Don't listen to Stephen Harper. Now is the worst time for austerity.

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Stephen Harper at a press conference in 2010. Image: Number 10/Flickr

A few weeks ago, former prime minister Stephen Harper briefly re-emerged into the public limelight after penning a column in the Wall Street Journal.

After his defeat by Justin Trudeau in the 2015 federal election, Harper has largely stayed silent. Since his retirement, he has only surfaced a handful of times, usually to advocate fiscal conservatism in Canada or abroad, and almost always in American media outlets.

His new column was much the same.

In predictable fashion, Harper derides "leftists" for their promotion of government intervention in the wake of COVID-19. According to the former PM, the rash of new spending initiatives has been "economically ruinous."

Not only this, but Harper makes the claim that governments which "resist restoring free enterprise and fiscal responsibility will experience recession and stagnation."

Instead, Harper praises the need for austerity, and claims that the future "will require more market activity and a bigger private sector, not more intervention and bigger government."

None of this should come as much of a surprise.

As a disciple of both Thatcher and Reagan, Harper worshipped at the altar of austerity. During his nine years in office, from 2006 to 2015, Harper was only too happy to execute policies affiliated with the neoliberal agenda. This included the pursuit of privatization and deregulation, as well as the negotiation and ratification of corporate-friendly free trade agreements. Furthermore, under Harper's watch, the size and influence of the federal government was reduced through yet another round of tax cuts.

Still, it is quite a bold statement, even for a fiscal hawk like Harper, to claim the current government's intervention against the COVID pandemic has been "ruinous."

Has Harper not stopped to ponder how devastating the situation would be without this financial support in place?

Has he not considered how millions of Canadians would suddenly find themselves in even more dire straits than they already are; struggling to pay their rent and unable to afford even just the most rudimentary goods?

Now that would really be ruinous. Not some escalation of debt, no matter how significant the increase.

Fortunately, Harper's opinion is offside with many economists, as well as most Canadians.

And how could it not be? Today, more than ever, is the right moment for governments to be intervening in the economy.

After all, interest rates are at record lows, allowing for governments to borrow at more affordable rates than ever before. Furthermore, prioritizing austerity during such a crisis, as Harper appears to be advocating, runs the risk of triggering another recession, as well as even more damaging economic consequences for everyday Canadians -- Canadians, who, by the millions, have been laid off or seen their income dry up because of the pandemic.

To them, the many emergency measures introduced by government, including extended employment insurance and wage subsidies, are all incredibly necessary during this time.

No wonder the federal government's approval has shot up, with the public by and large in favor of this new intervention.

Alas, neoliberal ideology is so entrenched within Harper that he cannot understand this.

He is simply so wound up in his unquestioning belief in the superiority of markets, and the inferiority of government intervention, that he fails to understand that austerity and trickle-down economics has already laid havoc upon ordinary citizens, long before COVID-19 struck.

Consider some statistics on poverty and income inequality in Canada.

According to one national report, released at the beginning of this year, as many as one in five Canadian children struggle in poverty on any given day, despite this country's relative wealth.

Nor has Canada's elusive middle-class fared too well. The majority of this country's population has only seen their wages stagnate over the past 40 years.

So where has all the money gone?

The answer, of course, has been to the very wealthiest in society.

Decades of limited intervention has led to extreme levels of income inequality not seen in a century. Just last year, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that the richest 87 families own as much wealth as the poorest 12 million Canadians.

So, do not let Harper and the other deficit pearl-clutchers mislead you.

Government debt is not the bogeyman neoliberals make it out to be. Austerity and reductions in government intervention are the real villains of the story.

Wyatt James Schierman is a freelance writer from Alberta and a columnist with Loonie Politics. His writing has also appeared in CBC Opinion, the Toronto Star, the Ottawa Citizen, the Calgary Herald, the Hill Times and Huffington Post Canada. When he is not writing, he is traveling abroad as an election observer. 

Image: Number 10/Flickr​

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