The faux populism of Tea Party North

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A sizable number of Toronto electors are preparing to vote for Rob Ford, an anti-government mayoralty candidate, carrying a populist message. Calgary has its own right-wing tribune seeking the mayor's chair. It is standard media practice to talk about the cynical attitude of Canadian voters, the anger at government, and how people have a sneer in their voice when referring to people seeking public office. Playing up distrust of elites is what the Stephen Harper Conservatives do regularly, and their backroom operatives expect voters to buy what they are selling.

It is not true that Canadian politicians are generally corrupt or "on the take." It is true that Canadian voters are distrustful of politicians. Though Canadians may appear to be turned off politics, and disengaged from the political process, populists count on that same discontent to build support for a tax and spending cut agenda, through the very political process they profess to disdain.

There are good reasons for Canadians to be angry with government. Canadian governments have failed to protect citizens from rapacious bankers, corporations that destroy the natural environment, and companies that treat employees like disposables. It is no wonder citizens take out their frustrations on political figures, and damn the political process as well. In the 30 years since the so-called Reagan revolution brought a Hollywood actor to the White House, Canadian governments have aided and abetted the corporate crimes against the present and future of humanity through privatization, de-regulation, and free trade.

Derek Burney, the one-time chief advisor to Brian Mulroney on the 1988 free trade deal with the United States, wants to blame immigrants for poor productivity, and the sagging economy, not the failure of business investors to expand high value-added production jobs in Canada.

Free trade as an industrial strategy flopped. People in low productivity industries were supposed to move to high productivity industries. Instead when factories closed, the high end jobs never appeared. Inequality grew, not productivity. No wonder people are mad. Faux populists blame the people who lost their jobs, and had their U.I./E.I programs gutted.

A close look at the legacy of NAFTA reveals outlandish increases in drug prices through the enshrining of intellectual property rights by a trade treaty. Big Pharma companies got what they wanted, super profits. Public Medicare got squeezed. Poll after poll shows Canada wants more public health care not less, and are angry because they are waiting for essential services. Faux populists say that private providers can do better.

American natural resource and energy companies got national treatment in Canada thanks to free trade. The Mulroney team gave up the constitutional power of taxing energy resource exports, and with it the ability to control directly the rate of extraction of non-renewable natural resources. Canada may be the second largest supplier of fossil fuels to the U.S., but what Alberta gets is the environmental disaster of the tar sands. Profits and dividends leave Canada for the U.S. along with the energy. While value-added processing of raw bitumen takes place in the U.S., Canada re-imports the fuel oil and gasoline, and yet more profits and dividends leave the country.

Instead of questioning the skewed logic of giving up democratic control of natural resources to foreign-owned corporations, governments pursue more foreign investment. Faux populists blame Alberta for job losses in Ontario.

If the Harper government is so certain of the popularity of its economic agenda, why does it need to spends $1.2 billion for a week of protection from street protestors in Toronto during the G8/G20 summits? Faux populists blame Muslim terrorists for the expense.

The spectacular crash of Lehman Brothers, September 12, 2008, epitomized the failure of financial markets, and revealed the weakness of economic thinking based on letting the markets determine our collective future. So are we re-thinking banking policy? Questioning efficient market theory? Figuring out how to regulate and control greedy corporations? Faux populists blame government mismanagement for the worst economic crisis since the 1930s.

Instead of recognizing the bankruptcy of economic thinking, yet another faux populist movement trumpeting private property and market economics has arisen in the U.S.

The Tea Party activists look like Reform Party faux populists of two decades ago. In 1993, Reform, under Preston Manning, wiped out the Progressive Conservatives in the west, while Lucien Bouchard and the Bloc did the same in Quebec. Tea Party activists have integrated easily in the American Republican party and are busily using the political process to mount their anti-government agenda.

Much as Reform used parliament to get the Liberal government to implement the Reform agenda on tax and spending cuts, expect the Tea Party to turn the Democrats away from even their moderate stimulus and recovery package.

Rob Ford is the son of a Harris "commonsense revolution," Ontario Conservative M.P.P. aka the Reform Conservatives. He is backed by Harper Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. The faux populists of the Tea Party Canada plan to turn public anger into political power for themselves, and use the political process to do it. Expect the public to be even angrier if they succeed in Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, and elsewhere.

Duncan Cameron writes weekly on politics and is president of

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