January 31, 2014
This article originally appeared on CKOM Newstalk 650.
Barack Obama’s top swing state strategist is coming to Saskatoon to talk about how everyday people can bring about the social changes they want through grassroots action.
Mitch Stewart directed the American president’s successful 2012 campaign within 10 of the 11 swing states votes. He was also involved in Obama’s 2008 campaign and several organizations.
“To say (the campaign was) magical probably doesn’t do it justice,” Stewart said.
“The thing we really learned during the campaign is the nexus of using better data and analytics on one end and probably more important is this relationship or community based organizing.”
Saskatoon Change Makers is co-organized by left-wing think tank the Broadbent Institute and two-time provincial NDP candidate Ryan Meili’s UpStream.
“Mitch brings that real on the ground experience on how to win campaigns and we look forward to hearing what his advice is for folks in the local context,” Graham Mitchell, Broadbent Institute training and leadership director said.
Stewart will talk about the tactics he used in the 2012 campaign to usher in a second term for Obama including building social networks.
“Teaching how you can build those relationship structures and teams … making sure groups have that information, how powerful it can be and guide them through that process,” Stewart said.
Through his organization 270 Strategies, Stewart has also spoken at other Canadian venues including Ottawa and Vancouver. He was also brought in to stress the importance of grassroots movements and "progressive change."
“The important thing about grassroots movements are everybody has a role to play in making change. “
(The Broadbent Institute is) pushing for people to take seriously the opportunity to get involved in politics,” Mitchell said, adding what progressive means changes depending on the community.
“For different organizations and different communities it means different things, that’s partly why we’ve pulled together other local communities and working with UpStream to identify challenges that local communities face.”
Stewart will be joined by co-speakers Meili, University of Saskatchewan student union president Max FineDay and Idle No More co-founder Erica Lee, at the Roxy Theatre at 7 p.m Friday.
January 28, 2014
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Mitch Stewart, the political strategist who oversaw Barack Obama's victories in battleground states in 2012, will speak this week at an event in Saskatoon about progressive change.
Stewart has been involved over the years in numerous organizations and campaigns, including several that were important to the success of the U.S. president. He was Battleground States Director for Obama's 2012 campaign, and his strategy led to wins in nine of 10 battleground states.
"It was a life-changing experience," Stewart said about working with the president. "It's been a fantastic professional experience for me, but more importantly, from a personal perspective, it will go down as one of the greatest accomplishments of my life."
The tactics Stewart used during the campaign will be part of his discussion at Saskatoon Change Makers, which takes place at the Roxy Theatre at 7 p.m. Friday.
"We want to share those lessons, share those strategies, with other like-minded organizations that are trying to bring positive social change to their communities," Stewart said.
A model of building and organizing relationships has been important to his success, he said.
"This team structure that we know works, this very intentional relationship building, is probably the biggest lesson that we've learned," Stewart said, noting 10,000 neighbourhood teams across the U.S. performed various roles for Obama's 2012 campaign.
Building relationships is "the best vehicle that progressives can have to enacting change," he said.
Part of what he wants to do with Friday's speech is explain "the long arc" of facilitating social change, he said, noting that while change is never easy, it is important to have a clear and concise theory of change that can be easily explained and related to people's personal lives.
His efforts in Canada - he is speaking elsewhere in the country, too - will focus on advocacy work and not Canadian partisan politics, he said.
The event in Saskatoon is co-organized by two leftleaning organizations, the Broadbent Institute and Upstream. The director for the latter is Ryan Meili, a Saskatoon doctor and two-time former candidate for the provincial NDP leadership.
Graham Mitchell, director of training and leadership at the Broadbent Institute, said the organizations are bringing Stewart to Saskatchewan to share the message that grassroots efforts can lead to change.
"What the Obama campaign managed to do in terms of mobilizing regular people in support of a broad, progressive agenda is really remarkable and amazing and we're hoping that people hear that message that there is something that you can do," Mitchell said.
"There is hope, and there's a good reason to get involved, and one of the most highprofile examples comes from the American presidential election in electing Barack Obama, but it can be done in your local community on smaller scales."
Other speakers at the event will include Meili, as well as Max FineDay, president of the U of S Students' Union, and Erica Lee, one of the founders of the Idle No More movement.
Learn more about Saskatoon Change Makers: https://www.broadbentinstitute.ca/en/training-leadership/sessions/saskatoon-change-makers
In the next few weeks (no firm date has yet been set), Statistics Canada will release the results of the 2012 Survey of Financial Security. This survey, which is unfortunately only conducted on an episodic basis, will provide a detailed look at the assets, debts and net wealth of Canadians. It will provide an important complement to the many sources of information we have on incomes and income inequality.
When we consider the economic resources of households, wealth – mainly consisting of housing, equity in businesses and financial assets – clearly matters a lot in terms of security and the ability to spend. National wealth is an important yardstick for comparing ourselves with other countries (it was why Adam Smith wrote about the Wealth of Nations), and we can only judge the real extent of economic inequality when we look at the distribution of wealth among households, and not just annual income flows.
University of Paris economist Thomas Piketty pioneered (with Emmanuel Saez) historical analysis of income inequality, and carefully documented the changing income share of the top 1 per cent in rich countries. Now he has done the same for wealth.
In a major article and a forthcoming English-language edition of his book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Mr. Piketty shows that the ratio of total household wealth to national income, or gross domestic product (GDP), in advanced industrial countries is not constant over time. In fact, the ratio was very high in the pre-industrial era and the early years of industrialization, but fell to a low of two to three times GDP between the First World War and 1970. Today, national wealth in the advanced economies is back to late-19th-century levels of four to six times GDP.
Generally speaking, wealth is higher relative to GDP in Europe than in North America. Here in Canada, wealth was at a low of 2.5 times GDP back in 1970, but is now about four times higher than GDP.
The reasons for the decline of wealth relative to GDP over much of the 20th century likely included the destruction of wealth in two world wars and the Great Depression, and an extended period in the middle of the century in which the financial sector was closely regulated and labour’s share of national income was high relative to the share of capital.
Mr. Piketty further shows that wealth was generally much more equally distributed by the mid-20th century than it had been in the pre-industrial era and the late 19th century. The share of all wealth held by the top 10 per cent in rich countries is typically very high, at 60 to 70 per cent, but this is still well below late-19th-century levels of 80 to 90 per cent.
Karl Marx famously argued that the stock of capital would inexorably rise and become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands due to the dynamics of capitalism. He was wrong. But Mr. Piketty fears that the rising ratio of wealth to GDP, combined with increasing inequality in the distribution of wealth since about 1970, may bring us back to the extreme economic inequality of the Victorian era and the so-called Gilded Age in the United States.
In the case of Canada, a very large share of net wealth (assets such as houses, pensions and financial assets, minus debts) is concentrated in relatively few hands, and that share has been slowly rising. In 2005, the top 10 per cent of households owned 58.2 per cent of all wealth, up from 51.8 per cent in 1989 (the earliest year for which we have data). The bottom 70 per cent of households owned just 14.5 per cent of all net wealth.
These numbers are generally acknowledged to significantly understate the real degree of wealth inequality, since surveys based on small samples will not include the few super-wealthy individuals who control much of Canada’s wealth. The 2013 Forbes magazine rankings show that 29 Canadian persons or families have more than $1-billion of assets, led by the Thomson family with assets of $20.3-billion.
It will be interesting to see, in the new Financial Security survey, if Canadian wealth inequality increased further from 2005 to 2012. This was a period in which housing prices increased significantly, while financial assets (which are much more concentrated in a few hands, with 80 per cent being owned by the top 10 per cent) did not do so well. However, household debt also rose sharply over this period.
The danger may lie more in the future than in the very recent past. If wealth, especially financial wealth, looms large as a share of GDP, and if rates of return on capital remain high in a relatively sluggish economy, wealth will become highly concentrated in the hands of the very few.
This article originally appeared in the Globe & Mail's Economy Lab.
Photo: rabbot. Used under a Creative Commons BY 2.0 licence.
January 16, 2014
This article originally appeared on CBC News.
Canada's newest "progressive" think tank is getting ready to train new foot soldiers for the battleground of the next election, which will be held no later than October 2015.
In turning its attention to training and electoral literacy, the left-leaning Broadbent Institute is attempting to become as influential and successful as the conservative Manning Centre, founded by former Reform Party leader Preston Manning in 2005.
The Broadbent Institute, created in 2011, has a ways to go, but Rick Smith, the current executive director, said it's time for the left to get moving.
"The right, the conservative movement, to its credit, has spent a lot of time over the last few years, training up a new generation of leaders and the progressive side of the spectrum needs to start doing the same thing or we’re going to be in some significant trouble down the road," Smith said.
Officially, the Broadbent Institute says it is non-partisan, though it is chaired by former NDP leader Ed Broadbent and its board has other NDP members. Smith said the organization wants to be a "big tent" to allow all progressive Canadians a place to come and think about ideas.
But part of that is also about getting a political movement more organized.
Making politics personal
The Manning Centre and various other programs led by Preston Manning train hundreds of Canadians in an effort to improve democracy, but also to strengthen the conservative movement long-term.
Robert Gibbs, left, U.S. President Barack Obama's former press secretary, stands with Broadbent Institute Executive Director Rick Smith and chair Ed Broadbent. The institute is looking to U.S. Democrats for help in training progressive election workers. (Broadbent Institute/Flickr)
The Broadbent Institute wants to do the same. In the months ahead it will roll out training sessions, one in Saskatchewan later this month and one at its first “Progress Summit” in March. It has tapped some former Barack Obama campaign organizers and other American Democrats to help develop the training.
Smith said part of it is about getting progressives to tell and sell a better story to Canadians: less based on the nitty gritty details of policy, and more on personal values.
"Conservatives in the last few years, on many issues, have told a more convincing story than progressives have," Smith admits. And he said while there is much to be admired with the Manning Centre, it is also a mistake to draw too many parallels. For instance, he said the Manning Centre can depend on more corporate money while the Broadbent Institute is more "people powered."
Olivier Ballou, the Manning Centre’s director of communications, has no problems with the comparisons and said, “We are flattered the Broadbent Institute tries to copy us.”
On at least one front, though, it is hard to compare.
The Manning Centre had money in the bank before it was even started, with some reports pegging the amount in the millions of dollars. And while it is a non-profit organization, the centre does disclose its annual revenue, which in 2012 was $1.3 million.
The NDP invited Canadians to donate money to the nascent Broadbent Institute in memory of federal leader Jack Layton following his death in the summer of 2011 — butthat move fell apart because the institute was not yet incorporated and Elections Canada wouldn't allow the party to solicit donations on its behalf.
The institute won't give any financial details, except to say it has "less than the Manning Centre" but did recently meet a goal to bring in 1,000 new donors before the end of 2013.
Smith said he has been surprised at the response.
"It's coming from right across the country, it’s coming from the broadest possible spectrum of people and you know what, it’s coming from a lot of people who at the end of the day might not even define themselves as progressives."
Linking politicians and ideas
Much of the attraction may be because think tanks offer a place to consider ideas and a place for politicians to find them.
Jim Armour, a vice-president at Summa Strategies and former director of communications for Preston Manning, said Manning always warned about politicians running out of new ideas.
"When you enter political life you’ve got only so much gas in the tank in terms of ideas. You're coming in to do something, to further some idea or a policy, but once you’re in politics it’s very difficult to refill that gas tank. There's no kind of in-flight refuelling system."
Armour said that's the benefit of organizations like these: they can generate ideas. And while he admits the Broadbent Institute is a "sophisticated operation," he also thinks it is far more partisan than what Manning is doing.
"[The Manning Centre is] not out there shilling 24/7 for Stephen Harper. It's very much, 'here are some really big ideas, why don't you follow.' That's very much what Manning was all about as head of the Reform Party and the Canadian Alliance."
What both organizations are are trying to do is improve democracy. Smith said Manning has put "his money where his mouth is" and said that is to be admired.
The hope of the Broadbent Institute is to make progress on some key issues and help fight back against the conservative movement. Meanwhile, Smith said, the Conservative government is injecting his organization with "a kind of fierceness to get a move on."
Bruce Lourie and Rick Smith are the authors of a previous bestseller called Slow Death By Rubber Duck. In that book, they detailed a shocking list of toxic chemicals that are present in almost everything surrounding us; the air we breathe, the water we drink, our food, the containers we package it in, the toys we buy our children, and even the personal-care products we use to keep ourselves clean, fresh and healthy. They bravely experimented on themselves to determine whether purposeful exposure to harmful chemicals could measurably increase the levels of toxins in their own bodies.Read more
The job numbers for the end of 2013 could not have been much worse than this. But don't expect the Harper Conservatives to do anything about it in a February federal Budget which will be all about 2015 pre-election politics.
In December, the Canadian economy lost 60,000 full-time jobs, and the national unemployment rate rose sharply from 6.9 per cent to 7.2 per cent. The youth unemployment rate jumped from 13.4 per cent to 14 per cent.
While the Conservatives have bragged about the strength of the recovery, the proportion of Canadians with jobs was down in December from a year earlier, and the unemployment rate was up, from 7.1 per cent to 7.2 per cent.
In short, no progress was made in 2013.
The prospects for 2014 are not rosy. Most forecasters expect little improvement on the jobs front as the housing boom slows and households, now with record-high levels of debt, slow down their spending. The hard-hit manufacturing sector continues to shed jobs as new plant closure announcements multiply.
There is a lot that the federal government could do to help sustain and create jobs, especially for hard-hit young people and recent immigrants.
We could take advantage of still very low interest rates to finance major new investments in public and environmental infrastructure, including public transit, which would both create jobs and reduce carbon emissions.
We could invest in innovation, skills, and research and development to transition from our overreliance on resources to a more sophisticated Canadian economy.
We could lighten up on cuts to public services which kill jobs even as they harm Canadian families.
But the federal budget will do close to nothing along these lines since the Harper Conservatives have only one goal: to set the stage for pre-election tax cuts in the 2015 budget.
They can't cut taxes till they have balanced the budget. So this year, the order of the day will be no new programs, and even more cuts to jobs and services. Watch for new austerity measures on top of already announced cuts which will see federal direct program spending (program spending minus transfers to persons and minus transfers to provinces) fall by $5.3 billion from 2013-14 to 2014-15.
These deep cuts are being imposed in spite of the fact that the federal debt is already falling as a share of the economy. Even bank economists say that there is no particular hurry to eliminate our remaining modest deficit.
The race to balance the federal budget is motivated not by economics but by the political determination of the Conservatives to deliver a big personal tax cut just before the 2015 election in the form of income-splitting for families with children.
No one is against a break for hard-working families, or measures that would allow parents to spend more time with children – but is income splitting the way forward? We could, for example, expand parental leave benefits under the Employment Insurance program so more parents could afford to take up to a year off work after the arrival of a child.
But the Conservative proposal to allow a shift of up to $50,000 between partners in a family with children up to age 18 is deeply flawed.
There would be no benefit at all to the one in four children who live in single parent families, nor would there be much (if any) benefit to lower-income families with two earners where neither earns above the $50,000 needed to move out of the lowest tax bracket. Stephen Harper is essentially proposing that we transfer more of the tax burden onto single-parent and lower- and middle-income families.
Apart from scandal, Parliament didn’t produce much in the just completed fall session – a grand total of three bills. But there was one ray of light, a Finance Committee report last week on one of our most serious problems, the growth of income inequality. The Committee was mandated to study the problem and propose solutions, paying particular attention to the federal tax and income support system.
The Committee heard from dozens of academic experts and public interest groups, and I was pleased to present a brief on behalf of the Broadbent Institute. This built on our own major report on inequality on what I believe to be one of the defining political issues of our time.
The Committee's report falls well short of being ideal. But it does represent a step forward, and provides some interesting insight into how the issue of inequality may play out in terms of partisan and public debate leading up to the 2015 election.
The report lays out the evidence of the growth in economic inequality in Canada, confirming the sustained rise of the income share of the top 1 per cent, and describes some of the key underlying causes, including changes in the labour market. But most experts cited seemed to agree that government policies have also worked to exacerbate the problem.
A major disappointment in the report, reflecting the views of the Conservative majority, is that it fails to underline why the rise in income inequality should be of pressing concern to all Canadians. Almost everyone else on the planet, from the World Health Organization to the OECD and the IMF, stress this reality: high levels of inequality have negative social and economic consequences for everyone, rich and poor alike.
The opposition parties were much better. The NDP supplementary report states that “high levels of income inequality slow growth, destroy communities, and prevent millions of Canadians from reaching their full potential.” The Liberal Party states that “if Canada does not address its growing levels of inequality, it faces costly economic and social consequences, from decreased productivity to poor health outcomes.”
In a more encouraging vein, the majority report cautiously endorses some positive proposals. Given stated support from both of the opposition parties, these could, and should, move to the top of the government agenda as we approach the 2014 federal Budget and the 2015 federal election.
The Broadbent Institute and other witnesses highlighted the need to increase the Working Income Tax Benefit (WITB) which supplements the incomes of working poor families, thus raising earned income from low wage jobs and helping offset unnecessary barriers to moving from welfare to work.
The majority report calls on the federal government to “formally review the WITB to determine how it could be expanded or modified to further benefit Canadians.”
The majority report, again accompanied by stronger statements from the opposition parties, further calls on the federal government “to make early childhood education and child care more accessible and affordable in all areas of the country, including through increased support for affordable early childhood and education and care programs.”
Such programs are key to removing barriers to work by single parents, mainly women, and are also important to expanding lifetime opportunities for low income children. However, the key question to ask of the Conservatives is whether they are actually prepared to fund income supports for the working poor and early childhood programs. After all, their stated priorities, following elimination of the deficit, are to cut income taxes by introducing family income splitting and by raising contribution limits for Tax Free Savings Accounts.
It is encouraging that both of the opposition parties, with only guarded support from the Conservatives, place a strong emphasis upon importance of addressing the needs of Aboriginal Peoples, especially in the area of education.
The NDP also stressed the importance role of collective bargaining in achieving more equality and opposed recent changes in EI that compel workers to take jobs at much lower wages.
Both of the opposition parties call for some limited measures to make the tax system more fair, but neither endorses higher income tax rates for the very affluent, one source of funding new social investments.
The NDP alone condemns the Conservative proposal to extend income splitting to families with children, a measure that would cost some $2.7-billion per year in lost revenues, provide no extra support at all for single parents and lower income working families with children. It would primarily benefit the most affluent. The question for the Liberals is how can they support new social initiatives if they also support the loss of funding brought about by this income splitting proposal and oppose new tax increases.
While the issue of the growth in income inequality has now been put on the table by all parties in this report, it is clear that there will be plenty to debate about possible policy solutions leading up to the next election.
This article originally appeared in the Globe & Mail.
This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.
Nine years ago this month, U.S. Republicans were rolling. George W. Bush had just been re-elected and the party was boasting of a permanent Republican majority in the United States.
Jeremy Bird, who had worked on John Kerry’s failed presidential campaign, remembers the Democrat despair that November.
There was no one left to blame but themselves, he said.
“It woke up the progressive movement in the country.’’
Bird, a political organizer and voter data analyst and the 2012 field director of Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, is a man much in demand today for his work in the hybrid merging of community organizing and data mining.
As we spoke, Bird was in Toronto, working with Canadian progressives who feel their wake-up call is at hand.
Two years after the left began an institute of its own, named after longtime NDP leader Ed Broadbent, their members are learning how to tell their story and change the deeply embedded conservative narrative in this country. They have begun programs to properly train and indoctrinate campaign volunteers, strategists and candidates.
They are importing veterans of back-to-back Obama victories to help them learn how to do it, but, unlike Democrats in the U.S., they began their efforts while in the ascendancy, after the NDP formed the official opposition for the first time, albeit in a Stephen Harper majority government.
More than just importing the players, however, Canadians are now seeing the importation of a key element of American political culture.
Whether sustaining one political view through a changing political terrain is possible is questionable — Obama has sunk to new lows in popularity, while Bird is already working on the undeclared candidacy of Hillary Clinton.
Whether it can work here, where at least two centre-left parties compete for votes, is an open question.
The back-to-back Bush victories helped give birth to the Centre for American Progress, the first large, left-leaning American think tank and advocacy group, born to counter the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, which had successfully promoted the Republican message.
Manning’s institute is older, richer, more deeply entrenched and more influential. It includes a new training centre for conservatives who are schooled in the art of campaigning, political messaging and political management.
Its annual conference is the most important conservative gathering on the year’s political calendar, but a month after next year’s event, the Broadbent Institute will counter with their own Progressive Summit, featuring former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard.
Last Thursday, the inaugural Broadbent Progressive Gala sold out at the Art Gallery of Ontario where attendees heard from another Obama alumnus, Robert Gibbs, the president’s former communications guru.
By video, attendees heard from former prime ministers Kim Campbell, Jean Chrétien and Brian Mulroney, who stressed the need for big ideas to be debated in this country.
In two years, the Broadbent Institute now has a staff of 10, double the Twitter following of the Manning Centre and a 700 per cent jump in traffic on its website in the past year.
Its blog site PressProgress.ca is modeled after The Progress Report, the newsletter of the Centre for American Progress.
The money donated by benefactors and sponsors for right-leaning advocacy in this country through the Manning Centre and the Fraser Institute and others is likely 10 times that available to progressives such as the Broadbent Institute, trade union political arms or environmental groups.
It is why messages revolving around law and order, balanced budgets, low taxes and family values become embedded in the Canadian political jargon.
The challenge is for progressives to make protection of our public health care system, income inequality, environmental safeguards, the green economy, democratic renewal and protection of the CBC just as much of the daily political discourse.
“You have to arm everyday citizens with a message,’’ Gibbs said. “It is not just happening in the public square and on TV or newspapers. It happens in everyday life.
“You need an army of truth tellers out there, spreading the word.’’
And for those who have been out of power, Gibbs stresses that you “have to tell your story, not just why you are opposed to something.’’
Beyond the battle of big ideas, however, expect an NDP that increasingly plays with its elbows up, creates an enduring “war room’’ mentality and is not shy about engaging opponents.
The Conservative Party will kick off its biennial convention Thursday. With the media microscope focused squarely on the Senate scandal and the frayed integrity of the Prime Minister’s Office, Canadians aren’t likely to pay much attention to what transpires on the convention floor.
They ought to. The policy resolutions that pass provide as good an indication as any of how Prime Minister Stephen Harper will go about deflecting the heat and shoring up support for his government among the party’s base.
There is a persistent view that Mr. Harper has pragmatically governed in the centre, in a way that, if anything, has alienated the hard-right of the party. Under this interpretation, Mr. Harper has moderated his Reform ways and largely kept his “base” in check. Wacky resolutions at Conservative conventions are therefore so much meaningless hot air.
The Conservative's record, however, tells a different story.
Though the list of right-wing “accomplishments” is long, several demonstrate how out of touch Mr. Harper is with mainstream Canadian values: brazen attacks on labour groups and collective bargaining rights; tax cuts that benefit the wealthy; the erosion of public programs and cuts to services; the dismantling of environmental regulations for resource extraction; evidence-averse “tough on crime” policies such as building more prisons and instituting mandatory minimum sentences.
Mr. Harper has incrementally but methodically shifted Canada’s politics towards the hard-right of his party, breaking with Canada’s strong and cross-partisan tradition of progressivism in the process.
Little wonder many former Progressive Conservatives deplore this government's record on the environment, its attack on evidence-based policy making, and as former prime minister Joe Clark recently argued in the Star, its near complete disregard for the norms of international co-operation.
For clues about Harper’s next steps, let’s look at some of the policy proposals and amendments up for debate at the convention:
One resolution calls on the government to “resist any domestic or international pressure” that threatens the “legitimacy of private ownership of firearms.”
History suggests we ought to take this resolution seriously. During the 2005 convention, the Tories voted to repeal the long-gun registry should they ever be able to do so. Seven years later, the program is dead. Meanwhile, the government has still yet to sign a UN Arms Trade Treaty even the gun-loving Americans have endorsed. All of this reflects the disturbing and growing influence of the gun lobby on party policy.
Another resolution calls for the “elimination of all public funding” from the CBC. Full stop.
We’ve already seen this government impose substantial cuts to the public broadcaster and introduce new and unprecedented policies to directly control its internal management. It’s not a trend that inspires trust for those worried about further cuts and censorship, let alone the end of the CBC.
A third resolution calls for a commitment to “bring public sector pensions in-line with Canadian norms by switching to a defined contribution pension model.” Defined contribution models, preferred by the private sector, tend to yield less for retirees than do defined benefit plans. It seems it wasn’t enough for the government to cut public pensions by stealth in the 2012 budget — party activists now want to further erode Canadians’ retirement income security.
Incredibly, one proposal states explicitly that the Conservative party should advocate for a “less progressive tax system.” The rich, in other words, should pay less of their share. This is precisely what the Conservatives’ proposed income-splitting tax scheme will do: transfer more of the tax burden onto single-parent, and lower- and middle-income families.
Further eroding the tax base would mean less money for new federal programs or for critical investments in infrastructure, health care, jobs training or clean energy research and development. Should the government make the tax system less progressive, one wonders what current programs Harper will put on the chopping block to cover for the lost revenue.
The notion that Mr. Harper has governed in the centre simply doesn’t hold up. Instead, his government has steadily dismantled the progressive state Canadians of diverse political leanings proudly built.
You only need look at the Conservative record to date, combined with the party’s current political need to fire up its most ardent supporters, to be concerned with where Harper might take Canada from now until 2015.
A version of this article was published in the Toronto Star.
Let me get this straight.
The Conservative government is looking to pivot from growing corruption and scandals with a Throne Speech later this month that talks about a “consumers first” agenda, including the latest proposal for an airline passenger bill of rights. At least that’s what Conservative sources are telling reporters about what to expect from the Parliamentary reboot on Oct. 16. Aside from some improvements to product safety brought about during their minority rule, the Conservatives boast a consumer-protection record that only partisans would try to laud. Guided by the idea that Ottawa needs to get out of the way of business, Harper has been trumpeting the mantra of red-tape cutting since first elected in 2006.
What this has really meant are cuts to safety inspections and costly adherence to the wisdom of deregulation. Hardly the building blocks of a “consumers first” agenda.
Take food safety. Who could forget Canada’s largest-ever beef recall last fall. People across the country became sick from the E. coli outbreak after consuming tainted meat produced at a federally regulated facility in Brooks, Alberta. The government’s own post-mortem of the XL Foods Ltd. recall shone the light on a food-safety system that had failed.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency failed to notice during routine inspections that the plant had not properly implemented or regularly updated its own plan to control risks. The massive facility — 430,000 square feet in total — slaughtered between 3,800 and 4,000 cattle daily.
The beef recall came months after the Conservative government tabled a budget that cut $56 million from the food agency’s operating resources over a three-year period. The union representing food inspectors estimates this will mean as many as 100 fewer inspectors, effectively reversing staffing measures put in place in response to the deadly listeriosis outbreak in 2008.
Remember that one? Twenty-two Canadians died after eating tainted meat from a Maple Leaf Foods facility in Toronto. In the wake of this massive outbreak, an independent investigation found multiple safety gaps in the food-safety system and a “void of leadership”
This same line could describe Ottawa’s approach to rail safety. Though more the inheritors than the architects of Canada's reckless rail-safety deregulation, the Harper Conservatives ignored repeated warnings about the folly of allowing the railway industry to police itself.
A Canada Safety Council report issued in 2007 called the deregulated industry "a disaster waiting to happen" and criticized the government's abrogation of its responsibility to public safety and the environment. And disaster did strike, when aging rail cars with inaccurately labeled hazardous materials exploded in Lac Mégantic, Quebec claiming 47 lives, eviscerating the core of the town at immeasurable cost to the community and at a monetary cost of close to a billion dollars.
With their single-minded focus on getting oil to market, Canada has seen massive increases in the amount of oil being shipped by rail — from 500 carloads in 2009, to a projected 140,000 this year. The Harper government is apparently content to continue to expose Canadians and our environment to unnecessary risk.
In the wake of the horrendous disaster in Quebec, we don’t know if the Conservatives will try to trumpet rail safety in the Throne Speech. But we do know from partisan leaks that they want to push an airline passenger bill of rights, which would protect flyers in cases of arbitrary delays or lost baggage.
This takes nerve.
Since winning power in 2006, the Conservative caucus has opposed the introduction of similar charters not once — but twice. In a minority government, Conservatives banded together with enough Bloc Québécois MPs in 2009 to kill an NDP plan. The Opposition tried again after the 2011 election, but the Conservative majority torpedoed that initiative earlier this year.
In fact, the Conservatives have tried to have it both ways. Back in 2008, they publicly supported a Liberal motion to entrench in law an airline passenger bill of rights. Behind the scenes, though, a senior policy adviser to the Transport Minister privately pressed Canada’s big airlines to step up their lobby campaign to make sure the motion failed.
“I don’t want us to be forced into regulating passenger protection issues,” the Conservative advisor wrote in an email released to the media under Canada’s access to information law.
Consumers first? Sure – when it’s politically convenient.
This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.
Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP.