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Many high-profile campaigns targeting Harper's record launched just before the writ dropped on August 2.
One of the highest profile national campaigns was from the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC). PSAC represents 170,000 government workers across Canada. PSAC members will be most directly affected by the outcome of the election; the stakes for them are high and personal.
Their campaign: "Harper's Conservatives are bleeding our public services. Vote to stop the cuts" featured a red maple leaf with its colour dripping from the bottom right hand corner of the image.
The ad was plastered across buses, billboards, newspaper pages and websites across Canada. Every third bus that passed my window, for example, featured one of these ads.
Not everyone is a fan of the imagery. While the image of a bleeding maple leaf is obviously rhetorical (leaves can't bleed, they might not even feel pain at all), some of the writers at the Toronto Sun have reacted to the campaign as if PSAC has set the Canadian Flag on fire while dancing.
In op-eds that were published four days apart but make the same point, Lorrie Goldstein and Ryan Doyle admonish PSAC for desecrating their beloved leaf.
In "Don't bleed for PSAC," Goldstein argues that the public service is doing just fine. He takes aim at the workers themselves, citing a survey from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) that says public servants have salaries that are higher, on average, than their private sector counterparts and that they should therefore be quiet.
The CFIB did not adjust for rates of unionization. It is unsurprising for wages to be higher in the public sector because it is much more likely for public sector workers to be unionized.
But Goldstein doesn't circle back to the argument advanced by PSAC in their campaign. Instead, he continues to attack public sector workers in general: "A recent Fraser Institute study estimated public servants in Canada (all levels of government) retire 1.4 years earlier, are absent from work 3.2 more days annually, and suffer job losses at one-fifth the rate of the private sector." He argues that freezes to program spending aren't cuts and then throws in a few lines about Bob Rae's record as NDP Premier in Ontario.
Unlike Goldstein, Doyle does attempt to take on the PSAC argument that public services are being cut. In "Don't desecrate our precious Maple Leaf to make political hay" he also references the Fraser Institute: "A recent Fraser Institute Study, which tracked employment trends from 2003-13, found Canada's public sector grew 22.6 per cent during that time, more than double the increase in private sector jobs."
He waxes nostalgic about the faces of immigrants as they pledge their lives to the flag, and ends with this: "Perhaps PSAC should speak to those who have spilled real blood for our nation, before making our Maple Leaf a casualty in its imaginary war."
Doyle's burn is awkward. PSAC has been the loudest organization to support veterans in the past few years. As one Global News headline described it, Harper's veterans' strategy is: "Less money for veterans, more money to remember them."
PSAC has spoken to veterans: one of their most visible campaigns includes broadcasting the voices of veterans and what they think about Harper's cuts to Veterans' Affairs.
Rob Cutbush, 50, served in the Royal Canadian Navy for 25 years. In one PSAC video, he explains how closing Veterans' Affairs offices will impact him: "The person I used to talk to in Thunder Bay is no longer there, the office is no longer there. It raises my blood pressure, my anxiety. And what they want to do is delay, deny, and hope you die."
What the Sun columnists miss is that PSAC campaign doesn't just fight for the jobs of their members. It targets public services more generally.
Harper's Conservatives have fundamentally altered the civil service. RCMP, correctional services and IT have all grown. Library and Archives Canada, Canadian Heritage, Natural Resources and the Privy Council have all faced cuts. According to the Parliamentary Budget Officer, 34,000 people were added to the public payroll from 2006 to 2012, but Harper proposed cutting 19,000 positions in their 2012 budget.
Amid the fluctuations, agencies have been steadily cut: Canada Border Services Agency was cut by $143 million in 2012. That same budget sought to cut $5.2 billion from the civil service. Canada Revenue Agency has been cut. And, many of these cuts will close regional service offices, eliminating good jobs in regions that depend on them.
CCPA estimates that the federal government cut $14.5 billion annually to get closer to balancing the books. The biggest envelopes of money were cut through social service programs like EI, CPP and increasing the retirement age to 67.
Now that the election period has started, the PSAC campaign might fall under Elections Canada's third-party rules. Maple leaf or not, they're clearly fighting a rhetorical battle and PSAC president Robyn Benson thinks that the attacks from Goldstein and Doyle are an indication that they're winning.
Photo: flickr/ marke1996
Nora Loreto is a writer, musician and activist based in Québec City. She is the author of From Demonized to Organized, Building the New Union Movement and is the editor of the rabble.ca series Up! Canadian Labour Rising. Nora is on leave as an editor with the Canadian Association of Labour Media while she takes care of infant twins. Read her rabble blog here.
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