Something is happening in Canada that seems, in the context of a majority Harper government, counter-intuitive. Harper continues implementing his right-wing revolution by virtual fiat, and Preston Manning's "democracy" institute says Canadians actually want "less" government and more individual responsibility. Yet a flurry of polls in the past few weeks and months suggest two dramatic counterpoints to this self-serving narrative.
First, in a development that is virtually unprecedented, inequality has become, by far, Canadians' top concern, displacing the perennial front-runner, medicare. And closely related are a number of polls showing that Canadians in large majorities think wealthy people and corporations should pay more taxes. They are also willing to pay more themselves.
How these attitudes will play out over the longer term is hard to predict. Other trends are not so encouraging.
The trouble with normal, Bruce Cockburn told us, is it always gets worse. And that's the danger in times like this when we watch the ratcheting back of democratic government and the things that it has provided. The longer-term threat to democracy is that we become inured to the systematic assaults on it. It is easy to get demoralized with what one U.S. writer called "surplus powerlessness." Without an obvious short-term solution to the quasi-dictatorship of the Harper government the easiest response is to deny it is happening -- and then get used to it.
No opposition party has so far said that they are committed to reversing all the reactionary and destructive actions of this government. Yet this is what we should be demanding of them.
The myriad assaults on the nation being implemented by Harper are really just the latest chapter in what has been a revolution of lowered expectations: a deliberate and systematic culture war on ordinary Canadians' deeply held values about the role of government. Starting in the late 1980s with the FTA campaign, corporations and their propaganda agencies like the Fraser Institute, set out to reverse the so-called welfare state and the belief system it rested on. The slogan for the free-traders was simple and repeated endlessly: there is no alternative. Of course there were alternatives, just none that the corporate state was going to allow.
Neo-liberals and the Christian right have been engaged in a 30-year process of trying to change the political culture into something more akin to the individualism of the U.S. To do that they had to demonize government -- the institution of collective action which distinguished us from our southern neighbours.
The free-trade battle was followed by the 1990s deficit hysteria campaign promoting the spectre of hitting the (non-existent) debt wall, softening Canadians up for huge cuts to social spending (courtesy of Paul Martin). Demonizing government and government workers (lazy, privileged, self-interested, overpaid) also prepared the ground for the laying off of 50,000 federal employees. And, of course, as programs were diminished so too was the average citizen's trust in government.
Lastly was the whole question of taxes and tax cuts -- the litmus test of a new political culture of smaller government and individual responsibility. Framing taxes as a burden, and telling people they knew how to spend their money better than government, the Liberal and Conservative regimes handed out billions upon billions of tax cuts in their efforts to downsize democracy.
Yet the whole project is turning out to be a failure. Canadians' values have changed very little since the 1960s and '70s. What has changed are people's expectations of what is possible from government. We cling stubbornly to our values but no longer expect to see them reflected in government policies. Until now. Thanks in large part to the wonderful activists in the Occupy movement, suddenly Canadians are emerging from this war on democracy with the beginnings of what it will take to turn things around.
There is growing evidence that for a majority of Canadians personal experience is beginning to trump propaganda. As they see services decline, inequality rise, infrastructure crumble and democracy erode, what they have always known comes to the fore -- that a civilized society is fair and that you have to pay for it.
For 31 per cent of Canadians to say (as they did in this Ekos poll) that inequality is their number one concern, placing fiscal issues at 9 per cent means this sentiment has been growing for some time. It just took the catalyst of the Occupy rebellion to bring it forward.
And the many polls revealing we are prepared to pay more taxes is an obvious extension of that moral imperative. The Ekos poll showed 59 per cent chose investing in social programs as the highest government priority, compared to 16 per cent who wanted to keep taxes as low as possible.
The Broadbent Institute's recent polling was even more encouraging. Seventy-seven per cent identified inequality as a major problem undermining Canadian values, were willing to do their part to address it and believed it should be a government priority to deal with it. While a large percentage supported fairer taxes (with the wealthy and corporations paying more), a significant majority, 64 per cent, were willing to pay more themselves to save social programs -- 72 per cent of Liberal and NDP supporters and even 58 per cent of Conservative supporters agreed. The majority support held across region, gender, age, education level and family income.
When the provincial NDP in Ontario recently called for a modest 2 per cent tax hike for those earning half a million dollars or more, the public response was overwhelmingly in favour -- by a margin of 78 per cent in favour to 17 per cent opposed. Even in Calgary -- in the heart of anti-tax country -- 55 per cent supported increasing municipal taxes while only 10 per cent called for a decrease.
The media seems completely caught off guard by these and other polls. The Globe and Mail did an interactive poll the day before the federal budget and declared: "What stood out was the across-the-board call for higher taxes." People were willing to see the GST restored to 7 per cent. A columnist for the National Post worried that the arguments against taxing the wealthy were not very convincing -- especially when the mainstream is supportive.
When it comes to tax cuts, the message is clear: enough is enough. At the same time as the polling is showing these remarkable results, there are now several organizations calling for fairer taxes: Doctors for Fair Taxation, Lawyers for Fair Taxation and Faith Leaders for Fair Taxation. There is also a national group, Canadians for Tax Fairness (which I am associated with) and groups beginning to form at the provincial level -- such as Nova Scotians for Tax Fairness. There is the Canadian section of the international Uncut anti-austerity movement, with 14 local chapters across the country. NUPGE, the federation of provincial government employee unions has been running an amazing tax campaign called All Together Now for a couple of years.
The movement for equality and tax fairness is barely off the ground and it already has majority support across the country. Now the opposition parties have to show that they have the courage and the principles to respond to this progressive sentiment. If the Liberals and the NDP ever manage to form a coalition government, the first item on which they should agree is the need for tax fairness and sufficient revenue to restore the Canada we once had and go beyond it. The Ekos poll revealed that 60 per cent of Canadians say they would be more likely to vote for a party that pledged to raise taxes on the rich.
For Canadians and opposition parties the time for lowered expectations is over. Expect more.
Murray Dobbin is a guest senior contributing editor for rabble.ca, and has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for 40 years. He writes rabble's bi-weekly State of the Nation column, which is also found at The Tyee. He is the curator of rabble's Reinventing democracy, reclaiming the commons series.