Shooting baby hippos for the sake of austerity

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In the early 1990s, CTV broadcaster Eric Malling told Canadians the sad tale of a baby hippo shot by authorities at a New Zealand zoo.

Sad, but apparently necessary, Malling suggested in a special broadcast from down under. After all, New Zealand had big deficits, so there was no money to expand the hippo pen. What was a country to do but blow the newborn hippo away?

Malling's cautionary tale, which helped pitch an austerity agenda to Canadians 20 years ago, wouldn't seem out of place today, as we're once again being urged to hunker down for lean, mean times.

And so it is that the waterfront park at Ontario Place -- a summer highlight for tens of thousands of children -- has met the fate of the baby hippo, as Dalton McGuinty's government tries to convince us we can't afford to provide this healthy, active recreation for our children for the next five years. Also on the hit list -- school playgrounds. Some 600 sites may soon be sold off by the cash-deprived Toronto school board. (Not to worry, there are still malls where our children can hang out.)

Meanwhile, at the federal level, the Harper government has just taken away two years of retirement benefits from millions of Canadians, with its decision to raise the entitlement age (starting in 2023) to 67. Harper never hinted at this major change during the last election campaign, but now insists it's essential to keep government finances solvent -- a claim that Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page has dismissed as "silly."

Ottawa also cited fiscal necessity last March in announcing an additional $5.2 billion in spending cuts. But Canada's finances aren't in trouble. Indeed, IMF data -- prepared before Ottawa announced the $5.2 billion in cuts -- shows Canada's net debt-to-GDP ratio is just 32 per cent -- the lowest in the G7, and projected to remain the lowest through 2016.

The Harperites argue that Canada's low debt level is due to Ottawa's fiscal restraint, and insist the further cutbacks are necessary to avoid the debt problems plaguing Europe, with its high social spending. But the European countries that face serious debt problems -- Greece, Spain, Italy -- have never been big social spenders.

The big social spenders are the northern European nations, particularly the Nordic countries, yet they have even lower debt levels than Canada. Indeed, the IMF data show that Sweden, Norway and Finland all have net surplus-to-GDP ratios.

Hysteria over the national debt is nothing new. In the late 18th century, British economist David Hume predicted that "the endless increase of national debts is the direct road to national ruin" and suggested that Britain's growing debt left it worse off than if parts of the British Isles had been "seized by Austria and Prussia."

Yet Britain went on to enjoy its most prosperous century. Writing in the late 19th century in his History of England, historian Lord Macaulay pointed to this tendency to despair over the national debt: "At every stage in the growth of that debt it has been seriously asserted by wise men that bankruptcy and ruin were at hand. Yet still the debt went on growing and still bankruptcy and ruin were as remote as ever."

Of course, governments should never risk adding to the national debt by spending on frivolous items -- like unneeded, overpriced military hardware. But investing in the well-being and development of Canadians isn't frivolous. And Canada (and Ontario) are far from any sort of debt crisis.

It's worth noting that in 1936, during the height of the Depression, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt had the foresight to ignore the debt-mongers and establish a wide-ranging social security system that survives today, providing crucial support to tens of millions of Americans. And Britain, despite record debt levels immediately after World War II, brought in national health care and a comprehensive social insurance system that helped spark the postwar boom.

But today's leaders don't want us to focus on big ideas for human betterment. Instead, they want us to believe such dreams are no longer affordable, that we have no choice but to ruthlessly cut government spending.

Baby hippos take cover.

Linda McQuaig is author of It's the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet and The Trouble With Billionaires. This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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