1967. The money is there – and in a democracy the
people get to decide how those resources are used.
We owe the Quebec students (and their
hundreds of thousands of supporters in civil society groups) a huge debt of
gratitude for shaking us out of our ideology-induced political torpor.
Their message: a better world is possible,
but only if we fight for it.
Our preoccupation with Harper’s outrages
though totally justified, is distracting us from imagining the kind of world we
really want to build. Ironically, the projection of extremely low economic
growth for the foreseeable future actually provides an imposed opportunity to
examine what we desperately need to do anyway – begin to put together plans for
a sustainable economy, a redefined prosperity that is not based on unfettered
growth in the private sector – the economy of stuff.
If ever there was a time to move in this
direction it is now – with corporations sitting on over $700 billion in cash
which they refuse to invest because their own policy preferences and reckless
behaviour has destroyed demand for private goods and services.
Perhaps a tax on idle capital would make
sense – a declaration by government that if the private sector can no longer
allocate capital investment in the interests of the country and its citizens,
then we will take some of it back and allocate it ourselves as public
investment. It’s not that we don’t need investment.
A no-growth economy is actually a misnomer,
for what its advocates are really talking about is a different kind of growth –
the kind that only governments can create: mass transit, green energy, a
national food strategy, child care, pharma care, home care, culture, and
anti-poverty programs including affordable housing.
Capitalism will be around for a while yet but
its current incarnation, the savage capitalism of Wall Street and deregulation
needs to be put to rest. The Canadian corporate sector has proven over and over
again that it is utterly inept at improving its performance, its investment in research
and development and its willingness to take risks and thus improve its
productivity. The experiment with government “getting out of the way” of
business has been an abject failure.
That should bring back the big idea of a much
more planned economy – a robust, imaginative industrial strategy that directs
the allocation of private capital to where it is most productive, produces the
most and best jobs and provides stability and balance to the economy (NDP
leader Thomas Mulcair is on the right track with his Dutch disease analysis).
It is the other half of the capital
allocation equation. The CAW has taken the lead amongst private sector unions
with a ten point plan to promote the long-term growth of the auto industry.
First on the agenda is a national auto policy.
Continuing with the theme of public
investment it is long past time that we use the powers of the Bank of Canada to lend to
governments (including provincial and municipal governments) at virtually zero
interest rates (just enough to cover administrative costs).
The insane practice of accumulating a massive
public debt by borrowing from private banks ranks as perhaps the most
perversely destructive practice of the past forty years.
Policies and programs administered by
government bureaucracies will not give us what we want – especially given that
these bureaucracies are now populated more and more by people dedicated to
dismantling government itself.
The big idea that will make the difference is
a radical, deeply rooted democracy that includes the obvious reforms needed to
the electoral system but involves far more than that.
Participatory budgeting, institutionalizing
citizen participation in the design and delivery of social programs, government
subsidies for citizen study
circles (as they have in Sweden where some 300,000 such circles are
reported each year) which promote education, political literacy and discussion
about the kinds of programs and policies people actually want should all be on
That’s just a start – add to them yourself by
simply using your imagination about what kind of world you would like to wake
up to. How will these things ever come to pass? I have no idea – except than
unless we think about them, imagine them, and talk about them amongst ourselves
it is an absolute certainty that we will never achieve any of them. It is a
question of choosing between despair over the historical accident of Stephen
Harper and hope rooted in what we know in our hearts to be possible.
In the end it is all about reclaiming the
commons – robbed from us by the 1% and the perverse ideology of neo-liberalism.
Maybe we could begin with a small step in that direction – by reinstating
I know, there are lots of objections (its
initial roots in Christianity being one) but imagine there actually being a day
when you couldn’t buy more stuff.
We could bring back an ancient commons
tradition: talking to each other. (X)
Murray Dobbin has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and
social activist for 40 years. This article appears on his blog murraydobbin.ca.