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Conservatism and economic incompetence

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I'm going to state something with which very few of you will disagree, but challenges the central myth of conservatism: Conservatives cannot manage economies. They're dismal at it. They don't build, they wreck and destroy and cheapen and get giddy about anything that invigorates nature, red in tooth and claw.

I'm making this un-astounding, but needed-to-be-said argument for two reasons: first, the federal government is announcing its budget today; second, city of Toronto operating budget deliberations have received much attention and two of the city's leading mayoral candidates are chiming in on ways to cut costs and trash public services.

With respect to the feds, I won't spend much space here lamenting what will most likely be a cynical budget. One that further tears at the social fabric of this nation. And one that will continue to offer unaffordable tax breaks. Much of this and more was uttered in yesterday's Throne Speech.

However, education and health care are to be "protected." For now. And then the Conservatives will do what conservatives do best. They will starve social programs, and when these programs start to falter, they will declare these programs broken. Prayers for the saving grace of the private sector will be uttered, and lo and behold, chunks of social services will be auctioned off to men in grey flannel suits.

Conservatives will take those programs on which we have spent our tax dollars building and fortifying and will sell them to their friends. Those friends will sell those programs back to us for higher cost and selective service (read: diminished service for lower income earners and poor).

Conservatives continue to enjoy a free pass on this absurd notion of being effective managers of our money, even though there is little to no evidence that smaller government is better, that privatized services are more equitable and more efficient, that tax cuts always stimulate the economy, that trickledown economics works, that government should be run like a business. Indeed, the system itself routinely enriches a few and impoverishes the many.

Notably, since 2006 deep and unnecessary tax cuts have left us with $36 billion per year missing from the federal treasury. To put this sum into perspective, that's more than the GDP of any of Canada's Maritime Provinces.

In Toronto, mayoral candidates George Smitherman and Rocco Rossi are in a race about who can say "privatization" and "asset sales" the most. Both muse about privatizing garbage collection and Smitherman has raised the specter of privatizing some bus routes.

With respect to garbage collection, Smitherman and Rossi hope to resurrect and tap into bitter feelings from the civic strike last summer. Both are not, however, providing evidence whether contracting out is more efficient, offers better value, and is less expensive. To Smitherman's credit, he wants proof. Rossi on the other hand says support for "outsourcing" is like getting "religion". If he means policy-making based on dogma rather than evidence, he's right.

Rossi should remember that private collection did not work well in the former municipality of East York. And in Etobicoke, where garbage is privately collected, that service is neither cheaper nor more expensive. However, private collectors in Etobicoke are worse off: they earn less than their public counterparts, have fewer benefits, work longer hours and have unpaid sick days.

How is this better for our communities; for us as citizens; for the economy as a whole?

Local governments are best positioned to deliver local services because they are the closest government to citizens. If they are to engage their democratic purpose, local government must be responsible for the provision of myriad direct services. To hand over those direct public services to the private sector should be perceived as an abrogation of democratic principles.

If Smitherman and Rossi cared about protecting the public interest, they must recognize the interdependence of resources where a benefit for one is a benefit for all and that citizens cannot be excluded from sharing resources.

Smitherman's proposal to privatize some bus routes will ensure that certain communities will no longer be served. Or private operators, looking to turn a profit, will make some routes more expensive while creating a patchwork transit system that could make service worse.

Smitherman also chips in that old conservative chestnut, attacking unions, when he states: "The city has to be a good employer, but it can't lose sight of the fact that its obligation is not to the CUPE worker; its core obligation is to the citizen taxpayers." Clearly ignoring that CUPE workers are also citizens and taxpayers. Rossi has been raging against unions since he decided to flee the employ of the federal Liberals. His malicious, anti-union comments are typical conservative fire-breathing and aren't worth repeating here.

After years of neo-liberal economic policies, are things better for you and me?

No.

Statistics Canada found that between 1979 and 1989, income for the poorest 10% of families fell by 19% while the richest 10% saw incomes increase by 13%. And from 1989 to 2004, the average after-tax income of the richest 10% increased by 24% and declined by 8% for the poorest 10%. I imagine things haven't improved for lower income Canadians during the reign of King Stephen I.

The rich are getting richer, the poor, poorer. And for the stretched middle class, real wages (meaning adjusted for inflation) have not increased for 30 years.

Add to this the increasing costs for some public services that put those services further and further out of reach from those who need them most.

This is what the so-called competent managers of our economy have helped to reap with the regressive policies they've sowed.

Without needing to read goat entrails, I'm certain today's budget, like yesterday's Speech from the Throne, will be more of the same. Woe Canada.

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