Contemplating Post-Harper Healing

Stephen Harper, the most anti-democratic prime minister in our history, may have done democracy a favour by mandating the longest election in Canadian history. One-month elections only exposed the breakdown of our so-called democratic system for a relatively short period. It didn’t last long enough for us to really sicken of the spectacle, and then we focused on the lies, manipulations and corporate sell-outs of those newly elected to run the country. But this time we have experienced what amounts to full-immersion baptism in our truly absurd and pathologically unresponsive system of “representative democracy.”

Of course part of that absurdity is rooted in the anachronistic first-past-the-post system which regularly produces executive dictatorships with less than 40% of the vote (and just 24% of the eligible voters). It finally seems that we might now get a change to some form of proportional representation for the next election. But promises (especially Liberal ones) are as easy to break as they are to make and a post-election mobilization of the disillusioned multitudes will be required to seal the deal.

But at the risk of being cynical about such a change before it even happens let’s not be too sanguine about the overall impact of a change in the voting system. Even the best election rules are not going to solve our democratic deficit unless we dramatically increase the level of civic literacy and citizen engagement.

The desperate need for proportional representation has to some extent distracted us from just how inadequate and unresponsive the rest of the system is. It has taken the likes of Harper to actually push the other parties to suddenly call for change when they have for decades supported first-past-the-post because executive dictatorship is an attractive form of governance to those who run political parties.

Given this history it is hard not to conclude that political parties themselves are the biggest barrier to genuine, participatory democracy. Parties have with rare and short-lived exceptions have always acted in their own interests whenever faced with a choice between that goal and working for the country. That has always been true of the two Bay Street parties and now that the NDP has drunk the we-can-win kool aid, they join their ranks adopting a strategy that replaces principle with opportunism.

There is still a chance however slim that the party can recover from its new and catastrophic direction established by Jack Layton and Tom Mulcair. That new direction entailed accepting the rules made by the big business parties – rules that suited their style, their access to money, their privileged position in the media, their control of the bureaucracy and their deep connections to elite influence and power. It is painfully obvious that the more the NDP adopts the machine politics invented by and for the Liberals and Conservatives the more it becomes like them in terms of policies, ethics and political strategy.

If the current election-machine NDP wants to win an election it will have to do so as a liberal party that has reached an accommodation with globalization and finance capital. Little by little the adoption of Liberal and Conservative political strategy has corrupted what remained of a social democratic party. By the time they win an election on this basis they will be completely indistinguishable from the Liberals they are determined to replace.

But if they want to win as a renewed and principled social democratic party then they can only do so through a commitment to a long term redefinition of the rules of the political game, rules designed to benefit a genuinely democratic party that engages the population in a program of civic literacy – equipping people to deal with modern communications techniques that are used to manipulate them. By doing so and actually mobilizing the tremendous appetite for progressive change in a majority of the population, the NDP could actually begin to force other parties to play by its rules. When they did that in the 1960s the rewards were considerable and included Medicare, still the principle legacy of the progressive Canadian state.

The Liberal/Conservative mode of doing politics doesn’t suit a political party that wants to change the political culture. Such a party cannot achieve change unless it becomes part of the community it claims to share values with and that is exactly what the NDP has been moving away from. This is why the party consistently underestimates the desire for change in its support base and miscalculates its response to the politics of opportunism. If the NDP is confused about whether it’s a party of change or just another competitor on the field, it’s no wonder its potential supporters are confused.

But when it comes to promoting civic literacy and building values-based communities civil society groups are not much better. To date they focus on two political themes but pay scant attention to the question that ultimately matters most. The first focus (this is the one I am most guilty of) is to pile up the list of political crimes and misdemeanors of the Harper government. Close to a dozen books have now raised the alarm. The trouble is the same alarm has been ringing for 10 years. Harper is a still a threat.

The second theme – and at least this breaks from the left’s almost pathological attachment to the negative – is to describe what is possible. Imagine (as the Leap manifesto has done)what we could have in this country if we hadn’t experienced fifteen years of massive tax cuts for the rich and corporations – somewhere between $40 and 60 billion a year has been pilfered from our collective, community coffers to feed the greed of the powerful.

But listing all the good things we “could” have “if only” things weren’t as they are is just an exercise. It isn’t politics, it isn’t organizing and it doesn’t address the reality that prevents people from going into the street and demanding the change we claim is doable: they see nothing on the horizon that suggests any of these things that they want will ever come to pass.

The really important theme that the left devotes virtually no time to intellectually, or strategically is the question of agency. That is the term given by political theorists to the process by which change is actually made: if you truly want change who will be the agent of that change? In other words it is not so much what is to be done (make your own list) but what model of organizing can begin to accomplish it. Change doesn’t just happen because millions of people say they want it. Post-election this will be the critical task of all progressives – take what we know is possible and use it to rebuild community, reclaim the commons and build a broad based social movement with the power to challenge the status-quo.

Rise up precariat! Cheap labour is over.

Just three weeks before the federal election comes a report from Morgan Stanley  that should remind everyone, especially the parties running for office, that it’s still about the economy. The the message of the paper is as unambiguous as it is surprising: the era of cheap labour is over. It all has to do with demographics, which are changing, and public policy which so far has not.

I have written more than once over the years about the devastating impact of so-called “labour flexibility” policies – devastating to employees, families, productivity, equality, communities, the birth rate (yes, the birth rate) and the economy as a whole. What is stunning to me is that almost no one in the Canadian media, and few in the labour movement seems to have a clue about to its importance.

For all the talk about what will grow the economy – and leaders’ debate on the topic was worse than useless, it was embarrassing – the key component to future economic growth is rising wages and salaries. We are programmed to dismiss such claims as “far left” nonsense but that handy epithet doesn’t work when the observation is made by the likes of co-author Charles Goodhart, a former member of the Bank of England’s rate-setting committee.

Goodhart argues that a dramatic decline in the size of the labour force, caused by “…the greying population may reverse three long-term trends: a decline in real (inflation-adjusted) interest rates, a squeeze on real wages and widening inequality.”

The percentage of the global population who were working experienced a huge increase in the last three decades of the twentieth century due to the post-war baby boom in developed countries and the entry of China and Eastern Europe into the capitalist system. That abundance of working age people created the conditions for the cheapening of labour and the reduction of its bargaining power. That, says Goodhart is already ending. “…population growth in the rich world, which was 1% a year in the 1950s, has fallen to 0.5% and should drop to zero by 2040.”

Governments eager to advance the interests of large corporations took advantage of this labour surplus by developing convenient theories to justify a broad assault on wages and salaries – and unions. Things like labour standards, generous Unemployment Insurance and poverty reducing welfare schemes made labour “inflexible” the argument went – by which they meant uppity workers demanding their fair share.

It was left to Liberal finance minister Paul Martin to implement the grand plan in the mid-1990s. Insisting that inflation greater than 2 percent was a threat to the economy, Martin used high interest rates to actually suppress economic growth and deliberately create high levels of unemployment. Few people recall that under Martin’s reign unemployment hovered around 9 per cent for most of the 1990s – higher than at any time following the 2007-08 financial collapse.

Artificially high unemployment was perhaps the most powerful weapon, but Martin also hit workers with draconian cuts to EI eligibility and the elimination of the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP). The CAP transferred money to the provinces and was targeted specifically at establishing a minimum national standard for welfare. With its cancellation the provinces were free too radically reduce social assistance rates. The provinces also began cutting back on the enforcement of labour standards – things like time-and-a-half for overtime, disallowing back to back shifts, unpaid apprenticeships, notice of dismissal, sexual harassment, etc. Added up it meant a dramatic reduction in the power of labour to bargain with employers.

Of course part of the “flexibility” agenda was directed at unions and with more and more part-time and temporary positions in low-wage, high turnover jobs organizing became increasingly difficult. One experiment in well-funded anti-unionism was called Canadians Against Forced Unionism (CAFU). It was a creature of the National Citizens Coalition, the right-wing lobby group headed by Stephen Harper in the late 1990s. The president of CAFU was none other than Rob Anders  the extremely right-wing Calgary MP who managed to retain Harper’s loyalty through multiple controversies.

The effects of the attack on workers’ incomes and rights, on productivity, and on private investment mirror exactly the results that the Morgan Stanley report details. Canadian employers, ever eager to take the easy road to profits, reflected the broad trend. Goodhart writes  “Easy hire and fire is at the cost of organisational learning, knowledge accumulation and knowledge sharing, thus damaging innovation and labour productivity growth.” Canadian productivity growth has been moribund for twenty years, largely as a result of corporate reliance on low wages, facilitated by Liberal and Conservative governments.

The twenty-five year pursuit of cheap labour across the developed work has resulted in what has been called the “precariat” – those working in precarious, low-paying jobs with little or no protection from ruthless employers. Paul Martin’s anti-labour crusade (continued by Stephen Harper) has given Canada the dubious honour of having the third highest percentage of low paying jobs in any of the 35 nation OECD countries  – with 22 percent it is third behind Ireland and the US( at 25 percent). The average is 16 percent.

What effect would rising salaries and wages have on private investment? It’s a critical question for Canada given that large corporations are currently sitting on over $600 billion in idle cash. The Morgan Stanley report states: “As for investment by firms, rising wages will encourage companies to substitute capital for labour. Corporate investment could rise.”

The relentless squeeze on workers’ pay (the net real increase in average Canadian income between 1980 and 2005 was $52) and deteriorating working conditions are at the root of the looming labour shortage. According to the 2012 National Study on Balancing Work and Caregiving in Canada: “Employees who are already overloaded…are less likely to add to that overload by having children (i.e., more likely to say that they have decided to have fewer children/no children).” As if to underline the issue Statscan just reported that for the first time ever people aged 65 and over in Canada outnumber those 14 and under.

The creation of the precariat was rooted in the untested assumption that a strong safety net (EI, social assistance, labour standards) added up to a “disincentive” for workers to work hard. It turns out that the precariat has demonstrated in response that if you treat people like crap they don’t actually work harder – they work less. A Delft University study  concluded: “A flexible workforce needs an expanded management bureaucracy to oversee it. Because precarity damages trust, loyalty and commitment…it demands more management and control. An entire generation of free-market workers has begun to act according to the factory adage of the old Soviet Union: ‘We pretend to work, they pretend to pay us.’”

The Morgan Stanley paper contains a warning to employers – that if they continue to mistreat and underpay their employees they will pay the price with an increased militancy as labour shortages kick in and workers’ bargaining power increases. Goodhart recommends that employers get out ahead of the curve: “The synergies are stark: if the global economy needs a return to higher-paid work, then attacking precarity is the quickest way of achieving that.” I can’t see that happening any time soon and personally I’d like to see a little militancy for a change.

But surely there are politicians and labour leaders out there who in the interim can fight to make life better for workers and actually grow the economy at the same time. The NDP has dipped its toe in these waters with its $15 minimum wage promise and child care pledge. But we need much more: a movement, led by unions, for a return to strongly enforced (and enhanced) labour standards, a robust EI program where (once again) 70 percent qualify for benefits, the elimination of the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, social assistance that lifts people well past the poverty line (or perhaps a Guaranteed Annual Income) and, for good measure, the public shaming of employers who abuse their workers.

Come clean, Ms. Green

The Green party and its leader Elizabeth May continue to promote the fantasy that the political “contest” on Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast is a fight between the NDP and Green Party. A recent “householder” (a political mass mailing) featured this claim: “The Conservatives will not form the government after this election, and on Vancouver Island, we are in a position to elect six more Green Party MPs…” That would mean electing Green candidates in virtually every Island riding. There is no truth to either of these claims.

To back this startling declaration the Party quotes the results of a single island-wide (and North Island-Powell River) Insights West poll. The poll found that 39 percent of voters would choose the NDP, 32 percent the Green Party while the Conservatives and Liberals would be tied at 15 percent each.

But no one except May – including pollsters – is categorically claiming the Conservatives “will not” form government given that all polls suggest a dead heat – and with the more “efficient” Conservative vote they would get the most seats.

National and even province-wide polls are notoriously unreliable when you try to apply them to individual ridings. But the Green Party has been able to rely on this kind of ambiguous polling because there have been no surveys done in individual ridings.

That is, until now.

Both the Dogwood Initiative and LeadNow organizations, have now done these individual riding polls in support of their strategic voting programs. Strategic voting asks voters to vote for whichever party’s candidate has the best chance of defeating the Conservatives.

The polls show the Green Party is running fourth in several of the ridings that it is still claiming it will win. LeadNow has published an Environics poll for North Island-Powell River – interviewing 556 people, resulting in a poll that has a margin of error of 4.2 percent. The poll shows the NDP at 41 percent, the Conservatives at 27 percent, the Liberals at 18 percent and the Greens at 14 percent. The poll was conducted on September 18th and 19th.

One July 31st Elizabeth May told the Powell River Peak Newspaper: “There is no chance of a Conservative winning in this riding. It’s either going to be a Green or an NDP member of parliament in this riding.” May did not cite any evidence for her claim and it is now clear that there was no such evidence. The Greens are running fourth.

The Green candidate has clearly improved the party’s showing over 2011 when it would have received about 5 percent of the vote using the current riding boundary. But the improved showing effectively supports what those supporting strategic voting claim: that running strong candidates in unwinnable ridings, the Green Party risks electing the Conservatives.

Two recent polls reveal the second choices of Green Party voters. A Nanos poll showed that 48 percent of Green voters’ second choice would be the NDP and 32 percent would vote for the Liberals. Just 10 percent of Greens had the Conservatives as their second choice. An unpublished Ipsos poll showed almost identical second-choice results: The NDP, 43 percent, Liberals, 32% and Conservatives 10 percent. Both polls contradict May’s repeated assertion that disaffected Conservatives are flocking to her party.

By doing a mass mailing suggesting there is no danger of electing Conservatives the Green Party can obviously increase its vote count – but to what end? Despite running an expensive campaign in North Island- Powell River the Greens are still in fourth place, actually worse than they would have done in 2011 with the current boundary – when they would have tied with the Liberals for third place. (The Liberals have tripled their vote this time around.)

But let’s assume the Greens do even better on election day. Half the additional votes they get will come from former NDP supporters – lowering the NDP’s lead over the Conservatives whose numbers will likely rise given their deep pockets and strong get-out-the-vote plan.

What about the other island ridings Ms. May says the Greens can win? A Dogwood sponsored Insights West poll in Courtenay-Alberni shows very similar results: the NDP at 39 percent, the Conservatives at 33 percent, the Liberals at 13 percent and the Greens running fourth at 12 percent. Given the recent rise in Conservative support this is a dangerously close race. Half the Green votes would otherwise go to the NDP – increasing their lead from 6 percentage points to 12.

In Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke, which the Greens claim is theirs for the taking, Dogwood’s Insights West poll reveals they are in a three-way tie for second – with 19 percent of decided voters compared to the NDP’s 39 percent. And in Nanaimo-Ladysmith, another alleged sure win for the Greens, the Environics poll done for LeadNow shows the NDP with 34 percent, and the Conservatives and Greens tied for second with 24 percent. Again, if the Greens goal was really to defeat Conservatives they could be running a modest campaign providing the NDP with another seven to eight percentage point spread over the Conservatives. Or they would just withdraw.

It was inevitable that the mainstream media would finally catch up with the Green party’s deliberate deception. On the CBC morning show out of Victoria host Gregor Craigie challenged May on her assertion that the Conservatives “will not” form the government. I have never heard Ms. May sound so uncomfortable or unconvincing as when she responded to Craigie’s persistent probing.

After trying to justify the declaration with reference to a host of national polls, May finally gave in: “If that one sentence had not been on a flier and was more nuanced and had a much more detailed analysis as to why that’s true, condensing it to one line is probably something I wouldn’t have said myself but it’s absolutely defensible and explainable.”

As any party leader knows it doesn’t wash to blame an underling for a major piece of election literature. Would she use the same argument if she were prime minister? But then having said the statement was “absolutely defensible and explainable” she failed completely to defend or explain it.

It just got worse for the usually calm and commanding Green leader. Trying to build a case for using a year’s worth of polling to justify the claim, May stated: “I would never believe in one isolated poll that was an outlier.” But that is precisely what the poll that accompanied the statement was: an isolated, “outlier” poll that, given the Environics and Insights West riding polls. And May knows this – or should know – because she told Craigie that the party has been doing “..a lot of its own polling.”

Yet even the face of the individual riding polls May is sticking to her grand deception, saying to Craigie: “Right now there isn’t a riding on Vancouver Island where the Conservatives are in a position to win a seat..” and “…when they’re mired at 12 – 15 percent they aren’t coming up anyone’s middle.”

In a last desperate effort to justify the misleading flier, she offered this rationale: “What we’re saying is what we believe…” But that’s not politics, that’s religion. May then tried to distinguish her flier with a comparison to a nasty Conservative flier in her own riding: “It’s definitely in the category of dirty tricks when you send out a mailing that says your opponent stands for something that’s not the case at all…”

Well, yes, we can all agree with that. But how is it fundamentally different from telling people voting strategically that they don’t have to worry their pretty little heads – just vote Green.

It doesn’t wash Elizabeth. Fess up. Take former Tyee editor David Beer’s advice: withdraw “no-chance” candidates in ridings where they might help elect a Harper Conservative. The Green Party is supposed to be the party responding genuinely to the enthusiasm of young people, the party of principle. In this election it is dishing up cynicism and dirty tricks.

The roots of Stephen Harper’s refugee conundrum

Most government leaders would look at the refugee crisis in Europe and see it as an opportunity, especially during an election, to appear on top of the issue – with some combination of statesmanship, leadership and intuitive grasp of their own population’s sensibility. But Stephen Harper is not most politicians and the refugee crisis turns out to be one of the most intractable and complex issue he has to deal with – which is why he looks so ham-handed over a week into the refugee catastrophe unfolding across the Atlantic. It has shone an extremely unwelcome light on one of the dirty little secrets of the prime minister’s old Reform Party political base: it is chock-a-block with racists and others who simply don’t like non-European immigrants.

Harper and his political machine have done a remarkable job of massaging the huge contradictions in the Conservative Party’s political strategy regarding ethnic communities. They have managed to bleed traditional Liberal support from those communities by spending oodles of time and energy playing to the (conservative) traditional family values of those communities, to their suspicion of big government and their entrepreneurship. Only rarely does the strategy go sideways and expose the party to the anti-immigrant sentiment of their traditional political base.

One example was the rapid Conservative response to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program scandal of last year. The program was incredibly popular with small and large (tar sands) businesses and there was real anger with this chunk of the Conservative base when Harper (and Jason Kenny) made radical changes to their lucrative scam. While there was little reference to it in the coverage of the issue I have no doubt that Harper and Co. knew that rank and file party members, especially in the West and rural Ontario were not happy with their government giving preference to Asian workers over their white Canadian counterparts. When it came to choosing between business owners and the old Reform Party base there was no real debate. Business would just have to suck it up.

Not much is written these days about the nature of the Conservative base post-merger of the old PC Party and the Alliance Party (formerly Reform). But the base is largely the same today and in my book Preston Manning and Reform Party I documented just how dangerous the immigration issue was for Manning and his then-policy Chief Stephen Harper. No other policy issue took up as much time on the political massage table as this one – with Manning having to use all his persuasive powers to neutralize the alarming resolutions coming the famous “grass roots” of the party.

Leading up to 1991 policy convention, the most important the Reform Party ever held, there were eighteen riding resolutions on immigration. Every one of them was considered by Manning and Harper as extreme in one way or another: imposing various restrictions on immigrants, settlement in remote regions, demands for “ethnic balance,” the deportation of immigrants with criminal convictions, etc. None of them made it to the convention floor, replaced by the Party Policy Committee by three more moderate ones.

But in explaining this purge to the affected riding associations the party was very careful in the language it used to criticize the resolutions. As I wrote in my book; “They were rejected because they were open to ‘misinterpretation,’ ‘unenforceable,’ or ‘created administrative problems’.” The reason for the kid’s glove approach wasn’t hard to find – extreme views were actually encouraged by the party because they wanted to build their core membership. Manning and his policy chief Harper were confident they could manage the extremists.

One way they attracted the anti-immigrant vote was through the promotion of the writings and speeches of William Gairdner, one of the party’s most popular key-note speakers. In his book, The Trouble with Canada, Gairdner (in a chapter called “The Destruction of English Canada…”) spoke of “invading cultures” and proposed quotas on “non-traditional” immigrants (those not from the UK, USA, NZ, Britain or white South Africans). Gairdner warned “…in two hundred and fifty years Canada could become a Chinese nation.”

Harper’s precise role in building this anti-immigrant core is not known but he was one of just two people Manning trusted with key decisions – the other being pro-Apartheid activist and Senator, Stan Waters. But we do know that when Harper chose to leave politics in 1997 he became the Vice President (and then President) of the National Citizens Coalition (NCC) the most virulently right-wing political group in the country. Among its many well-funded campaigns (against the Canada Health Act, fair tax reform, unions, and restrictions on corporate political spending) was an hysterical campaign against acceptance of the so-called “boat people” – the 1978-79 wave of refugees from post-war Vietnam. The NCC took out two full-page ads in the Globe and Mail warning that the government’s policies would lead to ”…at least 750,000 [Vietnamese] in the not too distant future.” The actual number was 60,000.

Of course Stephen Harper was not involved in that campaign but ten years later when he was helping Preston Manning found the Reform Party he found in the NCC the closest of fellow-travellers. There was a huge overlap in membership and policies between the Party and the NCC which claimed (from an internal poll) that 60 percent of its members were also Reform Party members.

Given Harper’s penchant for focusing laser-like on strategy it is difficult to tell how he feels personally about immigration – it’s just another issue to be massaged for maximum benefit and minimum damage. But he did once let slip a controversial opinion in the January 22, 2001 issue of Alberta-based newsmagazine The Report where he stated: “You have to remember that west of Winnipeg the ridings the Liberals hold are dominated by people who are either recent Asian immigrants or recent migrants from Eastern Canada; people who live in ghettos and are not integrated into Western Canadian society.”

Given the controversial history of the immigration question in Stephen Harper’s background no one should be surprised at the present-day Conservatives tying themselves in knots over the moral issue of Middle Eastern refugees and what Canada’s responsibility should be. With increasing numbers of Canadians saying they want a change (Abacus Data says the number this week is 76 percent) the Conservative campaign has once again been knocked off-message. To preserve their 30 percent base they have to successfully play the security card to resist increasing the numbers of refugees. But in doing so they risk alienating the already limited pool of voters who say they would consider voting Conservative.

The Green Party: A party just like the others

After a visit by the Green Party’s Elizabeth May to Powell River in August she was quoted in the local newspaper: “There is no chance of a Conservative winning in this riding. It’s either going to be a Green or an NDP member of parliament in this riding.”

It was a clever pitch aimed at easing potential Green voters’ fears that they might elect a Harperite by voting their hearts instead of their heads. Which is all very well, except that the Greens have no chance of winning in Powell River or in any but two of the Island ridings in BC. – May’s Saanich-Gulf Island riding and, in a stretch, in Victoria, where they trail the NDP by 12 points. The Party is eagerly passing out pamphlets on the island touting a single Insights West poll which shows them at 30 percent “on the island” – nine points behind the NDP. But those results are seriously skewed by May’s 60 percent in her own riding and the polling in Victoria and Esquimalt-Sooke. According to, the site which amalgamates the results of all the polls, the Greens are averaging 20.5 in the seven island ridings and hovering around 10 percent in four of them.

In North Island-Powell River they are at 8.3 percent placing them fourth behind the Liberals – and a few points up from their 2011 showing. If the current (new) riding boundaries had been in place in the 2011 election the Conservatives would have received 46 percent of the vote and the NDP 42 percent. The Greens and the Liberals would each have received 5 – 6 percent.

In the 2011 election the Conservatives won 21 seats in BC, the NDP 12, the Liberals two and the Green Party one – May’s seat. But what is just as revealing is who came in second in the Conservative ridings. The NDP placed second in 18 of the 21 Conservative ridings; the Liberals came second in three. The Green Party didn’t manage a single second place finish.

As for the current Green polling numbers – they are unlikely to stand up on election day. The Insights West poll explains why: “The Conservatives (71%) and the NDP (63%) hold the highest proportion of fully committed voters, while the numbers are lower for the Liberals (49%) and the Greens (33%).”

The Green Party of the 1980s and ‘90s featured continuous discussions around the question of: “Is the priority to redefine politics from the ground up, or to play the electoral game according to the present rules? Or both?” Given the resources available to the Greens in those days it wasn’t a real choice – the party was unable to garner many votes or have any major influence on voters’ choices.

All that changed when the Chretien government banned corporate and union funding of political parties and implemented a government program that gave each party upwards of two dollars for every vote they received. It was a change that brought the Green Party out of the wilderness.

The party in recent elections took full advantage of anger at Stephen Harper claiming the political and moral high ground by defining the difference between the Green Party and other parties with its offer to co-operate with those parties – standing down in some ridings in exchange for them doing the same in others.

The co-operation offer has until now been Elizabeth May’s response to the charge that the Greens split the vote and allow Conservatives to win in close races with the Liberals or the NDP. But the Green’s slogan in this election – “We are not splitting the vote we are growing the vote” – reflects the fact the co-operation offer is well and truly dead.

There is no evidence of the “growing the vote” claim nevertheless that is the flavour of the kool-aid the Green Party is serving up to its candidates and to the public. They have nominated the strongest candidates they can find even in BC ridings where Conservatives are in close races with the NDP or Liberals. One example is North Vancouver where the Liberals have a good chance of beating the incumbent Conservative – except that the Greens have nominated Claire Martin, a popular former CBC TV personality. The Green’s got 5 percent there in 2011. In West Vancouver—Sunshine Coast—Sea to Sky Country the Greens are running Ken Melamed, a progressive former mayor of Whistler in a riding where the Liberals have a good shot at replacing a Conservative.

In Powell River they have chosen Brenda Sayers, a popular, articulate First Nations woman in a riding where the NDP and Conservatives are the only two contenders. In Nanaimo-Ladysmith, an NDP-Conservative battleground, they nominated Paul Manley a popular social movement activist (unfairly denied an NDP nomination). There are other examples where the Green objective of beating Conservatives seems to have been forgotten.

It seems from the evidence that Ms. May has decided to play the game just like the big boys: putting the interests of the Green Party ahead of the interests of the country. Yet now more than in any other election the Green Party should be backing off in ridings where the Conservatives could come up the middle. The Greens could have continued to claim the moral high ground even in the face of other parties’ refusal to co-operate. It could have chosen place-holder candidates in ridings where the Conservatives won by small margins. Even now they could pull back. After all, isn’t that what the moral high ground means? You stake it out regardless of the behaviour of others. Otherwise it looks like political opportunism.

Instead of sticking to its principled goal of ridding the country of the Harper Conservatives, Elizabeth May risks electing Conservatives in BC. Unpublished results (because of the small sample size) of a recent Ipsos poll looked at Green voters’ second choices. According to Ipsos: “The NDP (43%) has a significant advantage over the Liberals (29%), and Cons (5%) as their preferred second choice.” In tight races strong Green showings could easily elect enough BC Conservatives to alter the outcome of a close election.

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.


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