So far, the early media commentary has been giving Jim Flaherty’s 2012 budget a pretty easy ride. After all, Canadians can mostly agree on the idea that a government should (try to) balance its books.
But let’s hope the conversation soon advances to the real issue: not whether to balance or not… but how. Prisons… or pensioners? Untendered fighter jets… or jobs? Opportunities for corporations… or opportunities for our youth? A budget is a kind of shorthand that tells us what is important. It’s a reflection of our values.
So what does this budget have to say about Canada and its values?
On regional economic disparity, this budget says we’ll support primary resource exploitation in the west – at the expense of manufacturing jobs in central Canada.
On economic security, this budget says we’ll support large corporations - at the expense of the financial security of ordinary Canadians.
On civil security, this budget says we’ll spend heavily on incarceration, punishment and retribution – at the expense of preventative programming and rehabilitation.
On ecology, this budget continues the puffed-up idea of Canada as a “global energy superpower” – at the expense of Canada’s role as a global citizen on environmental stewardship.
On public policy information - this budget is consistent with a fondness for public policy information shaped by vested partisan or corporate interests – rather than the public interest.
The budget has been sold to Canadians in the context of an assumption that most commentators have accepted without pause: “you can’t have the society you want, because you can’t afford it.”
But is that actually why this budget needs to stick it to pensioners and public broadcasting? The real truth is that we are a nation blessed with a rare, precious and distinct advantage that enrages Harper Conservatives; we have an egalitarian worldview woven into the very fabric of our social, cultural and legislative institutions.
In contrast to the radical individualism that defines America, our Canadian worldview emphasizes social justice: the protection of the weak by the strong, the frail by the healthy, the impoverished by the wealthy. This “just society”, combined with our natural wealth, our work ethic, our public education and health systems, and our multicultural civility gives us a real shot at being the best place in the world to live a good, if not lavish, life – at peace with ourselves, and our neighbors near and far.
So is it really true that we can’t have the society we want because we can’t afford it – or is it because we have allowed Harper’s particular brand of conservatism too much political influence over it?
The Harper Conservative spending priorities – on things like incarceration, weapon systems, and unfettered resource exploitation – steers our society in the direction of the republic south of our border. That’s an economy that tolerates sharper divisions between rich and poor, and what we perceive as injustices in the distribution of social benefits to the wounded, sick, unemployed and elderly. It’s a culture with a large segment of the media environment that celebrates what we see as intolerance. It’s a society whose democratic institutions have become even more corroded than ours, by political attack ads, hyper-partisan tactics, and systematic voter suppression. And it is a population with higher rates fear and incarceration, where (as so vividly illustrated in the so-called “stand your ground” law and the Trayvon Martin case) social order is descending into bloodshed, not just in spite of the law, but because of it.
To the extent that Canadians have a different experience than Americans, that experience rests, in no small part, on decades of federal policies and budgets that institutionalized priorities reflecting the centre of the Canadian political perspective. And as Paul Martin showed, it is difficult, but possible, to rein in spending without discarding those priorities.
Since the Harper Conservatives have finally grasped their parliamentary majority (albeit under, for Canada, unprecedented circumstances of voter suppression), they have won the right to pass a budget according to their priorities.
But let’s be clear about one thing. This was a budget about Mr. Harper’s priorities, not Canadian priorities.
Following more than a decade of Liberal balanced budgets and debt reduction, the Harper Conservatives ratcheted up the national debt at a breathtaking pace. And now we are to believe that our poor, our jobless, our seniors, our youth… must do with less.
Institutions that support and celebrate our sense of nationhood – like Katimavik and the CBC – were gutted for ideological reasons, not economic ones.
Stephen Harper revealed in a 2009 interview, “I tend to watch mainly American news because I don't like to watch Canadian news.” With the 2012 budget, the Harper agenda – to reshape Canadian institutions, Canadian elections, Canadian media, and eventually Canadian values according to this strange “Fox News” worldview – continues its step-by-step march.
The direction of this march communicates a central, false assumption that our treasured “just society” – that geopolitically distinctive aspect of our values and national identity – is unaffordable.
There is an alternative view though, and that is that – if we are to have a Canada – we cannot afford to give so much power to Harper’s brand of conservatism. What we cannot afford is a government with priorities (megaprisons and untendered fighter jets) which are wildly out of line with the priorities of Canadians. What we cannot afford is any government which is prepared to run roughshod over what should be two non-negotiable ideas about Canada: unswerving respect for democracy, and the pursuit of a just society.
I believe that Canada is resilient enough to survive this budget and this government, but I also believe that Harper’s brand of conservatism – evidenced in the recent federal budget – does not belong in the centre of a politics that deserves the name “Canadian”.
Kimberley Love was the federal Liberal Party candidate for the Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound riding in the 2011 federal election and is now a member of the Shadow Caucus for the Liberal Party of Canada.
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