Prime Minister Stephen Harper announces Canadas contribution to the Muskoka Initiative on Maternal, Newborn and Child Health during a working session with G8 and African Outreach leaders. Official photo.

Here is a (non-exhaustive) guide to five of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s plans at the G20 and G8 meetings. In an effort to keep it relatively short, I have added numerous links rather than expound on every issue. Use the article as an outline and then go find out more by checking the links for background and references.

A. Economic Crisis 

Since 2009, the G20 has taken upon itself the role of manager of the economic crisis. Taking the opportunity as host country, the Conservative government has been extremely aggressive in pushing its agenda to the top of the G20 summit program. There have been two main tracks to the Conservative government’s approach to the economic discussions:

Deficit cutting through economic austerity.

Canada has been leading the charge to make co-ordinated reduction of spending amongst the G20 countries the number one issue at the summit. The government sees it as the means to get the fiscal house in order and to signal to the market that economies are strong. “Our intent [at the G20] is to get a clear agreement on the principles needed to achieve real progress on reducing deficits and debt burdens” remarked Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. “In Toronto we will push for clear, credible, concrete, timely fiscal consolidation plans.”

However, Nobel economist Paul Krugman points out that, regardless of political ideology, the current period of high unemployment is clearly not a time for governments to become deficit warriors. The proposed Greek-style austerity cuts in spending will likely depress the global economy even further and reduce the tax base, deepening the recession. Some prominent economists have even argued that this will lead the global economy to a new Great Depression.

Also, the austerity simply hurts poor (working or unwaged) and middle-class people, and we cannot lose sight of that. Having started with Greece, it seems that the plan is to go country by country, one-by-one, and force these measures which will diminish social programs, decimate the public sector and dramatically increase poverty and unemployment.

Narrow economic reforms and no bank tax

The Harper government wants adjustment of bank capital and leverage standards* to be the sole focus of the G20’s efforts to reduce risk and increase bank solvency. Yet, these reforms are not nearly enough to dissuade banks from taking on toxic assets. As Bill Greider wrote in the Nation last year, banks found ways around the rules even as capital and liquidity requirements were put in place over the past 20 years, and where they couldn’t, credit just went to unregulated “money-pots” outside the banking system.

The Canadian government has also vociferously opposed the various bank tax and levy schemes that are considered by numerous social justice organizations and many countries to be a much better means to dissuade banks from taking on risk. [Bank tax and levy primer] The government spent three months on a major offensive to dissuade other countries from supporting any form of tax or levy, despite the fact that it could raise billions for social spending while at the same time curbing risky, speculative bank transactions which were at the heart of the economic meltdown.

Much of the government’s supposed clout on the issue has come from the claim that Canadian banks didn’t need a bailout at the start of the economic crisis, and thus, it would be unfair of the Canadian government to tax them to pay for others’ riskiness. But Canadian banks were, in fact, bailed out. Despite a media near blackout, there is ample evidence that the Canadian government bought up $70 billion in risky mortgages and created a $200 billion fund called the Emergency Finance Framework to insure banks when they need it (here and here, for example).

B. Maternal and Child Health

The Canadian government’s maternal and child health initiative is highly contradictory. Social spending cuts and spikes in unemployment will be the result if the Canadian government’s push for global economic austerity at the G20 becomes a reality. This will dramatically increase poverty for women and children around the world.

The Conservatives would then be simultaneously promoting (yet unknown) G8 initiatives to improve the health of these same women and children. Wouldn’t the more direct (and honest) route to improved maternal and child health be to eliminate the austerity, and support strategies to deal with the economic insecurity that causes ill health? Without this reorientation, Canada’s “signature” issue becomes window dressing and propaganda.

Further, the Conservative government is ill-equipped to fight for women’s health and rights around the world when it has systematically eroded those same rights and opportunities in Canada. The Conservatives eliminated the national childcare program proposed by the Liberals, they have closed Status on Women offices across the country, and they have gutted numerous women’s organizations through funding cuts.

Canada has also stated clearly that is will not be including abortion in its maternal and child health plans at the G8 meetings. Many have speculated that this is the real reason the Harper government has championed maternal health — to indirectly bring abortion back to the political forum, while still claiming that it is off the agenda.

C. Climate Change 

After much pressure over many months, the Canadian government has reluctantly decided to put climate change on the G20 agenda and has offered $400 million to a climate change fund. However, Canada has little moral ground to stand on regarding climate change and is becoming a global pariah on the issue. The Alberta Tar Sands, which produce three times as much greenhouse gas as conventional oil, are expected to be emitting more greenhouse gases than the entire nation of Denmark by 2015. Tar Sands extraction will release twice the amount produced currently by all the cars and trucks in Canada. (Download Tar Sands Facts reference here.) It is simply impossible for Canada to reduce overall emissions levels and begin to curb climate change as long as the Tar Sands are in production.

Harper also dismissed the Kyoto accord soon after he came into office. Under Kyoto, Canada was to have cut emissions by 6 per cent between 1990 and 2012. Instead, emissions are up 26 per cent. This isn’t all the fault of the Conservative government, as the Liberal government that preceded was way behind on targets as well. But Harper has done nothing but exacerbate the problem.

D. Focus on Iran

The Conservative government will push the G8 to stop nuclear Iran (though Iran currently has no nuclear weapons). All the while viewing the region’s other potentially apocalyptic threat, Israel’s nuclear weapons, as beyond scrutiny, despite the fact that Israel has an already existing nuclear stockpile. It is a double standard that also includes India and Pakistan, countries which, writes politics instructor Ted Snider, the US (and Canada) “at best, turned a blind eye to, and, at worst, and more realistically, aided each of these countries in their successful pursuits of nuclear weapons.”

The G8 has been kind enough to open dialogue with Iran over their nuclear program, though they are calling for strong measures against them as well. Setting aside the unspeakable fact that four G8 countries are nuclear weapons states themselves, there is little evidence that Iran has nuclear capabilities, or will in the future. The White House even announced this back in February.

This raises questions about who gets to decide who can have nuclear weapons (let alone which countries have 95 per cent of them — the US and Russia). This creates a dire situation where you have a few countries with most of the weapons, and other countries clamoring for them to ensure they will be heard and not pushed around by the major players. Instead, we get the following double standard: “we have nuclear weapons for making peace — they have/want them for making war — trust us.”

E. Culture of Fear 

This is less of a G20 meeting agenda item than an overarching theme: the Canadian government has worked to create a climate of fear around the G20 summit. While the G20 fence is temporary and certainly much less debilitating to people’s lives, symbolically it is no different that the walls in Palestine, or along the border between Mexico and the U.S. The fence is a symbol of the multiple walls and borders that have been built and enforced as the fallout of G20 neoliberal policies displaces populations.

The multi-layers of fencing separating the G20 leaders from the inhabitants, the billion plus dollars spent on security, as well as the long list of prohibited items and canceled events are all symbolic of the insider and outsider reality that marks the global economy. We become either enforcers or victims, actors or spectators, powerful or powerless.

* A simplified explanation of capital and liquidity requirements. By capital requirements they are suggesting that banks would need to increase the level of capital (less risky money from shareholders, depositors, etc…) in relation to assets (such as long-term bonds or mortgage bonds), as a means to ensure they have money on hand to deal with toxic assets as they come up. Liquidity requirements are about increasing cash reserves (money on hand) vs. medium- or longer-term investments.

Darren Puscas lives in Toronto and is a Toronto Media Coop sustainer and contributor. He also edits his blog, where this story first appeared. Contact him here