For the Canadian readers, Nick Clegg is the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the UK. The LibDems’ policies are often, but not always, to the left of the increasingly conservative Labour party, and for this reason I have supported them on the number of issues. But recently, Clegg came out to state that, in light of the current recession, the new British government should adopt the deficit-cutting measures of the Canadian Liberal party in the 1990. If you’ve read any of my posts here before, you can imagine my response to such a claim. This is my letter to Nick…
I like a lot of what you do – I really do. I am a Canadian living in the UK who spends a lot of time talking and writing about how my time here has made me re-evaluate many of the ideas that I thought made Canada a good country – largely as a result of seeing and experiencing a greater sense of equality for most people here, than I had ever witnessed in Toronto.
More than this, I came to recognise that Canada has actually become a bit of national train-wreck when it came to questions of social justice, racism, environmental practices, poverty and a range of other important social measures. And, surprising to many, the steep decline in Canadian (governmental) egalitarianism, is perhaps most attributable to the Liberal governments of Jean Chretien and Paul Martin in the 1990s and early 2000s – the government you have recently triumphed as a model for how the UK can address its current financial woes.
I find this deeply troubling.
Though the Brian Mulroney Conservatives of the 1980s clearly set Canada’s neo-liberal wheels turning, it was the supposedly ‘Liberal’ government that followed who managed to slash public spending to levels not seen since World War II. And yes, they eventually conquered the constantly trumpeted spectre of the deficit, but at what cost? If you read through the 1st and 3rd posts on my blog, it will give you a more detailed sense, but 12 years of Liberal Party deficit-fetishism had 2 primary impacts for most Canadians:
The abandoning of a national affordable housing strategy, which has been seen by many as the leading cause behind the unprecedented spike in Canada’s up-to 300,000-strong homeless population. As a recent report by a major foundation into the scope and causes of Canadian homelessness reads: “…Existing evidence indicates that Canadian government policy from 1993 onward actually helped to create chronic poverty and housing insecurity.”
The near-total gutting of federal healthcare transfer payments to the provinces, leading to a steady decline in the quantity and quality of healthcare services most Canadians could receive. This also opened the door to the beginnings of ‘Public-Private Partnerships’, or ‘PPPs’ – creating the beginnings of a two-tiered healthcare system in which wealthy Canadians could receive measurably better care than those of us with less access to money.
Beyond these 2 major areas, there were massive cuts to Employment Insurance (EI), universities and a range of critical social services during the same period. The collective human impact of these cuts has been truly immense and ongoing – and the tide they set in motion is still spiralling downward today.
There is no shortage of information out there on the devastating social impacts of the Canadian Liberal government’s approach to deficit cutting – I will happily buy and ship you copies of Murray Dobbin’s ‘Paul Martin: CEO for Canada?’ and Linda McQuaig’s ‘Shooting the Hippo’, if you’d like fuller story on this not-so-proud era of Canadian history…
Odds are very good you’ll have significant sway in shaping UK politics following the upcoming elections; please don’t use this power to lead Britain down the same disastrous road of neo-liberal reforms that has left Canada’s egalitarian and just principles in relative tatters.
I’m doing this for two reasons. The first is to spread the word amongst other progressive people, the-world-over, who have long held Canada as a hallmark of socialistic principles, that they need to re-evaluate this assumption. The second is to demonstrate to my fellow Canadians that our democracy has been waning for considerably longer than the Harper government has been in power and it’s important that we acknowledge this if we hope to establish something better.
The progressive’s archetypal image of Canada (another blog is needed to examine where this came from) is of an egalitarian, peacekeeping, socialistic and generally-benevolent nation, to the North of the crude, brutish and imperialistic American empire. I’ve found the key to this image lies in the referential nature of the above statement; our frame of understanding, as Canadians (which we have shared with much of the world), is ‘how much better we are than Americans’. Though I wouldn’t disagree with this statement, from a social welfare perspective, I think we, as a nation, can do better than compare ourselves to the lowest rung on the Western democratic ladder and boast about how much better we are than them. When it comes to most European standards around public benefit, social good and general well-being, Canada can no longer hold its own and this is what we need to address.
Rather than dismiss our current democratic deficit as the result of the semi-fascistic peculiarities of the Harper junta, Canadians need to acknowledge the slippery slope of neo-conservatism that has held the the country’s national politic for the past 25 years.
There – I said it! We don’t have Harper to blame (exclusively) for our current mess – we have had governments since the Orwellian hallmark of 1984 which have – party-politics aside – pursued an almost singular agenda of deregulation, slashed public spending and increasing presence of big business in the corridors of power.
Like liberal Americans holding-up a false positive legacy of Bill Clinton’s presidency during the Bush II years, many progressive Canadians have taken a similar line on the Chretien/Martin governments of 1992-2004. But it was during those ‘Liberal’ years, that public spending was slashed more heavily than it had been during the previous Conservative Mulroney administration (the pre-Harper ‘baddies’ on whom we would blame our country’s problems). But don’t forget about the impacts on public healthcare of 12 years of ‘Liberalism’ through the ’90s…
The unintended consequence of denying the crimes of any ‘slightly-less-bad’ bad government, is that it allows people – of any nationality – to hide behind the false notion that current problems are just a matter of ‘a bad government’, rather than acknowledging the much more fundamental ‘bad system’ which has allowed the current government – and its predecessors – to do what they do.
I find it unlikely that if the current opposition parties managed a snap-election and successful coup when Parliament returns in March, a Liberal government would go about returning the country to the Tommy Douglas socialism, or Pierre Trudeau liberalism of yester-year. Nothing fundamental in the Liberal party suggests to me that it is committed to reversing the fiscally-fetishistic neo-liberal policies of Jean Chretien and Paul Martin.
What would likely happen under a Liberal government, is that many of Harper’s more recognisable critics would retreat, with the comfort that some of the starker, more newsworthy attacks on democracy and social equality would be put on hold for at least the next electoral cycle. But it seems unlikely that the continued slashes to healthcare and the arts, and the ongoing investment (of money and life) in an un-winnable Afghan war, would fundamentally shift. And those policies – as can sometimes be ignored from a place of particular privilege – mean lives. When I talk about the impact of Liberal anti-deficit hysteria, I talk about the hours additional waiting times at a hospital Emergency Room; I talk about the closing down of public hospitals; I talk about the clawing-back of social security benefits that have allowed people at the margins to get by, which Liberals made sure steadily disappeared on their watch… For a strong critique of the 1990’s Liberal government, read Murray Dobbin’s book on Paul Martin.
But I want to do more here than bash the Liberal party; I want to look at Canadian identity, challenging some of the assumptions we think make us who we are. Lots of writers have looked at Canada’s strengths; traditionally our healthcare, our Human Rights Act, the decision not to invade Iraq; but I think it’s long overdue that we acknowledge the seedy underbelly of Canadian politics that has gradually taken-us to the place we are in, with Harper and Co. running the country like the post-Soviet oligarchs of Eastern Europe, who view democracy as a ‘optional extra’, to be used (or not) at their convenience.
But first I want to know if there’s interest out there – I’m a firm believer in ‘asking the internet’ if something has value, so these are my questions to you, the people who inhabit the internet:
Canadians! Do we need a fundamental deconstruction of our national identity if we are going to create a country that really does deliver the values we so happily espouse to the world?
Everyone else! Are you interested in a counter-narrative to the one you heard from the bubbly backpacker from Toronto (well, just outside Toronto…) with a maple leaf badge at the youth hostel in Frankfurt?