Former Minister of Foreign Affairs Lawrence Cannon. Photo: Connect 2 Canada/Flickr

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Despite slurs to the contrary, the welfare state is alive and well and living in Harperland. Appropriately enough, its benefits are available largely to those who have earned them. Call them Real Canadians, call them Conservatives. Whatever. These admirable citizens are treated to all the advantages bestowed by Stephen Harper’s personal social safety net.

Say, for example, these Conservatives lose their jobs. Say — just to take a random notion — they run for office and get whupped. Soon on the very verge of the deep depression, demoralization and self-loathing that so commonly accompanies being laid off, the Prime Minister suddenly reaches down and throws them a golden lifeline.

In fact, according to Postmedia News, almost a quarter of all the Prime Minister’s defeated candidates in last year’s election have received what the Ottawa Citizen calls “a taxpayer-funded federal job.”

“A Postmedia News analysis reveals that 35 of the 141 Conservative candidates who lost at the polls received jobs in places such as the Prime Minister’s Office, Health Canada, ministers’ offices or on boards and agencies.” Mr. Harper (who as opposition leader couldn’t condemn patronage appointments fervently enough), explained through a spokesperson that “each one of the candidates identified … was qualified for their position and earned their job based on merit.” Who might have thought otherwise?

Of course there are jobs and there are jobs. Not all Conservative welfare dished out to failed Conservative candidates is created equal. There’s only one Canadian ambassador to France, for example, and former Foreign Affairs minister Lawrence Cannon is the lucky winner of up to $221,800 annually for five years plus benefits plus one of the poshest digs in Paris. When he was in cabinet he was pulling in about $230,000 a year plus car allowance plus plenty of benefits, so he must make do with (slightly) less.

Then there’s former Veterans Affairs and Revenue minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn whose rejection by the voters earned him the agreeable post of Canadian representative to UNESCO. It too, happily, is based in the heart of Paris, with an annual salary of up to $195,300 and with duties not easy to pinpoint.

That both men “earned their job based on merit” goes without saying.

As for the four failed Conservative candidates who were appointed to the Senate, with a base salary of $132,000 plus expense accounts plus free air travel plus pensions, one can only respond with a heartfelt “well done and godspeed!” Heaven knows they deserve every penny, especially the two who had already been senators, resigned to run in the election, were repudiated by the voters, and were then reappointed to the Senate (which Stephen Harper wants elected).

Of course we need to be realistic here. There are, after all, only so many ambassadorships and Senate seats available for the jobless in Canada, who number at least 1.4 million souls. It’s true there’s something called Employment Insurance, but only 40 per cent of the jobless actually get EI — when they finally get it at all. Because the government slashed staff at Service Canada, workers have waited for months for their meagre benefits, especially over Christmas. And when it finally comes, this lucky minority gets a max of 55 per cent of their average earnings. That means over 850,000 of those who lose their jobs get exactly nothing.

As well, since the vast majority of those laid off hadn’t exactly been bringing home 1-per-cent-level earnings, it is, to say the least, no picnic to live either on EI or off it.

In a rational world, the high level of unemployment and the huge numbers of Canadians who get either no or modest help adds up to a national crisis. The Harper government agrees there’s a crisis, but it sees a rather different one. As Human Resources Minister Diane Finley once declared, “We do not want to make it lucrative for them to stay home and get paid for it.” As it happens, the minister’s husband, who was campaign manager for the Conservative Party in both the 2006 and 2008 elections, was appointed to the Senate by Stephen Harper.

So the government has chosen to fix its invented crisis of shiftless, duplicitous swindlers rather than the country’s real crisis. It’s making it even tougher for the jobless to keep their EI payments, while forcing some recipients to accept wages starting at 70 per cent of their previous income. And you know how astronomical their previous income must have been, especially when wages have barely been keeping up with inflation.

Now there’s a pretty clear pattern here. This is the third time the Harper government has forced workers to work for less. Recent changes to the Temporary Foreign Workers Program has permitted employers to pay migrant workers up to 15 per cent less than regular workers. And in the process of ending last year’s labour dispute at Canada Post, the government took an extra kick at the workers by imposing a wage increase which was actually lower than the Crown corporation’s offer. For those who envy the cushy job of a postal worker, make sure you too demand the lush $48,000 that letter carriers, postal clerks and mail handlers all make.

So when unions accuse the government of forcing a race to the bottom on wages in order to provide Canadian businesses with a pool of low-paid employees, when they insist these measures will exert “a terrible downward pressure” on the wages of all Canadian workers, they’re not provoking a class war. They’re describing the one workers are badly losing.

Add to the picture that this week marked the fifth time the Harper government has subverted the collective bargaining process by legislating workers back to work. These repeated tactics constitute an obvious attempt to wound an already battered trade union movement. Seen together with forcing workers to accept lower wages, it’s part of a conscious Conservative strategy to undercut the wages and employment conditions of all workers.

And when we recall that the federal corporate tax rate is now just 15 per cent, down from 28 per cent a decade ago, while environmental protection for energy projects is being gutted, the larger pattern becomes clear.

Incrementally, perhaps, but steadily and consistently, Stephen Harper is delivering on the age-old business dream of a Corporate Utopia — a trifecta of minimal government regulation, weak trade unions and paltry taxes on business and the rich.

And the next election is not for three more years.

This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.


Gerry Caplan

Gerald Caplan has an MA in Canadian history and a Ph.D. in African history from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He is an author, teacher, media commentator,...