In the last piece, Part 1 of this series, I documented Harper’s contempt for parliamentary democracy, his manipulation of elections, his undercutting of freedom of information and disregard for international law, and his predilection towards political surveillance. In a nutshell it seems his government holds little or no allegiance to our democratic practices. In Part 2 I look at the injustices that will result from the policy changes that Harper is pushing through with his authoritarian rule.
While heading the National Citizens Coalition (NCC) and before leading the Alliance Party, Harper appealed to the alienation of Western Canadians from the federal government. But the policies he affirmed made a mockery out of our citizenship and in retrospect his use of the phrase “Citizen’s Coalition” seems slightly Orwellian. The NCC opposed Medicare, which is embraced by a vast majority of Canadian citizens as basic to our national identity. While acting as the NCC head Harper called for the scrapping of the Canada Health Act, which was created to ensure equity in health services for all citizens across Canada.
Harper has consistently called for the provincialization of healthcare. Soon after his majority government in 2012 and without consultation or meeting with the provinces, he announced a federal funding formula based solely on per-capita grants. This formula totally ignores different needs across the country, especially in the provinces with the higher percentages of seniors who require more health care. It pits the provinces that would benefit, such as Alberta with its younger workforce, against those provinces who would not, driving yet another wedge into Canada. This is intended as a first step towards balkanizing healthcare, empowering and forcing provinces to build-up their private-for-profit delivery system.
Before he was PM, Harper attacked the Canadian Pension Plan or CPP which has worked very well for Canadians. Rather than build upon the strengths of the CPP, in 2011 he introduced the Pooled Registered Pension Plan (PRPP) which would be run by banks, mutual funds and the insurance industry. His recent attack on the Old Age Security (OAS) for being financially unsustainable is also strictly ideological. Independent researchers have concluded that the projected increase in expenditures from 2.3 to 3.1 percent of GDP is financially sustainable, and among the lowest cost in all industrial nations.
Harper is playing on an undercurrent of resentment for the Baby Boomers coming from younger, less wealthy generations, whom he is claiming to protect with cuts to public pensions. With no interest in evidence-based policy, he ignores how many people presently depend on public pensions: eleven million workers lack workplace pensions, only one-third have enough savings to use their full RRSPs, and most telling, almost 90% of RRSP’s investments come from the top 10% income group.
If anything, upcoming generations who are increasingly part of what is called the “precariat” will have even less access to work-place pensions and less ability to save privately. The way to protect them when they become seniors is clearly to protect and expand our public pension plan.
Harper’s policy objective, however, is to move pensions from the public to the private saving sphere, to the advantage of financial corporations and to the detriment of the quality of life of retiring Canadians. With his publicly-funded pension of over $200,000 annually Harper won’t personally need the $6,000 per year from the OAS. Nor will he be among the sparse 6% of seniors who earn enough ($69,000) to get OAS benefits clawed back. However, the public pension plan, including the Guaranteed Income Supplement or GIS, remains critical to the wellbeing of the majority of Canadians; it provides up to 75% of the retirement income of low-income seniors, including women who have worked in the home without incomes.
Harper cleverly masked his hostility towards the rights and freedoms of Canadians by using populist language from the very beginning of his political career. All the Reform Party talk of transparency and accountability now looks rather trite in view of Harper’s steady moves towards more authoritarian rule.
Rights and freedoms are not abstract, they must be guaranteed; for example, there must be policies that affirm equal access to information and to legal and political processes for citizens to fully participate in society. There remains a huge inequity between male and female participation in decision-making within Canadian society, yet, while still a minority government, Harper abolished most Status of Women offices across Canada. He eliminated funding for the National Association of Women and the Law and for the Court Challenges Program, which further weakened the ability of vulnerable Canadians to participate more equally in Canadian society. He eliminated the budget of the Law Commission of Canada which advised Parliament on law reform and gave life to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
LAW AND DISORDER
While Harper tries to dismantle public health, pension and participation programs that provide some semblance of social justice he shifts massive taxpayer-resources towards social-political control. Billions have been committed to build mega-prisons in a time of a falling crime rate. He continues to centralize political power by legislating mandatory sentences that will further drive up taxpayer costs. His government continues to misinform Parliament about the real costs of his mega-prison plan. By 2015 he will likely have doubled the annual spending on prisons, adding $5 billion a year for the taxpayers to pay.
Harper came to power in great part by driving a huge wedge between the amorphous population he stereotypes as “criminal” and the rest of us. Yet it could be members of any of our extended families that could end up in Harper’s expanded prison system. While planning to incarcerate more Canadians, he has cut rehabilitation programs throughout the corrections system, ensuring that hardening and not the healing of Canadians will result from imprisonment. Meanwhile his government and party continue to show disrespect for the rule of law, or the rules by which elections and parliamentary democracy operate. The double standard grows each day.
RETRIBUTION NOT JUSTICE
The overall pattern is most revealing. Just after first being elected in 2006 he rescinded the Kelowna Accord which was the first comprehensive agreement to improve the quality of health and education among First Nations. Health, education and housing, and not more prisons, should be a policy priority for Canada if we want prevent more crises such as occurred at Attawapiskat. Then in 2007 his government cut over a billion from the national childcare program, in spite of all the research showing that attention to quality of life in early childhood pays “dividends” throughout the life cycle. In 2010 Harper showed his “policy priorities” by spending as much as he previously cut from national childcare on policing the G20 meeting in Toronto, funding the largest mass arrest in Canadian history.
Social justice is about finding a fairer way to distribute benefits and burdens across groups in society. The Harper government is steadily shifting resources from advancing social justice, which we know enhances the health of the community, to retributive programs, which we know can perpetuate social and political disintegration. There seems to be little or no awareness in his circles about the positive role of restorative justice in consolidating social solidarity. His mean-spirited punitive approach to the role of government is a throw-back to pre-democratic times.
This is another wake up call for Canadians.
Next time I’ll discuss how the corporate economy shapes Harper’s political agenda.