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We’ve transferred all the inherent economic risks to low income workers and all the rewards to corporations in the name of ‘labour market flexibility.’

Broken glass, shattered faith: MPP’s office a snapshot of future unrest

in Columnists/Community/Poverty Reduction by

It jars us, to see violence in Canada – especially small-town Canada. Whether that violence is perpetrated against people or against property, we tend to feel that this just shouldn’t happen here, in a nation of so much opportunity and wealth. And it shouldn’t.

When MPP and Minister of Labour Laurie Scott’s local office was savagely vandalized earlier this week, our reaction was mostly repulsion.

President of the Lindsay and District Labour Council, James Mulhern, wrote to the Advocate and declared the labour council “does not support or condone violence against persons or property in any form.”

Lindsay Advocate Publisher, Roderick Benns.

“We want to make it clear whether we agree (with her) or not, the Minister of Labour and her staff are also workers at the end of the day, so they also should have safe working conditions.”

Of course he’s right. And yet, what is the other narrative at play?

There are two competing themes that are relevant here:

  • We cannot condone violence or violent acts against people and property
  • We cannot condone the rampant inequities that threaten many western democracies, including Canada, including this province, and including Kawartha Lakes

We are very good at ensuring the first point — that the law must prevail in a well-governed society. But as a society we’ve slipped badly on preventing the second. So are we just enforcing laws in the absence of justice?

It benefits us to understand how this economic inequality occurred in the first place.

Drawing on ideas from Frederik Hayek, who was an Austrian-British economist, a gathering of economists in the 1970s caught the attention of the dominant politicians of their time. They spoke of a new way to harness the basic mechanisms of capitalism, but to take it further. The essence of this neoliberal ideology was that market principles should be allowed – and encouraged — to pervade all aspects of our lives.

Reshaping our Lives

They were successful, unfortunately. We have come to believe that this constant chatter about ‘the market’ is something organic and natural. It is not. We have come to believe that a neoliberal’s ‘market principles’ are a neutral, natural force in what we know as ‘the economy.’ But they are not. It is an ideology, and it was created to reshape our lives and to shift the balance of power to absolute dominance of corporations over people. Citizens are now consumers. Public services get privatized. Unions are disempowered and dismantled. Tax and regulations? Minimized. The market always knows what people deserve.

We’ve transferred all the inherent economic risks to low income workers and all the rewards to corporations in the name of ‘labour market flexibility’ under the neoliberal framework.

The gutting of Bill 148 by the provincial Conservatives is a classic example of neoliberal ideology at play. Fresh after cancelling the Ontario Basic Income Pilot, leaving 4,000 people in the lurch (2,000 of them in Lindsay), and breaking an election promise while doing it, the provincial Conservatives went after some of the most vulnerable people in society – those who are low income workers.

One could argue the minimum wage jump to $14 an hour was too much, too fast, especially for our small businesses. It was indeed a lot to absorb. One can not credibly argue, though, that it wasn’t long overdue, considering former Conservative Premier Mike Harris had frozen minimum wage at $6.85 for eight consecutive years, all the while providing generous tax cuts for the middle class.

In this grotesque example of neoliberal overreach, Harris managed to punish people who had jobs, but who were barely scraping by, and reward those who had jobs but were in far better financial shape. (He also cut welfare rates by nearly 22 per cent, in another example of chipping away at the lives of lower income Ontarians.)

Had minimum wage just trucked along at the rate of inflation, this wouldn’t have created the moral necessity to so quickly ensure people were finally making a fair wage. In the end, this was more disruptive for small businesses then it ever needed to be.

In the neoliberal framework, a new narrative for many rich people emerged. They started to believe they got their wealth solely on merit.  They ignored their advantages of education, class, inheritance. The poor? They begin to blame themselves, for they must be doing something wrong if they work full time and can’t pay their bills.

We have created a society where someone can work full time – like being a trash collector for the city — and yet not earn enough to support a small family. Of course, that’s because collecting trash isn’t a ‘City’ job anymore, because that has been privatized, too. This is a real-life example of someone I met recently met who qualified to get a basic income top-up here in Lindsay.

This is wrong, the way we have allowed people to struggle, despite their best efforts. When working full time isn’t enough anymore, we know we have crossed a line with our economic system that impacts human decency and fairness.

Globalization

There is a worldwide adjustment going on right now, thanks to the forces of globalization. High-income countries like ours are being pulled down, while the low-income countries are being pushed up. This reality creates vast swaths of inequities here and will most assuredly undermine nations like Canada. That is why it is imperative we redress the disparities and the injustices that so many are experiencing.

If we do not, the repercussions will be the destabilizing volatility that rising civil disobedience brings. It will erode the foundation of our country and our communities, whether big cities or more rural areas like Kawartha Lakes. And what will our response be then? Will our politicians react with a ‘law and order’ agenda to tamp down such anger? Or will they react more thoughtfully, and begin to address the foundations of this ideology, through a new approach to social and economic policy?

Globalization’s realities are beginning to erode the foundation of our middle class, too. There is a higher degree of economic uncertainty than ever, thanks in part to automation, but also to the voracious appetite of the neoliberal framework, that needs ever more assets to be placed into the hands of the few.

So when we have a minister of labour and our multi-millionaire premier of ‘the people’ stand up and tell us we need to tighten our belts on the backs of those least able to fight back, I say the unrest is just beginning – and I say this with no delight, nor with any encouragement for such unrest to continue.

Instead, I implore this provincial government – and the federal government – to take concrete steps to improve people’s lives, not improve the corporate agenda. The Canada so many of us imagine is there for all of us, with a little reflection, a little planning, and a little good will.

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Roderick Benns is the publisher of The Lindsay Advocate. He is the author of 'Basic Income: How a Canadian Movement Could Change the World,' and is also Vice Chair of the Ontario Basic Income Network. An award-winning author and journalist who grew up in Lindsay, Roderick has interviewed former Prime Ministers of Canada, Senators, and Mayors across Canada. He also wrote and published a series of books for youth about Canada's Prime Ministers as teens.

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