Lana Payne / The Telegram
As Stephen Harper clings to the myth of being a good economic manager, more and more evidence indicates that Canada’s Conservative government has little to write home about.
In fact, their economic record is less than “good” even taking into account the global financial crisis of 2008-09.
Inequality has deepened under Mr. Harper’s watch, job quality has declined, wages have stagnated, economic growth has been anemic, social protections have been reduced while corporate profits and CEO pay soar.
A recent report from the Broadbent Institute entitled “Haves and Have-Nots: Deep and Persistent Wealth Inequality in Canada” highlights just how bad the concentration of wealth is in this country. Inequality is not just a U.S. problem.
The report found that the top 10 per cent of Canadians hold almost 50 per cent of all wealth, while the bottom 30 per cent account for less than one per cent of all wealth. Stunning. Indeed, the bottom 50 per cent of Canadians controlled less than six per cent.
The concentration of wealth for the top 10 per cent is highest in British Columbia at 56.2 per cent and lowest in Atlantic Canada (31.7 per cent) and Quebec (43.4 per cent).
More and more evidence suggests that deepening inequality is bad for the economy.
Another new report prepared for the September meeting of the G20 labour and employment ministers suggests that inequality is hurting economic growth in all countries, including Canada.
Most of the G20 have experienced increased inequality, says the report, pointing towards globalization, technological change, less progressive tax and transfer policies, and a declining labour share of the economy.
The report by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the World Bank Group and the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) notes that reducing inequality requires both improving income distribution and more and better jobs. Not rocket science, but apparently it needs repeating. Quality jobs, notes the report, are important in the fight to reduce poverty. We now need reports to tell us this.
Statistics from Unifor economist Jim Stanford comparing a slew of economic indicators pre-Harper government to today show a deteriorating economic and labour market situation, not all of which, by any stretch of the imagination, can be blamed on the 2008-09 global financial crisis.
And since the government has bragged repeatedly of its record coming out of the recession, perhaps that bragging should be tested with some facts and data. Yes, the stuff this Conservative government derides and mocks with increasing frequency.
For example, employment and labour force participation rates are lower today than they were in 2006, part-time employment is up, corporate taxes are significantly lower (22.1 per cent in 2006, 15 per cent today) business capital investment saw no increase and has been static at 19.1 per cent of GDP, business R&D spending as a percentage of GDP has declined, exports as a percentage of GDP from 2006 to today have dropped significantly from 36.7 per cent of GDP to 30.8 per cent.
Not exactly great economic numbers. Add to this the over $600 billion in cash being hoarded by corporate Canada and Mr. Harper is heading into a federal election with more than a few economic weak spots.
Throw in the fact that wages are stagnant and inequality is growing and the only folks doing better are those at the top who are accumulating more and more wealth under Mr. Harper’s failed economic policies.
The ILO-OECD-World Bank report noted that wage stagnation can’t be explained away by weak economic growth, especially when productivity is up. This means productivity gains are going to the owners, rather than the workers.
The report finds that job quality is not just a problem for emerging economies, but also for advanced G20 economies with a rise in informal employment, as well as widespread low-wage work and job insecurity.
Interestingly, the report is clear that this is not a hopeless condition. Rather, steps can be taken to improve income distribution and job quality. Income inequality and vulnerability of low-income households can be bettered through such measures as higher minimum wages and social protections. Note this is not just the ILO saying this, but also the OECD and the World Bank.
More and more countries and experts, including economists, are recognizing the importance of higher minimum wages, including their ratio to average wages, as important in alleviating working poverty. Of course, it should go without saying that strong collective bargaining is also important in combating poverty and inequality.
As Martin Luther King once noted, the best anti-poverty program is a union.
The report for the G20 ministers concludes that higher minimum wages and increased coverage for collective bargaining are key if governments wish to address working poverty and inequality. So, pretty much everything the Harper government hasn’t done.
Given all of this, it appears the NDP has hit on something with their call for a $15 federal minimum wage.
Canada can’t change the pattern of inequality if it doesn’t take steps to do so.
Minimum wage is an important part of that debate, but so are unionization, social wages and protections, and job quality.
Inequality and poor jobs are not inevitable. Nor are they just because of technological change and globalization, as some would want us to believe. We can, with good economic policy, make a difference for the citizens of Canada, but we have to first believe that government has a role to play.
Lana Payne is the Atlantic director for Unifor.