Decades of Relentless Austerity in Canada Could Defeat the Conservatives
Nora Loreto, the author of From Demonized to Organized: Building the New Union Movement, and Dru Oja Jay of Unite Against Austerity Campaign discuss how an anti-austerity platform could make a difference in the upcoming Canadian elections
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
Defeating austerity has become the focus of many popular movements and parties today that is garnering the popular vote. The rise of Bernie Sanders in the U.S., the Syriza party in Greece, and Podemos in Spain could attest to the fact that ordinary people have had enough. Canadians are also fighting back years of austerity amid a federal election campaign. Austerity measures that were popularized under liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin in the 1990s were deepened under the Harper government, all while cutting taxes to corporations and the rich and rolling back on hard-earned social programs and public services, which have been the cornerstone of the social safety net in Canada.
Now with us to discuss these issues are Nora Loreto and Dru Oja Jay. Nora is the author of From Demonized to Organized: Building the New Union Movement. She’s also editor of Rabble.ca’s series titled UP! Canadian Labor Rising. She joins us today en route to Toronto. And Dru is a writer and organizer based in Montreal. He is co-founder of the Media Co-Op and author of Paved with Good Intentions: Canada’s development NGOs from idealism to imperialism. He’s also a coordinator of Unite Against Austerity campaign.
Thank you so much for joining us, both of you.
NORA LORETO: Thank you for having me.
DRU OJA JAY: Thank you.
PERIES: So let’s dive right in here to the Conservative government’s austerity budgets. Over the years that they have reigned they have generated unprecedented poverty among Canadians, particularly Canadians most at risk. Given that this is an election year the 2015 budget doesn’t look any more promising for working Canadians, either. So Nora, how does this compare with the positions that other parties have taken in terms of their election platform?
LORETO: With the parties focusing on the middle class I think that there is, it’s clear that they know through polling that families are feeling the pinch of decades of austerity, really it’s not just a Conservative problem. But we haven’t really seen the big promises from the parties yet. However, we have seen a lot of talk about a minimum wage, which is obviously really important, and that’s coming from the NDP. We have the Liberals who are trying to promise to do better, especially around parental leaves, but it’s very unclear as to whether or not that is going to be a policy that will actually make a difference.
And quite frankly for the really big issues, poverty, children’s poverty, of job creation, we haven’t heard much. We know that police, we’ll have more police hired under an NDP plan, that I guess is a kind of job creation strategy. And then of course Harper wants to hire more soldiers, which is another kind of job creation strategy, but we really haven’t heard very much. Part of that, of course, is it’s the last week of August, and I’m sure we will hear something from all of the parties within the next couple of weeks.
PERIES: So Dru, you work on this issue. Do any of the other party platforms look more promising for ordinary Canadians?
JAY: Well like Nora said, the NDP does have some good platform points. The Liberals are sort of trying to talk that talk, but I think their track record shows that they campaign to the left and govern to the right. So I think there’s a lot of reason to be really suspicious of any kind of Liberal wealth redistribution scheme.
I think fundamentally what we need to look at is where austerity comes from. It doesn’t come from, really, the parties. It comes from the ruling class, it comes from the 1 percent. So the Community Council of Chief Executives, which is sort of a group of the biggest Canadian CEOs, is really one of the biggest groups pushing this. And their current president is John Manley, who’s a former high-ranking Liberal minister, and they’re the ones who are really pushing a lot of these issues. Whether it’s trade agreements that sort of lock Canada into economic policies that it can’t really change, or whether it’s distribution of wealth upward through corporate tax cuts and cuts to the public service and social programs. The Harper government’s cut 37,000 estimated public sector jobs. So they’ve really continued on the legacy of the Liberals, who actually had an even deeper, if you can imagine, economic or fiscal austerity that they imposed on Canada.
PERIES: All right, let me pose a question to you. If you were advising, Dru, say one of the party platforms to really up their platform in order to address the socioeconomic development of the people, of ordinary people, people most harshly affected over the years, what would you be advising them?
JAY: Well, I think the first thing we need to do is not–I mean, so there’s two different issues here, right. There’s what’s going to appeal to the public and then there’s what’s actually good policy. And those are different things, because I think the media has the public really scared.
So for example, you have Thomas Mulcair who’s the leader of a social democratic party, sort of under fire recently because he made some positive comments about Margaret Thatcher. So I think what we see is that all the parties are sort of buying into this sort of consensus that seems to have emerged which says you can’t raise taxes on corporations to have economic growth, you can’t invest in the public sector. You can’t spend too much money. You can’t invest in social services, and so on. Which actually doesn’t make economic sense. But the sense that it does make is the continued transfer of power to the economic elite, basically, and to people like the Canadian Council of Chief Executives and their investors.
And so you have this, inequality is growing at a faster rate than it’s ever grown in Canada, and you don’t really have any of the parties taking that on head-on. And so the things you would do to do that are create public sector jobs which are not capital-intensive, but they create, I think, $1 billion into the public sector creates 20,000 jobs and $1 billion into the resource extraction sector creates, like, 500 jobs. So you have really, really different–really big contrast there. But where is the government choosing to sort of put its investment? It’s into resource extraction.
So I think that’s the problem right there, is that it’s friendly to huge corporate profits, but it’s not friendly to creating employment and actually helping out people and creating an economy that actually distributes the wealth more equally.
PERIES: Nora, I remember being at the G20 summit I think 2010 in Toronto, and this is shortly after the 2007-2008 economic market crash and economic downturn or depression we were in. And Stephen Harper was so eager to sign on to the latest austerity measures and promising to deliver on them. Now, we can see the impact of that over the years. Give us a sense of why austerity isn’t in the best interests of ordinary Canadians.
LORETO: I think when you look at the social services that people rely on, and the social services that help to redistribute wealth it’s pretty clear that if you are looking to save some money, and you decide to take it out of federal transfer payments, which go into social services, healthcare, and education, you’re going to hit the people that rely on public services, which is the vast majority of the population, and of course the need to access those services go up as you go further down the income scale.
And so we have a very extreme right wing federal government right now that has put corporate taxes to an all-time low, while at the same time not increasing the transfer payments to allow for the services to be funded. It’s important to keep in mind that in Canada with the federal system that we have, a lot of the services that people rely on the most are provincially administered and provincially funded. And so the role of the federal government in this really is wealth redistribution.
In the areas where they have direct control, First Nations finances is one of them, and the record has been appalling. And you can also look at university-level education, where student debt this past May, they allowed it to reach a new ceiling of $24 billion. So that means that there’s an entire generation of young people who are entering the labor force with a collective amount of money owed to the federal government of $24 billion. And so when you look at the impact on the ground of tightening transfer payments, the Conservatives if they get re-elected, they have already indicated that they will continue to reduce the amount that transfer payments have to grow by, which is an effective cut.
And that is just going to make it even more difficult for average people to access healthcare or education, and it will also incentivize the provinces to continue to privatize, because austerity at the federal level has been bad, but it’s also been really bad at the provincial levels as well.
PERIES: So Dru, give us a sense of whether these austerity measures, we can look around the world actually, and see austerity is just not in the interests of ordinary people, and more and more ordinary people are starting to realize this. So it seems to me that when you look at places like Greece despite of the spite that people voted to reject austerity and say no to getting further into debt, and the promises being made to the European lenders at the cost of austerity, people are clearly saying no. So democracy seems to be failing, and the interest of the elite and the corporations seems to be excelling in these crises. What do you, what is specific about the Canadian situation that we can learn from after all these years of Conservative government that we should try to change now?
JAY: I think it’s tricky, because I think it will, on one level, the most important thing right now is to get the Conservatives out of power. Clearly they are a major problem, and they have been relentless and sort of [inaud.] whether it’s women or First Nations or migrant workers, they’ve been really hammering the most vulnerable and transferring wealth to the richest. So they need to go out.
But at the same time I think we need to understand that Canada has a social democracy, or it has a welfare state. It’s not abstract how that happened, it’s because people fought for it for decades. And so I think we need to find some of that fighting spirit, and I think we need to understand that the economic elites are not going to go out without a fight. They’re not going to let go of all these huge subsidies. Austerity is basically subsidizing corporate profits with human misery and environmental destruction, and they’re not going to stop doing that until they are overpowered, basically.
PERIES: Nora, when you look at Canada from the south, here in the U.S. we see sparks of really well-organized movements building in Quebec among the students, and also the environmental movement taking on the fossil fuel industry and pushing for a change of course when it comes to fossil fuel. But give us a sense of what are the social movements well-positioned to take on the austerity agenda here?
LORETO: Yeah, that’s really the most important question right now. As we have now experienced nine years of Harper, I think people are realizing that actually the question of how strong our democracy is is the most important question. And we’re realizing that decades of free trade agreements have stopped, have really affected Canadian sovereignty and that we have a government that is elected in a flawed system, in a system where the minority can elect a majority government. And so that has necessitated the rise of activism outside of the formal structures. And I think that that’s where the most exciting social movements almost always are around the world, but it’s certainly in Canada that that’s where the most exciting social movements are coming from today.
And so young people in Quebec is a really great example of a movement that has been building for decades, and managed to topple a provincial government during the Maple Spring in 2012. But aside from that we’re also seeing some very inspiring organizing being done in cities and towns, and on reserves across Canada through the Idle No More movement for indigenous sovereignty and indigenous rights, and of course those issues are, a lot of the issues that Idle No More is talking about, are wrapped up into the environmental movement. And so as we’ve seen the democratic structures be more and more disenfranchising, we have seen a rise of popular movements which gives me a lot of hope.
It’s also important to remember that this is an election that has been, that has been called under laws that have been changed by the federal government. And under their laws, called the Fair Elections Act, this is potentially going to disenfranchise thousands of people across Canada, especially young people or students who have changes in their residencies a lot, or poor people who also have changes in their residencies a lot or who have no fixed address. And so this election is really an amazing symbol of how limited our democratic structures and democratic access has become, while at the same time we have very inspiring extra-democratic movements that are engaged in this election work, that will continue to be engaged past October 19 as well.
PERIES: Nora Loreto and Dru Oja Jay, I thank you both for joining us today.
LORETO: Thank you.
JAY: Thank you.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.