Profit takes precedence over reform

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With the American right poised to derail yet another attempt to bring public health care to the United States, Canada has been dragged in for a disturbing cameo role.

By any reasonable measure, our health-care system is stellar compared to theirs, yet ours has been cast as the scary bad guy to serve as a cautionary tale to those who consider it urgent to provide health-care coverage to the 47 million Americans without it.

In TV ads broadcast across America, Canadian Shona Holmes says she would have died of a brain tumour if she'd relied on the Canadian health-care system rather than heading to the U.S. for treatment.

Dramatic stuff, but not quite true. She did have a cyst in her brain, but it wasn't life-threatening -- a fact exposed last month by Julie Mason in the Ottawa Citizen. (This should clear up any misunderstanding about Canadian health care for the millions of Americans who read the Ottawa Citizen.)

If there's a lesson to be learned from the sorry spectacle of the U.S. health-care debate, it's never to underestimate the determination of the right to block even the most desperately needed reforms.

The right in Canada, like its American counterpart, has tried hard to discourage the public from trusting government to provide public services, so that the private sector can provide them instead at a profit. Although the Canadian right has been less organized, it's learning. And it has the advantage of having one of its own sons running the country.

Of course, Stephen Harper, aware of Canada's more moderate political climate, has been careful in his push to the right, helped along by a media that's allowed his past as head of the right-wing National Citizens Coalition to largely slip from view.

One interesting nudge rightward was the Harper government's recent appointment of Jack Mintz, a conservative economist and former CEO of the business-funded C.D. Howe Institute, to the influential post of research director of a federal-provincial review of pensions.

Like health care, pensions cry out for public programs. Our public pensions -- Old Age Security and Canada Pension Plan -- have helped keep seniors out of poverty. But the amounts provided under these programs are low and need to be topped up. Yet less than 40 per cent of Canadians have private pensions to supplement their retirement incomes.

The best way to ensure better pension coverage for all Canadians would be to put more money into our public programs.

Another promising idea, promoted by some provincial governments, involves government setting up multi-employer "super pension funds" that would operate on a non-profit basis.

Jack Mintz doesn't like this idea. In an op-ed piece in the National Post last May, he attacked it as "dangerous."

Just why is it dangerous? Well, it seems it's dangerous to the interests of banks and insurance companies because, as Mintz explained, they would have trouble competing with the non-profit pension funds.

Interestingly, this is the same argument American conservatives use against Obama's public health-care plan -- that private insurers would have trouble competing with it.

Which raises the question: whose interests come first?

If we have to choose between leaving elderly Canadians at risk of slipping into poverty or making it harder for banks and insurance companies to compete in the pension market, is that really a tough choice -- except perhaps for Jack Mintz, Stephen Harper and others on the Canadian right?

Linda McQuaig is author of It's the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet.

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