Canadians ‘Ripped Off’ by Drug Companies? No Kidding

One way of looking at the current election is to see it as a massive civic literacy test, not just for those who actually intend to vote but for those who mistake cynicism for sophistication and stay glued to their iPads instead. As David Akin of the Toronto Sun once said, “Bad governments are elected by good folks who don’t vote.” While every election can be seen in this light, the level of deception and manipulation characterizing the Harper government demands that we be especially vigilant.

A case in point was a recent statement by federal Conservative Health Minister Rona Ambrose that captured the party’s use of populism to bamboozle voters. Ambrose declared: “I believe that when it comes to the cost of prescription drugs, Canadians are being ripped off.” Taken at face value, you would be forgiven if you thought the Libertarian Party of Canada had done a 180 degree turn and was testing the waters for a promise on pharmacare.

Well, no. Ambrose’s declaration was one more instance of gross hypocrisy on the part of a government that treats hypocrisy as a governing principle. What actually agitated Ambrose was how much it cost the federal government to provide drugs to First Nations, veterans and soldiers, and prison inmates. She was hoping for inclusion in the provinces’ Pan-Canadian Pharmaceutical Alliance aimed at securing cheaper prescription drugs through bulk buying.

But everything this government does reveals it couldn’t care less about whether or not “Canadians” are being ripped off. First up is the corporate rights agreement still being negotiated with the European Union. The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), according to a study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), will not only increase drug costs to individual Canadians by between $850 million and $1.645 billion (an increase of between seven and 13 per cent) annually, it will give giant pharmaceutical companies even more power to delay the entry of cheaper generic drugs onto the market. It will add two years to the patent protection period and lock in these new rules, making it virtually impossible for future governments to reverse the change, and give the companies access to a new appeal process, further delaying generics.

CETA is not the only agreement the drug companies are pushing with all their might. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — which thankfully seems to be on life-support after failed negotiations in Hawaii — would give even more powers to drug companies. Thanks to Wikileaks, we have some information on this otherwise super-secret process. According to Dr. Roslyn Fuller of Global Research, “some of the TPP provisions may facilitate a tactic known as ‘evergreening’ in which companies procure patent extensions on the basis of minor changes to the patented formula (e.g. exchanging one inactive ingredient for another, or coming up with a secondary use for the medication), and in limiting the criteria a product must fulfill in order to be eligible for a patent.” The draft TPP is pushing for “a radical increase in the duration of patent protection for vaccines and some forms of cancer treatment.”

While some countries have pushed back on the efforts to give more power and profits to the drug companies, Canada has said nothing, and by its silence automatically comes down on the side of Big Pharma in the TPP negotiations.

Ambrose’s faux outrage is revealed by the fact that the Harper government (and Liberal governments’ preceding it) have followed policies that have made Canadian drug costs the second highest in the world, outdone only by the U.S. The drug companies have been ripping off Canadians for two decades, but they couldn’t have done it without the active collusion of federal governments.

Federal governments have tried to justify coddling these super-profitable transnationals by extracting promises from them regarding research and development in Canada. In 1987, just before they received patent protection in the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, the drug companies committed to invest 10 per cent of their sales revenues into research and development. But according to the CCPA study, “Since 2003, Canadian brand-name manufacturers have consistently failed to meet [these] pledges…According to the latest data, in 2012 the R&D-to-sales ratio fell to 6.6.” Federal governments have made no effort to hold them to account.

Does Ambrose know that signing the TPP and CETA will make it far worse for government drug purchase? Of course she does — her throw-away populist line was just that. If it wasn’t, rather than seeking to join the provinces in purchasing cheaper drugs Ambrose would support national pharmacare. But that is never going to happen. Eric Hoskins, Ontario’s Minister of Health, invited the feds to a national round table on pharmacare — and the Harperium said no.

In addition, Harper’s newest Supreme Court appointee, Albertan Russell Brown, has made it clear that he thinks the federal government should not be involved in health care at all. He attacked the Canada Health Act in his personal blog as an intrusion into provincial jurisdiction and was “delighted” by a 2005 Supreme Court decision that opened the door to private health coverage in Quebec, saying it struck “at the heart of exclusive state-provided health care.”

The Harper government is more at odds with Canadians over public health care than it is on any other issue. And pharmacare demonstrates this in spades. According to an Angus Reid poll in July, 91 per cent of Canadians support a national pharmacare program. Forum Research conducted a poll in June asking voters which issues would actually persuade them to alter their voting intentions. Tied for first place with increasing Canada Pension Plan benefits and reducing the eligibility age for Old Age Security back to 65 from 67, was the establishment of a national pharmacare plan, “with 42 per cent of voters very likely to alter their voting intention for a party that promised to create such a plan.”

So why are none of the opposition parties listening?

Harper Is Right: This Election Is about Security Versus Risk

Stephen Harper chose the Calgary Stampede (now Rachel Notley country) to launch the theme of the now full-blown election campaign. Harper proclaimed he was confident that “this October Canadians will choose security over risk.” Let’s hope so. The question is, of course, what kind of security and risk are we talking about? Political language is never simple or straightforward. It is subject to sophisticated manipulation by professional word-smiths and public relations experts. The choice of what language to use is subject to hundreds of hours of deliberation and enormous resources, because if you get it right, you usually win. If you get it wrong, well, it’s a lot harder. Getting it right means no one even suspects you of manipulating them.

Experts in the art of issue framing will tell you that those who frame an issue first have a huge advantage, because they force their opponents to reframe it — in other words get you to take the time to reconsider what the words actually mean. Maybe that is why neither the Liberals nor the NDP have taken the trouble to challenge Harper’s framing of the security issue as exclusively a foreign policy and military issue: security against terrorism.

That’s unfortunate, because not only is Harper vulnerable on his own limited anti-terror grounds, he is extremely vulnerable when it comes to the kind of security that actually affects millions of Canadians. When it comes to economic and social security, the vast majority of Canadians haven’t been this insecure since the Great Depression.

It’s not as if we don’t know the numbers — 60 per cent of Canadians just two weeks away from financial crisis if they lose their job; record high personal indebtedness; real wages virtually flat for the past 25 years; a terrible work-life balance situation for most working people (and getting worse); labour standard protections that now exist only on paper; the second highest percentage of low-paying jobs in the OECD; young people forced into working for nothing on phony apprenticeships; levels of economic (both income and wealth) inequality not seen since 1928. Throw in the diminishing “social wage” (Medicare, education, home care, child care, etc.) and the situation is truly grim.

Most of these insecurity statistics are rooted either directly or indirectly in 25 years of deliberate government policy designed by and for corporations. Governments have gradually jettisoned their responsibility for economic security, slowly but surely handing this critical feature of every Canadian’s life over to the “market” for determination. Economic policy has been surgically excised from government responsibility to citizens and is now in the singular category of “facilitating investment” — a euphemism for clearing the way for corporations to engage in whatever activity enhances their bottom line.

From corporate rights agreements (which constitutionalize corporate power) to the decades old “independence” of the Bank of Canada (independent of democracy); from irresponsibly low corporate income tax rates to punitively low social assistance; from Employment Insurance that only 30 per cent ever qualify for to taxes grossly skewed in favour of the wealthy and a Charter of Rights and Freedoms that has bestowed citizenship status on the most powerful and ruthless economic entities on the planet, Canadian governments have abandoned their citizens to the vagaries of an increasingly unregulated capitalism. This is not even a complete list, but it demonstrates just how corporate globalization and its promoters like Stephen Harper have created the greatest insecurity for Canadians virtually in living memory.

The brilliance of hiving economic security off from democratic governance is that it has been so gradual and systematic that we have all come to accept it as if it were ordained by nature. There are no angry anti-austerity marches here, and as a result there is no political party basing its platform on such a sentiment (the NDP seems desperate to mimic the Conservatives’ and Liberals’ dedication to balanced-budget idiocy). We have never been so fearful of our economic future, but we have been convinced that we (even those of us with full time, low-paying jobs headed for the food banks to make ends meet) are somehow to blame.

As for the kind of security Harper likes to talk about, we are in fact less secure now under the Conservatives’ policies than we have ever been. Harper’s foreign policy could easily make us targets for the very “jihadists” that he rails on about. His involvement in the destruction of Libya, his aggressive stance in Afghanistan, the carte blanche he provides Israel in its brutal oppression of Palestinians in Gaza and the illegal occupation of the West Bank, and his comically ineffective “engagement” in the war on ISIL all contribute to terrorists identifying Canada as a reasonable target for retribution.

If we actually had some smattering of national interests in the Middle East, it could be argued that the risk is worth it. But we don’t. The net result is not only increased national insecurity but the trampling of our rights to privacy and our civil liberties with Bill C-51 — legislation that does nothing to enhance our defence against terror but dramatically undermines our personal security as citizens.

The Harper Conservatives could still eke out a minority government in the October 19 election. If they do it unchallenged on their fraudulent promotion of enhanced security for Canadians, the NDP and Liberals will have no one to blame but themselves.

We are all (or should be) Greeks now

The temple of neoliberalism and its ideology of social suicide in the interests of the banks has been breached. The hysteria in European capitals (particularly Germany) after the resounding ‘No’ vote by the people of Greece is entirely appropriate. For decades now developed country governments and their enforcers, the IMF and the World Bank have managed to bamboozle people in country after country, convincing them that up is down and black is white — that austerity and recession are nirvana –pie in the sky by-and-by.

Until now.

The no vote — accomplished despite a hysterical campaign of fear by literally the entire Greek and EU media — is like a bright flash of light, however momentary, revealing the true nature of the conditions imposed by international finance and its political puppets in Western capitals. And who better to wield that bright light than Greece’s heretic economist and (now former) Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis. An accomplished economist and an even better propagandist he single-handedly reframed the Greek crisis from one of blaming lazy Greeks to blaming greedy EU banks.

Talk about great theatre: to contrast himself with the endless stream of men in suits from the euro-zone bureaucracy he gave a news conference the day of the vote wearing a T-shirt. He was rejected by his fellow finance ministers as a negotiator because he, unlike most of them, actually understood economics and was prone to ridiculing their constant repetition of neoliberal slogans.

The war between democracy and international finance, effectively suppressed for decades by complicit Western politicians and co-conspirators in the corporate media, is now out in the open for all to see. And what we see should have us declare that we are all Greeks now. Because we are all (except the 1 percent) suffering, to one degree or another, from this ideological lunacy of austerity in the midst of recession. The source of the madness is a radical cult of free market economists and trade lawyers who have occupied the temples of state power and captured the loyalty of elected representatives. They hold sway in Ottawa as well.

Canada is not suffering as much but the prescription applied by Harper and Paul Martin before him have the same roots: shrinking the social state through tax cuts for the rich and corporations, hobbling government powers through “trade” agreements, and systematically transferring wealth from the middle class to the wealthy. As in the EU Harper declares that any other set of policies is reckless. Last week in Calgary Harper declared that the October election was about security versus risk: “Friends,” he said, “We’ve come too far to take risks with reckless policies. That’s why I’m confident that this October Canadians will choose security over risk.”

Will Canadians in enough numbers actually call Harper’s bluff in October and demand, instead of his phony security against unlikely terrorist attacks, the economic security that Harper’s policies are destroying? We can how hope that will be the case as the reckless policy of balanced budgets in the midst of recession will savage the economy by October’s election day.

The Greek/EU stand-off should highlight the actual struggle behind the debt crisis. This is not primarily about numbers and assigning blame — it is about nation-building versus globalization, democracy versus austerity and general prosperity versus crushing inequality.

The visceral contempt for democracy has been revealed for all to see in the reaction of the right-wing governments and political commentators of the euro-zone. Martin Schulz, the president of the European parliament, effectively called for the overthrow of the Greek government. “In an outburst that was extraordinary coming from the most senior official in the EU parliament, he argued that the radical left Syriza government should be replaced by a technocratic administration.” The European elite’s attitude towards Greek’s ‘No’ vote was revealed even more succinctly in the headline of a Financial Times column: “Eurozone’s weakest link is the voters.”

The eurocrats claim loudly that their solutions have nothing to do with politics, that they are ideologically neutral. The technocrats say nothing is political when in fact for the people affected in Greece everything is political. By framing it as non-political they conveniently frame the decisions as beyond the democratic process — and suggest that the No vote was just political “interference.”

The Greek people understood perfectly how political their decision was — symbolized by the contrasting photos of the men in suits in Brussels and an elderly woman pensioner crying on the steps of a Greek bank. These European technocrats are really friendly fascists, trading jackboots for iPhones and econometric modelling for guns — casting the most important aspect of the democratic governance of nation states (how the economy distributes wealth and security) as beyond the influence of the people and positing corporatism, the state’s alliance with transnational corporations, in its place.

As Slovenian writer Slavoj Žižek says: “This passage from politics proper to neutral expert administration characterizes our entire political process: strategic decisions based on power are more and more masked as administrative regulations based on neutral expert knowledge, and they are more and more negotiated in secrecy and enforced without democratic consultation.”

The global significance of the Greek crisis is that it pulls the curtain from this hijacking of democratic decision-making — though the main stream media will do everything it can to pull it back as quickly as possible. The parallel in Canada to this political spectacle is the flurry of corporate rights agreements being signed by the Harper government — all of them negotiated in complete secret, with negotiating positions unavailable to elected MPs (and even cabinet ministers), and all of them transferring decision-making power from elected governments to corporations.

The latest agreement (so far unsigned) is the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) which will also target domestic regulations. Not only do we not know what is at stake, we will not even be able to see Canada’s negotiating stance for five years. To add insult to injury these agreements all demand “transparency” from governments — which, in the real world, means corporations have a legally binding right to have advance notice of any legislation that might effect them so that they can intervene — something no citizen or civil society group will ever get. Lastly, it is the “too big to fail” banks which actually dictate the terms of these agreements — just as they are trying to dictate the future of the Greek economy and democracy.

Part of what drives the eurocrats and their political mouth pieces to distraction is the simple fact that all of this is taking place in the public eye. Whatever the outcome, enjoy the “transparency” while you can.

Can You Trust Justin Trudeau?

Here we go again — the Red Book 3.0. Yet another build-up of Liberal election promises just like the ones we’ve seen before (though I admit the one about changing the voting system might be hard to dodge).

The most infamous, of course, was Jean Chretien’s, which he held high and waved at every opportunity in the 1993 election. Co-authored by Paul Martin, it promised the world as we would like it: strong communities, enhanced Medicare, equality, increased funding for education, an end to child poverty. You could almost hear the violins playing. But what turned out to be the most remarkable thing about the book of promises was the record number that were ultimately broken: all of them.

The only time you can trust the federal Liberal Party is when they don’t have a majority — and even with a minority government they have to dragged kicking and screaming to do anything that does not please Bay Street. This fact needs to be repeated over and over again in the next few months leading up to the election as political amnesia is a dangerous condition to take with you into the voting booth.

It’s been 10 years since we had a Liberal government and even longer since we had a majority Liberal regime. A trip down memory lane might serve as a curative.

The effect of amnesia as it relates to the Chretien regime (actually the Martin regime) leaves most Canadians recalling Martin as the deficit dragon-slayer, saving us from our profligate, self-indulgent, entitlement culture and getting us back on the road to solvency. A few will actually recall that Martin chopped 40 per cent off the federal contribution to social programs — but even that memory is diluted by another one: the legendary “debt wall” built exclusively of hyperbole and hysteria over the three years preceding the 1993 election.

But few today would credit the fact, documented in my book Paul Martin: CEO for Canada?, that the 1990s under Martin’s guidance was the worst decade of the century (except for the 1930s) in terms of growth, productivity, productive investment, employment and standard of living.

Unemployment was higher during almost all of Martin’s reign than it was as a result of the 2008 financial crisis.

But what is worse, this so-called liberal actually made it happen. It was a deliberate strategy, fancied up in policy terms as a commitment to “labour flexibility.” The social and economic carnage and the increased personal misery (an additional 300,000 unemployed) was staggering.

Yet because it was all couched in double-speak, Martin and the Liberals were never held to account. The finance ministry’s senior officials convinced Martin that the principal cause of unemployment was not low demand but unmotivated workers. The solution — make them more “flexible.” The best way to do that was to ensure that unemployment remained high. The finance department’s operating policy assumption (radical compared to the U.S. and other G7 nations) was that the “natural” level of unemployment was eight per cent — much higher than the five to six per cent that conventional theory suggested. But the spin never mentioned this number. It was always about keeping inflation below two per cent, extremely low given the country was barely out of a recession. The Bank of Canada worked closely with the government, increasing interest rates whenever unemployment went below about nine per cent.

The cost to the economy was brutal. The federal Human Resources Development Department calculated that Martin’s excessive unemployment cost the country’s GDP $77 billion just in 1993. Pierre Fortin, a distinguished economist at the Université du Québec à Montréal, calculated the radical policy cost the economy $400 billion between by 1996. A Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) study calculated the total loss to all levels of government in foregone revenue and increased social security costs at $47 billion.

Martin pounded labour in other ways. He slashed UI eligibility and eliminated the federal government’s role in maintaining decent social assistance rates.

At the same time, he was making the largest cuts to federal spending in the country’s history — including a massive 40 per cent cut to Medicare, education and social assistance.

Throughout this period the Liberal a government and its cheerleaders in the media framed the exercise as “deficit fighting.” But according to then CAW economist Jim Stanford, had Martin simply frozen federal spending and allowed unemployment to drop to six per cent, the deficit would have disappeared just one year later than it did. Martin knew all of this but two years after launching his “labour flexibility” program he proudly revealed his actual goal in his 1995 budget speech to Parliament, announcing the massive cuts. He never mentioned the word deficit — because that was not his target.

All those cuts by Martin were intended, in his words, to “redesign the very role and structure of government itself. [A]s far as we are concerned, it is [the] redefinition of government itself that is the main achievement of this budget. This budget overhauls not only how government works but what government does.”

Martin’s biggest boast? “Relative to the size of our economy, program spending will be lower in 1996-97 than at any time since 1951.”

To guarantee his handiwork would not be challenged by any future government, Martin, in 2000, introduced the country’s largest ever tax cuts: $100 billion over five years with the vast majority of the total going to high income individuals and corporations.

Why is Paul Martin’s appalling record relevant today? Because Liberal and Conservative politicians with rare exceptions (like Stephen Harper) are largely at the mercy of their bureaucracies and the agenda of the economic elite at the moment. In Martin’s case he was easily manipulated by his deputy minister David Dodge, in spite of the fact that Martin had a reputation for being supportive of activist government. His first, 1993, budget actually increased spending.

One of the Liberals’ main election planks in the 1993 election was job creation. Supporting this goal was Martin’s junior finance minister Doug Peters — an exceptional economist with excellent standing on Bay Street having worked for the TD bank as its senior economist for many years before jumping into politics. But in the end Martin, a long-time corporate CEO, could not have made any other choice. Dodge just made it easy for him. Martin was a Liberal finance minister at a time of unprecedented corporate power and its merger with the state. His role was assigned to him before he even got there. (Dodge actually lobbied Chretien to appoint him.)

Liberal politicians, with few exceptions, are captive to their neoliberal advisors, bureaucratic apparatchiks and senior corporate power brokers as soon as they actually get into power. This political capture is a likely prediction for Justin Trudeau if he ever becomes prime minister. Martin was not a blank slate — he was sophisticated, self-confident, with strong personality and a well developed liberal vision. He lasted a year.

Justin Trudeau, the man/boy, seems to have never had an original idea in his life nor any discernible vision of the country that drives his politics.  No matter how long he is on the scene as a potential PM I cannot get past reacting to him as if he is an MC at a high school prom.

He is all artifice. More than any Liberal party leader in the past 35 years Trudeau is an empty vessel with little choice but to be filled up by his party’s corporate brain trust.

Bay Street desperately wants back into the game and the Liberals are their only option. While they have been given lots of goodies by Harper, they have been cut off from their historic role as the principal source of federal policy making. (Harper doesn’t care what they think.) In addition, the federal bureaucracy has been made to reflect the ideology of pro-business “efficiency” to such an extent over the past 20 years a genuine small-l liberal would have to replace most members to get any advice contrary to the status-quo.

Justin doesn’t have a chance. The promises he makes will not be his to keep.

Medicare and the retirement conundrum

There’s been lots of attention paid recently to the Canada Pension Plan and how to extend it, and news stories and commentary about how adequate or otherwise Canadians’ retirement situation will be. The sunshine boys over at the C.D. Howe Institute (a.k.a. the Isn’t Capitalism Wonderful Institute, or ICWI) reassure us that everything is fine and we should just ignore all the warnings. The author of one ICWI study observes: “Canadians frequently read that they borrow too much, spend too much, save too little, retire too early and live too long.”

Well, yes, they are told that because it is regrettably true. Personal debt levels are at a record high of 163 per cent of after-tax yearly income, savings rates are a small fraction of what they were in the 1970s and ’80s, and low interest rates (trying to goose a system that has now adjusted to goosing) has given them license to borrow madly off in all directions. According to a 2014 BMO Rainy Day report, “Three in 10 Canadians are living paycheque to paycheque or spending more than they earn… Forty-seven per cent of Canadians said they have enough to cover three months or less… One in five — 19 per cent — have less than $1,000.” The 2014 survey of employees by the Canadian Payroll Association (CPA) “shows more people are overwhelmed by their debt, are saving less and would face real hardship if their paycheque was delayed by a single week… Just over half, or 51 per cent, of the 3,211 employees surveyed by the CPA said it would be tough to make ends meet if their paycheque was delayed by one week.”

Between 1980 and 2005, the actual dollar (after inflation) increase in annual income in Canada was $52 — that’s right, just $2 a year. But I guess you could save that.

Enough about the brutal facts that everyone except the folks at the ICWI know about. Whatever is done with the CPP — however much wages may or may not increase and however we deal with the 17 per cent of mortgage holders who will be under water if interest rates go up two per cent — there is another elephant in the room. It’s called Medicare — or, if you’ve been paying attention, the threat to Medicare.

When actuaries and economists work out their retirement numbers, they do so with a bunch of working assumptions. But if the plan for Medicare designed by our prime minister is actually carried out (and the numerous other threats materialize), there is one very large assumption that will be patently false. Medicare allows everyone, including the one per cent, to lop off a big chunk from their retirement needs. In the U.S., private health insurance costs the average American family $15,000 a year — and even that covers only a portion of costs.

A U.S. study, “Get Sick, Get Out: The Medical Causes of Home Mortgage Foreclosures,” shows just how devastating sickness can be without public healthcare. “Half of all respondents (49 per cent) indicated that their foreclosure was caused in part by a medical problem.” The study also examined the impact of medical disruptions — large, out-of-pocket health payments, loss of work due to medical issues, and those tapping into home equity to pay medical bills. Sixty-nine percent of respondents reported at least one of these factors.

Medicare isn’t dead yet, you say. But for Canadians looking to retire in 25 to 40 years, given the trends it well could be. Medicare is under attack on so many fronts, and it will take incredible determination on the part of those who will need it to ensure it’s there when they retire. Yet younger generations — who face the greatest threat of losing public health care — don’t seem to think about it that much. They should — and before the fall election.

The number of vultures circling the most lucrative public service plum in the firmaments is truly scary. They are driven by the fact that there is almost nowhere else to invest the hundreds of billions of idle cash sloshing around in corporate coffers. The obscenely profitable private system in the U.S. is a powerful motivator.

The big five vultures anticipating the joys of feeding off Medicare’s carcass include a B.C. medical privateer’s legal challenge, a major trade deal, the public-private partnerships fleecing health budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars in excess costs in virtually every province, a new domestic services treaty, and lastly, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s new, imposed health “accord” that will decrease federal contributions to the provinces by $36 billion over 10 years.

Dr. Brian Day’s challenge, based on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, is perhaps the most frightening, because if he wins it will effectively constitutionalize the right of health care corporations to compete with Medicare. Researcher Colleen Fuller’s CCPA study, “The Legal Assault on Universal Health Care,” details how “Day wants the B.C. Supreme Court to legalize extra-billing, user fees and private insurance, creating an American-style health care system here in Canada.” In the U.S., in 2004, “health care regulation cost up to $340 billion out of a total health expenditure of $1.7 trillion. In spite of such high expenditures, fraud costs the U.S. health system $75 billion annually.”

The flurry of corporate rights agreements being pursued by the Harper government are also a threat to the viability of Medicare. The Canada-EU deal, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, will immediately add at least $2 billion to drug costs in this country. The international Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) now being negotiated in secret threatens to apply the deregulatory imperative of investment agreements explicitly to services, including health care. As Public Services International has pointed out, TiSA “would restrict governments’ ability to regulate, purchase and provide services. This would essentially change the regulation of many public services from serving the public interest to serving the profit interests of private, foreign corporations.”

But by far the most dangerous threat to Medicare is our prime minister, who loathes Medicare more than any other aspect of Canadian governance and democracy. Harper actually quit politics in the late 1990s to become the head of the viciously right-wing National Citizens Coalition — an organization founded in the early 1970s explicitly to fight Medicare.

Until 2014, Medicare in Canada received federal funding through a 10-year, legally binding accord negotiated by the provinces and the federal government, providing them with a six per cent increase every year. But what is in place now is a 10-year funding formula imposed on the provinces with virtually no consultation. Its increase per year is just three per cent, which means a loss of $36 billion over the 10 years. It is classic Harper — make a structural change whose bite is worse and worse as years go by. The underfunding systematically pushes provinces to cut and privatize.

Harper has abandoned all federal oversight or guardianship. There are no strings attached to the money. And the equalization aspect of the former accord is also gone, meaning increasingly unequal health care across the country and an erosion of the principle of universality. Lastly, the current funding formula not only brings the funding contribution of Ottawa to a record low 19 per cent, but it is not legally binding. If Harper wins the election, he could unilaterally chop billions from Medicare any time he chooses.

Some 40 per cent of Canadians can’t be bothered to vote in federal elections, mistaking ill-informed cynicism for sophistication along the lines of “they’re all the same.” I wonder if they’ll remember that refrain 30 years from now when they have to remortgage their house to pay their medical bills.

“Free Trade” Deals Put Profits Over Public Interest

Opponents of so-called free trade deals have always struggled with the question of why these international treaties don’t generate more alarm and vocal opposition from Canadians. These treaties, after all, trump all other Canadian authority to make laws — provincial legislatures, Parliament, the courts and even the Constitution. If, instead of being bored by news of another ho-hum “trade deal,” Canadians were told that a panel of three international trade lawyers would be reviewing all new laws and determining, in secret, which ones passed muster by meeting with the approval of their giant corporate clients, would they react differently?

That is effectively what all of these corporate rights treaties establish: extra-judicial rulings whose objective is to protect the profits against laws passed in the public interest. The clauses that allow such suits are referred to as investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS). This is not hyperbole — that is the actual, stated objective of ISDS: if a new law affects the expected future profits of a foreign owned company, it can sue the federal government for damages. And the decision is made by a panel of trade lawyers whose bias is, naturally, in favour of facilitating corporate interests — because that is who they normally work for. They aren’t environmental lawyers or labour lawyers or human rights lawyers. They’re trade lawyers. Foxes judging the right of other foxes to kill chickens.

Twenty years after NAFTA — the first free trade agreement to include ISDS — came into effect there are many examples of laws duly passed by legislatures in the public interest that have been ruled in violation of NAFTA. Some are more egregious than others — but they all challenge and assign financial penalties against laws that one government or another thought were important enough to implement.

According to Scott Sinclair with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, “Canada has been the target of over 70 per cent of all NAFTA claims since 2005. Currently, Canada faces eight active claims… Foreign investors are seeking several billions in damages from the Canadian government. These include challenges to a ban on fracking by the Quebec provincial government…” Canada has never won a case against the U.S.

The rate of challenges is increasing and the rulings are actually getting worse. In 2007, the Nova Scotia and federal governments rejected a proposal to create a huge quarry in an environmentally sensitive area important to local communities. The company won before a NAFTA tribunal and is seeking damages of over $300 million. But the reasoning was even more outrageous than usual. The company successfully argued that an environmental review panel relied on “community core values,” which company lawyers argued was unacceptable. Adding insult to injury, the panel ruled on the basis that there was a “possibility” the review panel’s decision might have been overturned in federal court. Effectively, the company just did an end run around Canadian environmental laws and the Canadian judicial system by going straight to NAFTA.

And what did we get for all this pain? By the late 1990s Canada had lost hundreds of thousands highly paid industrial jobs due to NAFTA. The trade numbers look even worse today. In our largest export market — the three NAFTA countries — Canada has steadily lost ground to Mexico. According to data from Bloomberg:

“In 1997, the United States imported twice as many goods from Canada than Mexico — an $82 billion gap. For the month of February 2015, this gap has narrowed to just $781.5 million.”

If the medicine doesn’t work, increase the dose. That seems to be the position of the Harper government on these corporate rights agreements. He has signed one with South Korea, and another with China (FIPA), shoe-horned his way into another, the Trans Pacific Partnership (not yet signed) and is still waiting for the European Union to decide on yet another, Harper’s most ambitious — the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement or CETA. Harper also wants one with Japan but that country has apparently lost interest in continuing negotiations.

Trade and investment agreements were designed to be the quintessential globalization mechanism aimed at effectively erasing borders and making the nation state increasingly irrelevant — and impotent. But something happened to the globalization imperative in 2008. The economic meltdown suddenly challenged the notion that the only entity that could efficiently allocate capital (that is, make economic decisions for all of us) was the “market place” – a.k.a. global finance and its international institutions, the World Trade Organization (WTO), World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The crisis demonstrated decisively that globalization and its neoliberal ideology simply could not deliver the goods. But there was no one with power willing to declare that the emperor had no clothes. Globalization has failed spectacularly but its momentum carries it forward despite the fact that for capitalism to actually succeed (that is, to grow) it needs the check on financial power that the states can provide. The continued lack of accountability of global finance weakens nation states’ capacity to respond to economic fall-out.

There are signs that at least a few countries are trying to get some of their governing power back from transnational corporations. The deal that Harper has pinned so much of his economic reputation on, CETA, is in trouble. Germany and France were the first to express grave reservations about the investor state dispute settlement provisions. They have now been joined by Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands (where the Parliament passed a resolution condemning ISDS) and the new left-wing government of Greece. The Harper government has implied that without ISDS the deal is off. We can only hope: CETA would give enormous anti-regulatory power to the oil and gas industry, increase Canadian drug costs by $2 billion a year and make it almost impossible for local governments to give preference to local suppliers.

The Trans Pacific Partnership may also be in trouble. In order to pass in the U.S., it has to be given “fast track” status by both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Fast track means that the deal goes to an “up or down” vote — it is either passed or defeated exactly as negotiated. Without fast track it is subject to hundreds of amendments, which would almost certainly kill it. The senate has passed fast track. The upcoming House vote is too close to call.

There are cracks appearing, however tentative, in developed nations’ free market consensus with some returning to the use of state powers. But no country seems as determined as Canada to jettison the powers of government. Unlike Australia, for example, whose previous Labour government stated it will not sign any trade and investment agreements containing an ISDS clause, Canada stipulates it won’t sign one without it. Given its appalling record of losses and even worse future challenges under NAFTA it seems that weakening state power is precisely what the Harper government intends. Canada loses against the U.S. on NAFTA challenges in part, simply, because the U.S. is an empire and Canada is not. Demanding an ISDS clause with Europe invites even more challenges from states that are far more powerful and will be investing more in Canada than vice versa.

The same is true in spades with the deal Canada has already ratified with China — the Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA). This agreement breaks the mold by being even more lop-sided than other agreements in several respects — all of them making it more difficult for future governments to regulate investment by what will soon be the most powerful economy on the planet.

Unlike NAFTA, which can be exited with six-month notice, FIPA lasts for 31 years binding governments for the next seven elections. China will have an enormous advantage because the deal locks in existing restrictions and China’s “rules” are so arbitrary it will be extremely difficult for Canadian companies to navigate them or successfully challenge them.

As trade expert Gus Van Harten points out, given the size differential, FIPA is basically a capital-importing agreement as Canadian investment in China will be minimal. That means potentially dozens of huge Chinese state enterprises gaining access to the ISDS clause and challenging environmental regulation, First Nations rights and labour rights.

There are already many such investment protection agreements in place and there have been many dispute panel awards of over $100 million and two billion dollar-plus awards. These could make awards paid by Canada under NAFTA (approximately $190 million to date) look like stamp money.

Companies targeted with a hostile takeover often use a “poison pill” strategy to make their stock less attractive to the acquirer. What better poison pill for a right-wing libertarian prime minister than to tie the hands of future governments with a string of corporate rights agreements.

What to Do About Rogue State Israel? Boycott it

The CBC’s recent revelation that Conservative Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney has called for “zero tolerance” of criticism of Israel and that Canadian hate laws could be applied to those campaigning for BDS — Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions — against Israel is repugnant enough.

But the truly disturbing irony in this outrageous declaration is that the more fascistic and racist the Israeli government becomes, the more illegal settlements it builds, the more explicit its open contempt for world opinion and the more outrageous Netanyahu’s statements, the stronger is the support from the Harper government.

It raises the question: is there any action, including the actual expulsion of Palestinians from Israel and the Occupied Territories that Harper would not support?

The government now denies ever considering charging BDS activists with hate crimes. But there is no denying what Blaney said at the United Nations General Assembly in January, declaring that Canada is taking a  “… zero-tolerance approach to anti-Semitism and all forms of discrimination including in rhetoric towards Israel, and attempts to delegitimize Israel such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.”

Then-foreign affairs minister John Baird implied the same thing in the same month signing a memorandum of understanding with Israel promising to fight BDS — “the new face of anti-Semitism.”

When governments such as Canada’s and the U.S. provide carte blanche for virtually any action Israel undertakes, including the deliberate slaughter of civilians in Gaza, it simply signals to Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition allies that they have not yet crossed a Western democracies “red line.” This was confirmed this week in Netanyahu’s appointment of Ayelet Shaked, one of the most virulent racists in the Knesset, as justice minister (she has no law degree). It was an appointment that left most commentators open-mouthed — but in reality it was just more steps towards a red line no one is willing to draw. Another member of Shaked’s Jewish Home party was given the education portfolio giving the party enormous clout in running the West Bank.

On a July 2014 Facebook post Shaked called for the genocide of the Palestinian people: “What’s so horrifying about understanding that the entire Palestinian people is the enemy? … In wars the enemy is usually an entire people, including its elderly and its women, its cities and its villages, it’s property and its infrastructure.”

In the same post she declared war on Palestinian mothers: “They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there.” Under Article 3 of the UN’s Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, this kind of statement (“Direct and public incitement to commit genocide”) is listed as an act that is “punishable” under the Convention.

If she were a Canadian making these repulsive comments here she would presumably be arrested under Canada’s hate laws which the Harper government brags are amongst the toughest in the world.

Equally disturbing is the evidence revealing how Israel’s political elite legitimizes an overt racism amongst ordinary Israelis with such declarations: the repulsive Facebook post attracted 5,000 “likes.”

But back to the original Harper target — the BDS campaign. It was begun by a majority of Palestinian civil society groups on July 9, 2005 (a year after the International Criminal Court declared the Israeli separation wall illegal) with a request to their international counterparts “… to launch broad boycotts, implement divestment initiatives, and to demand sanctions against Israel, until Palestinian rights are recognized in full compliance with international law.”

For all the righteous indignation spewed out by the Harper government against the BDS campaign, the fact is that if western nations like Canada, the United States and the European Union were serious about forcing Israel to the bargaining table, a BDS campaign would not be necessary. Virtually every authority on the so-called peace process now acknowledges that it is dead unless something can make it in Israel’s interest to negotiate.

Israeli exceptionalism, backed by the financial and military might of the U.S.; demands of the Palestinians that they compromise on all their most important objectives before Israel will negotiate. In other words Israel will only negotiate after the Palestinians have given up virtually all their negotiating objectives.

Indeed, during the recent Israeli election Netanyahu declared towards the end of the campaign that there would never be a Palestinian state so long as he was prime minister. For most observers this was at once shocking and simply a clear statement of what Netanyahu had always made clear by his actions: his continued building of settlements throughout the West Bank, his refusal to consider (even in negotiations) East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, his stunningly brutal bombing of Gaza and his repeated insults directed at U.S. President Barack Obama regarding Israel’s responsibilities on reaching a peace a settlement.

Prime Minister Harper would have Canadians believe that criticizing Israel or boycotting it is inherently anti-Semitic. But you can see why he might want to back off actually changing the law. The spectacle of police arresting Jewish Canadians who support BDS and charging them with anti-Semitism is apparently too much even for the reckless Stephen Harper.

How does one determine if a campaign such as BDS is legitimate? The gold standard for such boycotts, because it was successful, was the BDS campaign against South Africa. Ironically, it was a Progressive Conservative prime minister, Brian Mulroney, who played an important role in the freeing of Nelson Mandela and the campaign to isolate the apartheid regime.

If apartheid was worthy of an international BDS campaign, then there can hardly be any argument that Israel, too, is a legitimate target. The similarities between the two regimes are frighteningly similar. Indeed many experts on Israel’s system of hafrada, or separation, claim it is far more brutal and deliberately humiliating than anything devised by the racist regime of Pretoria.

While Harper and his ministers have, in the past, railed against the use of the term apartheid to describe Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, some of Israel’s most revered leaders had no difficulty using the term.

Former prime minister Ehud Barak stated: “If there is only one political entity, named Israel, it will end up being either non-Jewish or non-democratic…. If the Palestinians vote in elections, it is a binational state, and if they don’t, it is an apartheid state.” Shulamit Aloni, who once served as Minister of Education under Yitzhak Rabin, wrote: “The state of Israel practices its own, quite violent form of apartheid with the native Palestinian population.” And in November of 2007, Israel’s then-prime minister Ehud Olmert said: “If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African style struggle for equal voting rights, then as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished.”

No wonder Stephen Harper wants to bury the notion that Israel is an apartheid state — because it is actually far worse. South Africa never established the kind of brutal settlement structure that has existed in Israel for decades. While the races did experience separate “development,” white communities were not connected with special well-paved roads, which blacks could not use. As Shulamit Aloni described: “Wonderful roads, wide roads, well-paved roads, brightly lit at night — all that on stolen land. When a Palestinian drives on such a road, his vehicle is confiscated and he is sent on his way.” International law makes it the responsibility of the occupying power to provide civilian governance to those it occupies. Yet four million Palestinians are governed not by civil law but by Israeli military law, which is enforced by soldiers. Decades of the “peace process” have accomplished absolutely nothing.

Far from being an outrage and an expression of the “new anti-Semitism” the BDS campaign is a non-violent movement, which seeks to put a high financial price on the continued and flagrant violation of international law by a rogue state.

To participate, go to Canadian Boycott Coalition for Justice in Palestine/Israel. For a list of products to boycott go here.

The last word goes to Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace prize winner and another prominent observer who has described Israel as an apartheid state: “Realistic Israeli leaders have acknowledged that Israel will either end its occupation through a one- or two-state solution, or live in an apartheid state in perpetuity. The latter option is unsustainable and an offence to justice. We learned in South Africa that the only way to end apartheid peacefully was to force the powerful to the table through economic pressure.”

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