Canada has tested the limits of the power of inertia in economic policy. It is time for something new.
The current industrial strategy dates back to 1988; its basic document is the free trade deal signed with the U.S. by the Mulroney government. Other than the NDP, no parliamentary caucus has questioned the not so hidden agenda behind the FTA/NAFTA -- economic integration into the faltering U.S. Empire -- so it would be fitting for Jack Layton and his party to take the lead in putting forward a renewed economic agenda for Canada.
Establishing a NDP plan for the next economy means replacing some bad ideas with some good ideas.
First, instead of promoting more production of more goods and services, the over-riding goal should be to reduce waste. The Harper government has been promoting Canada as an energy superpower, when what we need to be doing is bringing natural resource exploitation under democratic control. Even the Americans are beginning to question the sustainability of exploitation of the tar sands. A French Nobel prize-winning author, J. M. G. Le Clézio has denounced the lastest power grab by Quebec Hydro.
Second, instead of big business calling the shots, we need to put the needs of labour first. The greatest waste is unemployment: we need to ensure there is a job for everyone who wants to work, and income security for all. A wage solidarity program whereby no employee earns more than, say, six times the amount of the least paid would be a good way to restrain the princely compensation and bonus schemes developed just as the postwar economic growth boom was ending, allowing CEOs and senior executives to make out like bandits. The national government should be the employer of last resort, prepared to fund projects providing employment across the country, bringing work to people, instead of forcing people to move to seek jobs.
Third, instead of leaving anti-poverty action to charitable organizations, we need a national anti-poverty law, facilitating citizen participation in Canadian life. Ensuring all wages are living wages, and no social program leaves recipients below the poverty line is the place to start, but more is needed. Recognizing that everyone needs a place to go, as well as someone to talk to, and something to do, should be the basis for a three-pronged effort: a national social housing strategy; building community services and promoting neighbourhood activities; and guaranteeing access to education, training, culture, recreation, as well as to work.
Fourth, instead of encouraging the five big chartered banks to control credit making and lending through the Bank Act, we need to establish financial power in publicly owned institutions. The Wall Street/Bay Street model of casino capitalism is broken, and current efforts to re-establish it are pointless, costly beyond belief, and will bring no discernable benefits to Canadians. Using public investment banks to fund new community controlled economic activities is a cost effective way of mobilizing credit, which is no more than our capacity to lend today, because we can produce tomorrow.
Fifth, instead of letting absentee owner, foreign corporations decide what gets done in Canada, we need parliament to adopt a national industrial strategy that emcompasses the above points. Currently the only national strategy allowed under free trade is military spending, so we see billions in planned spending on tanks, military transport trucks and submarines; while advanced research, technological development and basic economic activities are underfunded.
Sixth, Canada needs to be a leader in building common security, a multilateral world order based on shared sovereignty, to replace the super power dominated international institutional framework of the postwar period. A good place to start is by recognizing that the world can not have a balance of payments deficit. So rather than force weak deficit nations to struggle to earn foreign exchange by subordingating their economies to the world market, it makes more sense to have strong nations to earn their surpluses in the form of an international money such as the IMF Special Drawing Rights (SDRs). Reformed IMF rules would allow new SDR credits to go where they are needed, to the poorer countries, rather than at present, where surplus money goes mainly to the U.S., the country that needs it the least.
The Harper government denied we faced a crisis, predicted it would not last, and are ignoring the needs of the unemployed. In reality, the current crisis has been building for years, is likely to last, and will not go away without a serious rethinking of what the next economy should look like.
Duncan Cameron writes from Quebec City.