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Hill Dispatches

karl nerenberg's picture
Karl Nerenberg has been reporting on federal politics from Parliament Hill for rabble.ca since September, 2011. In his long career, he has won numerous awards as a broadcaster and documentary filmmaker.

Hill Dispatches: Harper's plan for a recession? Cut EI and trash the environment

| June 7, 2012

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A number of supporters of the Conservative government's policies don't like the way the government is implementing those policies.

Commentators on the right, such as Andrew Coyne and Michael Den Tandt, have written that the government has some sound proposals on Employment Insurance reform, for instance. However, those same pundits are puzzled at the government's need to bury its "good policies" in a massive omnibus bill.

Let Parliament debate them and vote on them, these small-c conservative writers say, those policies will stand up to public scrutiny.

But doing its business openly and democratically does not seem to be in the DNA of the current crop of Conservatives.

It is a cruel irony that the Harper government has turned out to be just about the most authoritarian and least respectful of Parliament of any in Canadian history.

These Conservatives got elected in 2006 as a result of a backlash to the Liberal sponsorship scandal. The Conservatives' centerpiece promise, back then, was to bring in tough measures to assure accountability and openness in government.

It is also a longstanding tradition, in Canada, for Conservatives, rather than Liberals, to be the champions of Parliament.

Back in the 1970s the Bob Stanfield Progressive Conservatives were aghast when Trudeau said that Members of Parliament were "nobodies" 50 yards from the Hill.

But that was a very different party from today's unmodified Conservatives.

No more widespread consultation on legislation

Parliamentarians and governments, of all stripes, used to have the quaint idea that the best way to develop sound legislation was to broadly consult Canadians on the issues at hand, propose legislation, and then seek feedback on those proposals through parliamentary committee hearings.

Today, the governing Conservatives have a new modus operandi.

In the case of Employment Insurance reforms this government's approach has been to solicit the concerns of a small, select business community group on such matters as "labour market flexibility" and skills shortages, then to concoct legislative changes that respond to those concerns and bury those changes in a gargantuan omnibus bill.

There is no place, in this procedure, for any feedback from most affected groups.

The government did not even seek the views of its partners in the federal system, the provincial governments.

There is at least one virtue, however, to this government's penchant for pushing through a bulging shopping basket full of diverse measures all at once.

Look at everything in that shopping basket and you can detect a pattern. In fact, you get a pretty clear picture of where Harper is taking Canada.

Countering a downturn by exacerbating inequality and trashing the environment

Yesterday, NDP leader Mulcair asked the government what it was doing to prepare for a possible coming recession, triggered in part by Europe's current troubles.

"Clearly and simply, does the government have a plan to fight off another recession?" the Leader of the Opposition asked.

The answer from House Leader Peter Van Loan was that the massive omnibus Budget now before Parliament, the "Economic Action Plan 2012," is the plan, and that's all there is.

In other words, the government plans to weather any coming economic storms by drastically reducing environmental oversight, curtailing Employment Insurance benefits and making it possible for employers to pay temporary foreign workers less.

There will be no more stimulus program, which the government had dubbed its Economic Action Plan in 2009 and 2010.

There will be no more Keynesian pump priming expenditures; no more photo-ops of Conservative MPs giving our giant cheques for infrastructure projects.

The government will continue to provide generous tax breaks to the profitable oil and gas sector. It will continue to practice its "boutique tax credit" hobby, preferring to spend, if it must spend, through the tax system in way that is often inefficient and entails unintended consequences.

Nor will give up on the practice of providing "targeted funding" to selected businesses and friendly non-profits.

Taxpayers' dollars for safe and friendly organizations

On Thursday, for instance, Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield announces financial support for the New Brunswick non-profit LearnSphere.

LearnSphere describes itself as an "aggregator of capabilities." It says that it has "evolved over time and with each new opportunity its role became more entrenched in the sales and delivery process. Today, the role of the organization can best be described as that of a prime contractor."

LearnSphere's main clients are a number of (mostly federal) government agencies and it provides management training and consulting services on such matters as "commercialization" to small businesses, universities and non-profits.

There is nothing wrong with all that. Linking small businesses and non-profits to the larger economy can be a good idea, and it can even be reasonable for the federal government to invest in that sort of activity.

But, in the years to come, we can expect that the government will be very choosy about recipients for its largesse.

If - rather than "commercialization" - environmental sustainability (including green industry) is your organization's focus, you can more likely expect a tax audit than a grant from this government. 

Harper was only reluctantly committed to stimulus

Lest we forget, in 2009 when the Conservatives decided to engage in economic stimulus through investment in community infrastructure, it did so under duress.

The government's first response to the 2008 recession was a fiscal update that projected a completely fictional, if small, budgetary surplus. That same mini-budget of November 2008 tried to force through the abolition of per-vote public funding for political parties.

With a majority, the Conservatives have now succeeded in getting rid of that per-vote subsidy. But at the time, in 2008, the Conservative mini-budget aroused the ire of the opposition. All three parties in opposition threatened to defeat the newly re-elected, but still minority Conservatives on a confidence vote.

In addition, the Liberals and NDP announced that rather than precipitate another election so soon after the previous one they would offer to form a coalition government, with the tacit support of the Bloc Québecois.

A completely unprecedented prorogation of a Parliament that hard hardly met, combined with a change in Liberal leadership (Dion to Ignatieff) put an end to that coalition idea.

But Harper and his Finance Minister Flaherty were sufficiently chastened that they decided to seek the advice of Finance Department professionals when it came time to write the 2009 budget. However grudgingly, they agreed to significant counter-cyclical spending measures.

No more Mister Nice Guy

After the events of 9/11 the French newspaper Le Monde said: "We are all Americans now!"

For a short period, starting in 2009, the Canadian (and, to some extent worldwide) dictum could have been: "We are all Keynesians now!"

Well, that Keynesian period is over.

Harper now has a majority and it's no more Mister Nice Guy. His current recipe for the economy is a bracing dose of austerity, together with a series of corporate-friendly measures.

The new road to prosperity will not follow a course of investing in people though training and building expertise and knowledge.

It will not take the route of refurbishing the nation's community centres, water treatment facilities, bridges and roads.

The Conservatives' 2012 route to prosperity will not take Canadians to a more environmentally sustainable economy.

And it will definitely not lead to a more equal society in which the gap between rich and poor is reduced: quite the contrary, in fact.

The 2012 Economic Action Plan is a recipe for greater profits for the few, and increased inequality and more pollution for the many.

And there are three more years left in Harper's majority mandate.

So, what's next?

As one of his now-revered Liberal predecessors once famously said, Harper might now say: "Just watch me!"

 

Karl Nerenberg covers news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist for over 25 years including eight years as the producer of the CBC show The House.

 

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