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One of the big risks of electoral systems like ours is that a minority of the population will vote in a government who undertakes a radical transformation of traditional institutions. Harper, who recieved votes from less than 1/5 people in this country, is a prime example of these fears. During his time in office he’s transformed Canada along lines we used to associate with places like Texas, much to the dismay of most Canadians. These changes, senseless as they might seem, follow an ideological agenda reflecting both the desires of his ‘sponsors’ and a strongly-held personal belief that capitalism can solve all problems.
In the latest Federal budget, two glaring examples stand out and have gotten a fair bit of attention. The first is the demise of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), which had formerly been responsible for international aid. The second is to tie aid to young First Nations people on reserves to “job training” and similar initiatives. Both are obviously odious for plenty of reasons, but what I find most galling is the willingness to use the plight most vulnerable as an easy venue for this agenda, and to tie it in so deeply with questions of basic survival.
Capitalism, both in theory and practice, has always relied on the most destitute. On paper, they provide a constant demand for more growth and progress. In practice, they supply a cheap, flexible and massive workforce without which the system couldn’t function. While in past times this meant local slums, today entire countries and regions have been transformed into Dickensian landscapes. The spectre of Third World poverty has been used many times by the likes of Monsanto and the World Bank to promote their products and policies, though not to much (positive) effect. Instead, through “trade-based” policies, these areas have become the site of 21st century plantations and sweatshops. Canada’s role in this process is well-acknowledged, we’re the mining powerhouse so often cited for questionable mining claims and human rights abuses.
The demise of CIDA and incorporation of aid programs into the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) will accelerate the process I warned about last December when Harper started cutting the agency and talking of using aid to promote foreign investment. The Canadian press has taken a remarkably friendly view of this move (Star, Globe, Macleans), but the UK’s Guardian takes a much harsher tone,
Cida has pulled back from Africa and increased its programmes in Latin America, where Canada’s mining industry is especially active. As China is synonymous with global industry, so Canada is synonymous with global mining – although its activities in the sector embrace more than 100 countries. About 75% of the world’s exploration and mining companies are headquartered in Canada, partly because the country acts as a major banker for the extractive industry, but partly also due to weak corporate governance and enforcement.
Moves like this set a frightening precedent. Turning aid workers into the official missionaries of foreign investment poses a very serious challenge to their perceived neutrality. Conflicts over Canadian mining operations often get violent, and we don’t need to give foreign rebel groups any more reason to shoot at aid workers.
For the “Fourth World”, Canada’s internal colonies, Harper is pursuing a very similar policy. He’s making available $241 million in job training to reserves, but only on the condition that welfare support for young people on those reserves is tied to participation in those programs. The training in question will prepare native youth for the booming “resource development” industry in the North. First Nations youth are of course the country’s fastest-growing demographic and suffer horrible rates of poverty. This policy aims to use that desperation.
For those familiar with on-reserve politics, there’s other clear motives at work in this scheme, as well as a sick, assimilationist logic.. Many bands are bitterly divided over questions of resource development – deeply opposed but also dependent on projects for jobs and payments. These mirror deeper questions about the future of traditional ways of life, local autonomy and governance, as well as how to recover from centuries of colonization. Harper, obviously, would love to see one side of these arguments prevail, as the other has been one of the largest national thorns in his side. Those willing to oppose pipelines and logging with direct action, such as the Unist’ot’en blockade in BC, have threatened billions in infrastructure and investment, and given the national successes of Idle No More actions, stand to pose a much larger threat in the months to come.
There will, of course, be many, both here and overseas, who cannot manage the rigours of working resource extraction. There will also be many communities who just aren’t conveniently located near oil or precious metals. They’ll simply be left out. Others will see first-hand what these kinds of projects do to communities and ecology. The benefits, of course, will flow back toward Toronto and Vancouver, as that’s the point of investment. After all, this isn’t (really) charity.
The problem with any charity, especially of the welfare-state variety, is that it rarely does much to resolve the underlying problems. It relies on, maintains, and all-too-often exploits the inequalities and power relations it claims to help, usually in the name of religion, donations or social control. This kind of lifeline provides power over the recipients, and the temptation to abuse it can be overwhelming. As they say, charity is no substitute for justice denied – if we truly want to help, then we shouldn’t be setting terms.
As for Harper’s sick take on Reaganomics, I really doubt it’ll ‘raise all boats’ any more than his other many tide-raising policies. “Primary” (extractive) industries are notorious for not providing the kind of poverty alleviation they promise – the most successful economies have always been those who focus, as well, on processing those materials (“secondary” and “tertiary” industries). Exporting raw ore, bitumen or logs does little, even by capitalist standards, without the associated milling and refining jobs. Instead they engender an atmosphere of corruption and petty despotism among local officials, and often leave regions in ruin once the ‘mines run dry’. This shift in policy is dangerous, as is the self-serving ideology behind it. No matter what people tell you, subsidizing large, rich coporations rarely, if ever, does much for the poor.
Right now Parliament is engaged in a “marathon” of votes over the Conservatives’ budget omnibus bill. The dreaded legislation is far more than a budget, it amends 70 different laws with a whole host of changes such as gutting environmental assessments and restricting access to Employment Insurance. Because it’s also a budget bill, MPs can’t vote it down without triggering another election, a very unpopular move, and therefore very unlikely. The process will also be rushed, as the Conservatives limited debate on the bill, the 26th time they’ve done this now, breaking the previous Liberal government’s record. Liberals are also largely supportive of the bill, but New Democrats and sole Green member Elizabeth May are doing what they can to fight it.
Numerous protests have begun to break out across the country at Conservative constituency offices. Over 70 of them have been organized through the leadnow.ca network, which first became known for organizing “vote mobs” in 2011. This comes after a year in which dozens of constituency offices have been occupied so far by students, retires, unions and activists. There’s also been web campaigns, like one in which participating websites blacked out their backgrounds at once. Harper personally faced protests Monday in Montreal when he spoke at the International Economic Forum of the Americas, surrounded by bus-loads of riot police confronted by nothing more than peaceful hecklers. Today’s speech at the Forum by Alan Greenspan is also expected to be targeted by Montreal’s protesters.
Speaking to the elites of the financial world last Monday, Harper announced that we need not have to choose between austerity and prosperity. We can have both, he claimed, with the “Canadian model“. These remarks are a little perplexing – does he mean that we’re going to impose austerity measures even in times of prosperity? Or is he trying to salvage the now thoroughly discredited notion that prosperity comes from austerity measures? (Like they did in Greece and Spain?) He also stated his support for the Spanish bank bailout, though he still takes a German-style hard line on any Canadian support for the faltering Eurozone. Whatever he means by all of this nonsense, there’s nothing clearly “Canadian” about it. His opinions might as well have been written by one of Angela Merkel’s staffers. The only thing substantially different about Canada is that we’re sittting on more natural resources than any other, save possibly Russia or Brazi. Harper’s plan for “prosperity”, ruthless exploitation of the Tar Sands, is a clear winner with this budget, which limits projects to a single assessment instead of the years of environmental assessments they now legally require. What else did we expect from Calgary-Centre’s MP?
On the local front, ADFA MP David Sweet’s constituency office saw a march of fifty people from downtown Dundas last Friday, joined by another 25 when they reached the strip mall housing his office, met by police, the property’s owner and a large “no tresspassing” sign. This followed a rally the previous Friday organized by leadnow.ca also outside Sweet’s office. They’re planning another action there this afternoon at 5:30, as well as a press conference at the old Dundas City Hall this Saturday to discuss further opposition. Also, another Casserole demonstration is planned for tonight, gathering at 8:00 in Gore Park.
It’s budget time, and conflicts over “austerity” are continuing to rage across the western world. Canada’s budgets are out, Spain held a general strike Thursday and the situation in Italy and Portugal is continuing to worsen.
Greece and Italy
News from Europe just keeps getting more disturbing. Italy has now seen two men set themselves on fire to protest economic conditions. One did it outside a tax office, another outside the town hall over thousands in unpaid wages. Greece is taking an even scarier turn as the (unelected) government move on with plans to open 30 widely opposed “detention camps” for illegal immigrants, who they’re now attempting to scapegoat for their economic woes. This follows similar measures and proposals aimed at the Roma (“Gypsies”) in Italy and France.
These two nations are furthest along in “austerity” plans (especially Greece). They’ve both had their heads-of-state (Berlusconi and Papandreau) replaced by “technocrats”. Their economies are growing so toxic they threaten the EU itself, and austerity programs so have only worsened debt burdens by wrecking their economies. They’ve both seen enormous, riotous social unrest. Watching this from the relative security of a nation like Canada, it’s time to ask ourselves: is this is really the path we want to embark down?
Spain and Portugal
Spain yesterday saw a general strike grip the country, where (of course) some clashed with police setting tires and trash cans alight as barricades in the street. Yesterday, Spain announced their “austerity budget“, hoping to satisfy European Union creditors. It contains 27 billion in cuts, some of the worst cuts seen since the end of Franco’s dictatorship. Spanish unions and protest groups are pledging to keep fighting. Neighbouring Portugal held a similar general strike last week, and business analysts are again beginning to fear that either of the above (or Italy) may become “the next Greece”. EU Ministers met today to discuss raising the “firewall” bailout fund closer to a trillion dollars, fearing another debt-crisis and bailouts which could cripple the European banking system.
Thursday, Federal Minister of Finance Flaherty announced his “austerity” budget, as expected. During the speech a group of protesters raised a ruckus in the gallery and had to be “escorted out”. The day before, McGuinty released his, and the reality of the proposed cuts is beginning to sink in. Federally, over $5 billion in cuts have been announced, expected to directly result in about 19 000 public jobs lost over the next few years, raised eligibility ages for retirement benefits and gutted environmental oversight. The subject of new taxes was avoided, with the Conservatives hoping further investments in large resource-extraction projects like the Tar Sands and related pipelines will bring in more revenue. It’s being called the “least green budget in decades“, inflaming Environmental and First-Nations groups.
In Ontario, the main cost-cutting measure is a two-year public-sector wage freeze along with cuts to pensions. Over the next three years, cuts worth $17.7 billion are planned, with a third of it coming from wages. These measures follow a somewhat watered-down model provided by the Drummond Report, released earlier this year warning of dire financial consequences if Ontario didn’t deal with our deficits.
Canada isn’t Greece, Spain or Italy – we very clearly aren’t in the midst of a “debt crisis”. We aren’t even “sorta” grappling with one like France, Britain or America. We have the lowest debt-GDP ratio in the G7, our own currency and some of the world’s largest stocks of natural resources. Our economy was largely shielded from the shocks of the last five years for these reasons, and we needed a far smaller “bailout”. Our social programs aren’t all that lavish by European standards, and our economy is in far better shape. To say that Canada “needs” an austerity program is absolutely ludicrous, but that’s never stopped our politicians before.
The rapid spread of austerity programs, beyond borders and regardless of party in power, shows how widespread these problems really are. As much as I’d like to place the blame on Harper or McGuinty, they are only a few in the long list of politicians participating. Our new global economy has generated a global crisis, and it’s going to take a global movement to fight back.
Wages, pensions, social programs and other benefits have always been a battleground. They’re a part of the bargain we drive in exchange for our work and compliance with laws. Most of these rights and benefits were only gained at the end of long and hard-fought struggles. This bargaining session never ends – there’s always a mediation between us and those in power (bosses, the government, etc). There will always be efforts to peel back these gains and pay us less in one way or another. When this happens, people fight back. This is the subject of a very interesting paper now making the rounds online, Austerity and Anarchy: Budget Cuts and Social Unrest in Europe, 1919-2009 by Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans-Joachim Voth of the CEPR. From the ninety years they studied, they found “a clear positive correlation between fiscal retrenchment and instability”. These results were tested against all the usual explanations – recessions, democratic/autocratic governments and the amount of media coverage, among other variables, and none showed much effect (with the possible exception of limiting the powers of government’s executive branch…). The lesson here? If you begin to pay people less for their obedience, be prepared to expect less of it.
This fight is already underway. Big days to watch for include April 21st (Toronto), May 5th (Ottawa) and of course Mayday, May 1st (everywhere). There are already big conflicts underway in Quebec (students) and British Columbia (teachers, northerners), as well as many cities like Toronto and Halifax. With these budgets now on the table, Canada’s entry into this international conflict is now official. Austerity is everywhere and the effects are only beginning to be felt, but so is the backlash.
It sure is going to be an interesting spring.