We need public policy for the common good, in common purpose
Small ‘c’ conservatism runs deeply in Kawartha Lakes. Government is largely seen as something to be wary of, even when setting needed public policy, and not overly beneficial for people’s lives.
There is an abiding faith that it is the economic system – not the political system – that will straighten everything out, if people could just get out of the way and let the ‘free market’ do its thing.
Centre-right politicians – both Liberals and Conservatives — talk like that about the economy, about the market, as if our economic system just happened naturally – as if the rules of the game weren’t written by human beings.
Parties that want to move us ever closer to tying our fortunes to our economic system, rather than seeing our political system as ascendant, are part of the problem. That means we have to know who we’re supporting at the political level, and where policy gets made.
Here in Kawartha Lakes area, one has to go back to 1940 to see this federal riding’s voting preference be anything but Conservative – with one exception. Liberal John O’Reilly’s time as MP between 1993 and 2004 occurred during the ‘lost years’ of Canada’s right wing parties, after the decimation of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada in 1993.
This allowed Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien to run Canada from the centre-right, keeping at bay the forces of the right wing Reform Party of Canada and all its iterations.
Last month, at the provincial level, Laurie Scott coasted to her fifth riding-level victory, under Conservative leader Doug Ford. Her own father, Bill Scott, was the federal PC Member of Parliament for 28 consecutive years. The Conservatives have ruled provincially in this riding for 62 out of 82 years, since the time of Leslie Frost. (It should also be noted that the conservatism of leaders Leslie Frost, Bill Davis, or Joe Clark is hardly the same conservatism of today, but familial voting patterns remain.)
So what makes this riding – and many others like it across Canada – so deeply conservative and mistrustful of government? And is there no room for another narrative beyond the dominant, well-worn notion that the economy will fix everything?
The Lie About Big Business
I spoke at length with Professor Dennis Raphael of York University, a prolific author with over 250 publications to his credit on the health effects of income inequality and poverty, and the impact of public policy decisions made by government on the health and well-being of Canadians everywhere.
He reminded me that historically, Canada draws upon the Anglo Saxon tradition of England, which works on the assumption that the economic system is the means by which people gain economic and social security.
Raphael says that has always been the approach in Canada, except for a handful of “deviations.”
“We have Medicare only because of the legacy of Tommy Douglas,” says Raphael. Douglas went very much against the grain in 1950s Saskatchewan. This was a time period when the private sector or church was expected to meet every need, not government. Yet within 10 years of Medicare’s introduction in the prairie province it had become a full Canadian social program, such was its perceived value.
That’s a clear example of government creating policy for the common good, not because it was dictated by the economic system, but because it was the right thing to do for people.
In another example, Raphael points out that occasionally, “because of market failure,” a liberal- capitalist state like Canada sometimes has no alternative but to do something outside its usual comfort zone – such as public education. Egerton Ryerson, the founder of the public education system in early 19th century Ontario, recognized that an uneducated workforce wouldn’t meet the needs of the private sector, and so our education system was born.
It was the same reason we have public transportation, says the professor, to ensure everyone could get to work to keep the economic engines turning.
Other than a handful of historical aberrations, then, it seems Canada is stuck in the mindset of big business taking care of everything. If this were the 1950s, even up to the 1970s, we could all live pretty comfortably with that idea.
I remember my own late father’s stories of him being able to quit one job and get another the same day in the 1950s and early 1960s, when he came of age as an adult. I don’t think he was exaggerating. The Canada of this era actually had enough fair and widespread growth to meet the needs of the people.
“It was an era of prosperity,” says Raphael.
But then came the 1970s and 1980s, leading to where we find ourselves today. We saw the limitations in this country of relying on corporate Canada and the economic system, Raphael says. Corporate Canada grew stronger – and greedier – as it competed in a new global reality. Jobs no longer paid a living wage. The work that was largely available became precarious — part-time, contract, often without benefits. Thousands of manufacturing jobs left Canada for cheaper labour elsewhere, and the labour opportunity that remained was a shell of its former self when it came to providing for families.
In other words, the economic system abdicated its former role as a system that could take of us.
“But we never made the mental shift,” after that, Raphael says, meaning people didn’t make the connection that it was time to stop supporting parties that believe the economic system would fix everything, when that clearly was no longer the case. It was obviously time for the political system to change public policy for the common good, but this has yet to happen.
“The people who are voting Conservative this time around (in the recent provincial election) do not believe government can meet their needs,” says Raphael.
He points out that the Ontario Liberals tried to kick-start a needed paradigm shift toward the latter part of their mandate, with limited Pharmacare, working to re-balance the Employment Standards Act, and adding childcare. The NDP tried to make a similar case for public policy.
“Most people weren’t able to accept that…and do not believe, or have faith, that their lives could be improved by government action,” he says.
And yet the evidence suggests governments can improve the lives of people through good public policy. For instance, every developed nation except Canada has a Pharmacare program tied to their Medicare. Just about every developed nation provides comprehensive job retraining, says the professor.
The professor points out that in the last 20 years, the top 20 per cent in Canada have done well at the expense of everyone else. But this reality “runs smack against the public view that this top 20 per cent deserve the money, and that their success is essential for everyone else,” he points out.
“When Ford says ‘we’re open for business’ the average person still sees that as something that might help him or her,” says Raphael, even though that has not been the case in decades.
That’s how pervasive the narrative is that the economy fixes all. It shows how entrenched the idea of trickle-down economics is, where even after decades of evidence it can still be the dominant discourse.
It’s not like there aren’t other alternatives, such as the Scandinavian nations or Germany and France. In Europe, the business sector is very sensitive to these issues and regards people as the way forward for their long-term success. These countries operate in a way that ensures people are provided with good jobs, good benefits and job security within their public policy framework because they have maintained a better balance between workers’ needs versus the power of big business.
If it were a fairer playing field, closer to some of the European models, says Raphael, then indeed you would want an “open for business” focus because the pie would be shared more equitably.
Since that’s not the case in North America, “the evidence says when things get out of balance, people don’t do well.”
The Way Forward
It’s clear that we want people to live better, healthier lives, which means ensuring we have adequate incomes for all, that there are good jobs available and excellent education opportunities, among other imperatives. Then isn’t it incumbent on us, as voters, to demand that we ask our politicians to put people first? Isn’t it time to stop listening to the narrative that big business will fix everything, if only we could give corporate Canada the ideal conditions to flourish? Corporate Canada has been flourishing for years – now it’s time for people to be able to meet their needs with dignity.
When Laurie Scott campaigned under Doug Ford, she did so supporting the paradigm that our economic system is the answer to what ails our society. When Jamie Schmale campaigns next year and asks for four more years, he will do the same. They have both drunk the Kool-Aid about the economic system, and in all fairness it must be acknowledged that they are in the majority viewpoint here. That doesn’t mean it’s the right one.
According to a new paper recently published in Science, roughly 25 per cent of people need to take a stand before large-scale social change can occur. This idea of a social tipping point applies to any type of movement or initiative. According to the study, when a committed minority reached 25 per cent, there is an abrupt change in the group dynamic, and very quickly the majority of the population adopts the new norm.
So there is reason to believe we can change the dynamic we find ourselves in. It’s time for more inspiring public policy goals that will enrich the lives of all of us, not just the top 20 per cent. A government has the power to leverage the economic system to work for us — and for its workers — not play junior partner to corporate Canada.
Let’s get our politicians talking about what needs to be done for people and then have them articulate a vision of how to get there. We need policy for the common good, in common purpose, to create a better Canada for all.