For the Harper Conservatives, the economy is the all-purpose excuse. Throw out free collective bargaining at the Post Office? The economy requires decisive government intervention. Act in secret to lay off thousands of federal public servants? The economy needs less government spending. Reduce corporate income taxes below that of U.S. rates, so global companies pay more tax in the U.S., and less in Canada? Increased corporate profits are good for the economy.

Any argument that serves the Conservative cause is, by their definition, true. So, Conservatives do not worry about Canadians asking questions about their faulty reasoning. Harper’s people have decided that if they keep repeating the word economy often enough, citizens will not try to understand what they are actually up to. 

While the Conservatives may think they get away with invoking the economy to justify virtually anything they want to say or do, no matter how wrong headed, when debate does break out, suddenly people start to ask questions. That is what happened last Thursday, when the official opposition New Democrats decided to pursue a 24-hours-a-day filibuster against misnamed back-to-work legislation: an act suspending free collective bargaining at Canada Post.

As the 103 NDP MPs — who participated in the longest continuous debate in House of Commons history — never tired of repeating over three full days, all the government had to do to end the lock-out of Canada Post workers by the corporation was phone up its $600,000-plus-per-year CEO, Deepak Chopra.

You would never know from listening to the Conservative minister of labour that the main objective of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, in its negotiations with Canada Post, was to fix what makes the economy weak: low wages, poor or non-existent pensions, unsafe working conditions, discrimination against younger workers, and inadequate insurance against workplace related health issues.

No business reporter in this country is explaining that turning young postal workers against older workers, by paying new employees less, is bad for workplace morale, a key ingredient in workplace performance. How many small businesses want to see their customers with less money in their pockets when they walk in the store because the government decreed that 48,000 postal workers would get less money than Canada Post was offering at the bargaining table?

Through its legislation, the Conservatives are preparing Canada Post for privatization. Evidence from Europe that this makes mail service unreliable and more expensive, but is of no interest to the Harper regime.

Though the local Ottawa media are seemingly unaware, the Conservatives, who hold eight of the 12 seats in the capital region, are secretly laying people off and eliminating jobs in their misguided effort to cut $4 billion a year from spending on government services. Reports from the Ottawa Bureau by Manon Cornellier and Hélène Buzzetti of the Montreal daily Le Devoir show government departments refusing to give out information on job shedding and layoffs on orders from the Prime Minister’s Office. What news has leaked out of the comprehensive effort to eliminate some 80,000 positions in the federal public service is coming mostly from research gathered by the Public Service Alliance of Canada when talking with its members who are being shown the door.

Whatever the Conservatives may say, water does not run uphill, white is not black, and laying off people is not how you improve a weak economy. Government deficits are an indication of high unemployment, not excess spending. When jobs creation is weak, government revenues fall, and expenditures rise. If the Conservatives were truly concerned about reducing deficits, they would never have cut corporate taxes, since such cuts increase the deficit.

Conservative planning is about how to shrink the public sector in the hopes the private sector will grow. For the Harper people, what makes the private economy tick is tax cuts. When corporations take their tax cuts and spend the money abroad, or make speculative moves in commodity plays, or simply sit on the windfall, this does not interfere with the Conservative worldview.

In the real world, the economy is about people working together to meet each other’s needs. The people who do the work are the economic creators, not the corporations who cheat workers by paying them considerably less than their work is worth to the company. Profits come out of unpaid labour, and are increased by unpaid taxes; and, they certainly do not equate to economic well-being for people.

The capitalist economy is in trouble in the U.S., in trouble in Europe, and so-called emerging economies (China, India, Brazil, South Korea) are not going to carry the rest of the world.

The parliamentary debate instigated by the New Democratic opposition leads naturally to a wider debate. Whose economy is it? What is the economy for? How do we improve economic well-being? This is the debate the Conservatives want to avoid. Unthinking acceptance of conventional wisdom serves the Harper government. Challenging Harper’s people on the economy is a good way to spend the four years until the next election.

Duncan Cameron is the president of His column on Canadian politics appears weekly.

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