Prime Minister Harper is coming out of the political “closet”. He has likely struggled to keep his political agenda to his inner circle; trying to appear moderate enough to slip through the first-past-the-post system to get his majority.
His reactionary agenda is falling into place. He’s already undermined international negotiations for an effective climate treaty. He’s labeled those wanting to transition to a less fossil-fuel dependent economy as “anti-Canadian radicals”. He’s embraced environmental de-regulation so Canada can become even more of an oil-exporting state and he’s breached the rule of law and “stolen” money from the farmer-elected Canadian Wheat Board. He has now indicated that spending cuts could hit $8 billion. There’s not much ambiguity left. His Canada would not be a compassionate, moderate country; ecological sustainability and social equality be damned.
Harper gave his “coming out” speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Perhaps wanting to impress the rich and powerful present, he stands ready to be as tough on Canadians as required to give global corporations yet another boost. The pillars of his regressive “vision” are: first, to tie all policy, including on immigration, to the labour force needs of corporate economic growth; second, to fast-track environmental protection in the interests of mining and energy multinationals; and third, to cut federal services to control the deficit while turning his back on growing inequalities across Canada.
Harper uses two main tactics in his effort to remake Canada as a corporate state. He uses pre-emptive attacks and no-consultation ultimatums, as he did with healthcare funding, to drive forward his agenda and uses “wedge” issues that temporarily divide Canadians; keeping Canadians in shock, dismay and disunity. Harper recruits many of the deadly sins to “get the job done”, especially envy, pride and greed.
At Davos he attacked Canada’s long-established old-age security program as having the “capacity to undermine Canada’s economic position”. With a now predictable linguistic twist, pensions are made a “threat to social programs”. The increasing number of elderly, not increasing inequality from corporate economic growth, becomes responsible for the government having to cut spending. Seniors now join the ranks of the other groups being scapegoated by Harper’s corporate agenda.
Harper exploits half-truths. It’s true that with present trends the proportion of those 65 and over will double globally, becoming 15% of the population by 2040. This trend is accentuated in developed countries. It is also true that the baby boom bulge could triple expenses for old-age security here by 2030.
But statistics can be manipulated. At present Old Age Security (OAS) costs are only slightly above 2% of the GDP, which is one of the lowest of the G 20 countries. (Italy is at 10%). Even with the expected growth in seniors it would still cost only around 3% of the GDP by 2030. Meanwhile Canadian pensions have not been extravagant; in 2005 they were only 60% of the net median income, which is much lower than many G20 countries.
POLITICS OF DECEIT
But Harper doesn’t respect facts. He governs by opinion and undercuts the informed consent required for a healthy democracy. There’s lots of deceit here. Harper says he has a mandate from the last election to rule by law, as he’s done with the dismantling of the farmer-elected Canadian Wheat Board. But do you recall any mention during the last election of his plan to cut old-age security? Had Harper announced this intention he would not have won his majority. The senior advocacy group CARP has already come out in opposition to his proposed cuts.
Harper groups together rising pension costs with rising healthcare costs so that he can attack all universal programs, but there is no comparison. Based on today’s trajectory, healthcare costs could rise from 12% to 19% of the GDP by 2030, so reforming the organization and delivery of healthcare, and paying more attention to evidence-based prevention and treatment is clearly needed. The exploiting of Medicare for profit also needs to be curtailed.
In contrast, public pensions are working just fine. Harper has even had to admit that the Canadian Pension Plan (CPP) is financially sound. The OAS, for which most seniors qualify, and the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) which provides additional resources to one-third of seniors, to help them stay out of glaring poverty, would remain viable even with the baby boom bulge, especially if taxes were made more equitable.
Why does Harper want to break what is working? He wants to make future seniors pay for his pro-corporate policies today. His “transformations”, in his words at Davos, are “necessary to sustain economic growth”. But what would be the consequences for Canadians? With the globalization of the labour force, our offspring are being streamed into low-paying, precarious jobs, what Guy Standing, in his recent book, calls The Precariat. It is therefore necessary to oppose cuts not just for today’s seniors, but for our children, for when they become seniors. Facing the restricted economic prospects of today they will be even more dependent on a solid public pension system than we are.
Harper will nevertheless try to drive a wedge between the generations by arguing that it is unfair for those in the shrinking workforce to support the growing senior population. Yet it is high youth unemployment – particularly among young men, and not seniors who have paid taxes throughout their lives, that is responsible for this imbalance. The solution is to green and diversify the economy and create compassionate public policy to give youth more social security. Some form of base income needs to be brought back into political debate. The growing old-age dependency ratio can be managed by progressive policy, including progressive economic policy; that’s what governments should be for. Except for Harper! For him society serves the economy rather than the reverse.
Harper’s plan to extend the age of retirement will also be justified by the increases in life expectancy. Yet we already see seniors, before 65, suffering from the stress and disability of our “one against all” economic system. The solution to growing life expectancy is not to drive future seniors into poverty but to transform the economy to better distribute wealth to meet human needs.
TAKING BACK CANADA
Such progressive policy is not on Harper’s agenda. Projected back in 2010 to receive a parliamentarian pension of at least $150,000 per year, it is easy for him to call for cuts to old-age security. Cutting and privatizing pensions is part of the overall post-2008 recession strategy to further reduce corporate costs and increase CEO/shareholder entitlements. Yet, as the experience with the mean-spirited Tea-Party politics in the US shows, fewer corporations are actually paying into worker pension plans. The attack on public pensions while unemployment is high is simply not sound fiscal or social policy. The neo-liberal claim that this is needed to create jobs is disproven by the outcomes, such as a jobless “recovery”, which stare us in the face.
We shouldn’t underestimate the political tricks Harper has up his sleeve, especially when the stakes are so high for senior citizens, today and tomorrow. It is likely he will try to polarize Canadians with his anti-democratic “transformations” early in his present term and then return to a more covert politics as he approaches the 2015 election. Let’s think big and not let this happen. Let’s join together to take Canada back from the brink.