"In the months to come, our government will undertake major transformations to position Canada for growth over the next generation" -- with these words, Stephen Harper has thown down the gauntlet. On Friday, in a grand, sweeping, blustering speech (see Aalya Ahmad on the new swagger), Harper has laid out his vision for the future. It is imperative that we understand it, to fight it.
Much of the mainstream press coverage, the blogosphere and the Twitterati have focused on possible cuts to old age pensions, job layoffs and what this means for an austerity budget come March. Few are paying attention to the full implications of Harper's announcement.
Harper's speech brushes over two areas: (1) job creation and economic stability through corporate tax cuts, free-trade agreements, further investments in energy and oil production and cuts to pensions and (2) dealing with "demographic challenges" by managing immigration. These are all connected and should be scrutinized as such.
1. Taxes cuts
"Canada has the lowest overall tax rate on new business investment... We will, of course, continue to keep tax rates down. That is central to our government's economic vision."
The Parliamentary Budget Officer has shown that the federal corporate tax cuts just in 2012-2013 will cost the public purse $11.15 billion. It is estimated that oil and gas companies annually receive $1.4 billion in tax breaks. During Harper's reign, Canada has become the first corporate tariff-free zone in the world -- with a loss of approximately $400 million a year to public funds.
Six of Canada's top ten companies are mining firms (the rest are banks that fund them and other corporations). These companies have paved a path of destruction across Indigenous communities in Canada (see here and here) and across the Global South.
Harper has also promised to revamp research and development in the corporate sector by essentially giving more tax breaks to larger corporations. Tech companies receive $7 billion in tax credits for new research already.
2. Free-trade agreements and zones
"We will pass agreements signed particularly in our own hemisphere, and we will work to conclude major deals beyond it..."
At a recent talk in Vancouver, Harjap Grewal, Council of Canadians BC-Yukon Organizer explained that, "Trade agreements are aimed to remove the power of the people in communities to make decisions that would undermine the interests of corporations and other institutions that represent the global elite." Stuart Trew of the Council of Canadians, in commenting on Canadian free-trade agreements in a joint press release with Mining Watch said that, "these deals place the rights of Canadian investors in these countries above the rights of workers and indigenous peoples, the right to protect the environment, and the ability of governments to support local economic development and create jobs."
Harper's move to sign free-trade agreements is, at its core, a systematic attempt to get Canadian corporations (those being funded by the public through tax cuts) a stronger foothold in the Global South.
3. Oil, mining and gas
"We will make it a national priority to ensure we have the capacity to export our energy products beyond the United States and specifically to Asia. In this regard, we will soon take action to ensure that major energy and mining projects are not subject to unnecessary regulatory delays -- that is, delay merely for the sake of delay."
Immense mobilizations forced Obama to deny the permit for the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. This has angered the Harperites that are married to the oil and gas industry and explains why we now see talk of trading dirty tar sands oil (see video) with other countries (though some argue that trading with China was part of the plan all along).
All mining, which is Canada's primary industry, takes place on Indigenous land without consultation or consent from the communities involved. Indigenous people have utilized the limited options available in the courts, and at regulatory commissions to try to stall these measures. Others have used direct action to slow down the continued theft and plunder of their land and resources (see here and here). When Harper says "delay for the sake of delay" -- he means the barely effective legal means in place, the environmental assessments and the broken consultation process that have allowed some Indigenous communities to assert some control over their lands.
4. Cuts to public services
"We will be taking measures in the coming months, not just to return to a balanced budget in the medium term, but also to ensure the sustainability of our social programs and fiscal position over the next generation..."
By 2014-2015, Harper intends to lay off about 80,000 federal public service workers. This is a third of all core public service workers employed federally. A third reduction in workers is obviously a third reduction in public services (See Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives on how the deficit is a rounding error and what the impacts of the previous two budgets have been).
Tony Clements announced Thursday that the budget cuts in March 2012 could be as much as $8 billion, twice the $4 billion figure promised in the 2011 budget.
Mainstream media reports argue that Harper will try to cut back on Old Age Security, the basic pension plan, and try to increase the retirement age from 65 to 67; in essence, making it significantly more difficult for citizens to save for their retirement and, in all likelihood, further decreasing the standard of living for the elderly in this country. With a one-third reduction in services -- the cuts are likely to be even more far-reaching.
5. The "demographic" problem and immigration
"I should add that we also did not reduce immigration or give in to protectionism... We will also undertake significant reform of our immigration system. We will ensure that, while we respect our humanitarian obligations and family reunification objectives, we make our economic and labour force needs the central goal of our immigration efforts in the future."
During the course of Harper's term, immigration to Canada has dropped by 5 per cent, and the total number of people entering the labour market as temporary workers supersedes those entering the country as permanent residents. The number of refugee applications has fallen by 30 per cent and refugee acceptance rates have fallen by another 25 per cent on top of that (See Harsha Walia's detailed report on federal immigration here).
Though the total amount of immigrants to the country has not decreased -- more people now come in without any access to full citizenship rights. To be clear, this is not just an increase in the temporary worker or guest worker programs; we are seeing temporariness (read: precarity) encroach upon immigration streams that were once permanent. Conditional-Permanent Status is now established in the spousal sponsorship program. Immigration status for parents and grandparents has been frozen, and a 10-year temporary visa issued instead. If Bill C-4 passes, some refugees will have partial permanent status, which could be revoked in five years.
In all likelihood, further changes to immigration means more temporary workers throughout the system. At the same time, working-class immigration will slow down further, with mostly able-bodied, western-style educated, younger, richer people getting citizenship.
What must be done?
In May 2011, I wrote a step-by-step guide to fighting Harper, laying out some ideas and challenges for organizing against the Harper government and the austerity agenda. I think many of those ideas still hold true and should be adapted and put into practice.
At the same time, we have seen the rise of the Occupy movement across North America, mobilizations to stop the Keystone XL pipeline and SOPA as well as the establishment of the Toronto Stop the Cuts Network in Toronto. We have seen decentralized networks, with shared messages, grow swiftly and gain immense power.
In the short term, however, there might be a need for a policy framework that utilizes decentralized networks and poses an alternative vision based on the same facts that prompt Harper's agenda.
The Harper argument rests on the notions of an aging citizenry, job creation, and the need for technological advancement. Based on these same facts, one can propose a radically different policy platform. In the United States, some have urged for the notion of the care economy.
The Care Economy model says that with an aging population, investments must actually grow in health care and old-age pensions to ensure that we care for people. Efforts must be put into placing workers, particularly young, racialized ones, into dignified livelihood. Undocumented workers and migrant workers should be encouraged to join the workforce as caregivers, as cultural producers and health providers, and given immigration status as a result. Investments in technological development should ensure that the environment is protected, and that people young or old have a better quality of life. Tax breaks should be directly sent to people in need and not corporations. A consensus should be built on caring for everyone in society by getting the rich to pay the highest taxes. Investment in prisons and wars should be re-directed to investments that bring in immigrants from all walks of life, particularly families, refugees, and working-class people, and to social services.
A care economy is one where decision-making about services is decentralized to ensure community control over community resources. A care economy is one where the stewards of the land, the land defenders, and Indigenous communities, can actually assert sovereign control over their territory.
To be absolutely clear -- this paradigm is only a move to counter the most current assault at the level of campaigns; a short-term measure that is embedded in the current society we live in and therefore incapable of creating the kinds of worlds we all need and desire. It is a pragmatic move, a policy fight, that can be waged by some or alongside building real, transformative anti-capitalist and anti-colonial communities of resistance.
This is just a preliminary thought and you must of course have other ideas, so please comment. Or better still -- write your own thoughts down, talk to people, and let's get organized.
A closing quote from Lucy Parsons, who Roxanne Dubar Oritz quoted yesterday at Occupy Oakland.
"You are not absolutely defenceless. For the torch of the incendiary, which has been known to show murderers and tyrants the danger line, beyond which they may not venture with impunity, cannot be wrested from you."
[It is important to also remember the parts of Harper's vision that did not appear in this speech -- the $500 million dollars put into building military bases abroad, the $39 billion dollars spent on buying fighter planes, the $10 billion dollars put in to the prison-industrial complex, etc.]
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