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3463 Peel, Montréal, Québec H3A 1W7 tel: (514) 398-8346 fax: (514) 398-7336
Is There a Future for Progressive Policies in Canada?
The Honourable Warren Allmand
President, International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development James R. Mallory Annual Lecture in Canadian Studies November 13, 1997
I first of all want to thank the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada and those responsible for the Mallory lectures for their kind invitation to be part of this series named after an outstanding Canadian scholar in the field of public administration. The subject suggested and agreed to for this evening is “Is there a future for progressive policies in Canada?” The implication in the title is that progressive policies are either in decline in Canada or they have been seriously wounded. If we define “progressive policies” as ones that contribute to the increased well-being of the general population, then I agree. Such progressive policies have been in decline in Canada since approximately 1984, and have been under serious attack since 1975. Following the second World War until 1975, progressive policies were in ascendency. A progressive society was being built. General 1941 Unemployment Insurance 1944 Family Allowance 1945 White Paper on Full Employment 1951 Universal Old Age Security 1957 Hospitalization 1960 Bill of Rights 1966 Medicare 1966 Canada Assistance Plan 1966 Canada Pension Plan 1966 Guaranteed Income Supplement 1967 Department of Consumer Affairs 1968 Canadian International Development Agency 1968 Divorce Reform 1968 Criminal Code amendments (Pierre Elliott Trudeau): guns, homosexuals, abortion, contraceptives, lotteries 1970 Royal Commission on the Status of Women and policies for gender equality 1973 Recognition of aboriginal land claims 1973 Foreign Investment Review Act 1976 Abolition of capital punishment 1977 Canadian Human Rights Commission 1977 Established Programmes Financing 1982 Repatriation, Amendment formula and charter of rights 1982 Equality Rights: S.15 1982 Aboriginal Rights: S.35 Culture 1950 National Film Board 1957 Canada Council 1967 Film Development Corporation 1968 Canadian Radio & Television Commission Energy 1959 National Energy Board 1975 PetroCan Environment 1970 Environment Department 1960-70 Ten new national parks Independence/Nationhood 1947 Citizenship Act 1949 Supreme Court of Canada 1952 Canadian Governor General 1956 Peacekeeping1965 Flag 1969 Official Languages Act 1971 Multiculturalism policy
This was indeed the golden age of progressive policies in Canada and, having been elected in 1965, I was proud to have been a party to many of these policies, to have had the opportunity to promote, defend, and to vote for such policies until 1984. However, around 1975, the world and Canada started to change. It is not entirely clear what triggered the change, but suddenly there was growing opposition and even hostility to these same policies. There are several possible explanations: -- the impact of the (4) OPEC price increases in oil between 1973 and 1979; -- increasing deficits after 1975 (some think linked to the energy situation); -- perceived abuses in the welfare system (no mention of tax abuses); -- the increasing intellectualization and organization of the political “right.” i.e.: the emergence of Milton Friedman and his disciples (Free to Choose, 1980), and the establishment of big business financed think tanks, such as the Fraser Institute. At the same time we had the election of Margaret Thatcher (1979) and Ronald Reagan (1980). We also had a new generation active in politics who had not experienced the dirty thirties and/or forgot why these social policies were there. With the election of the Conservative government in 1984, the reversal of policies was quickly put into motion, although the Liberal and NDP opposition in Parliament still put up a strong defence. There were cuts to U.I., clawbacks on O.A.S., the elimination of F.I.R.A., deregulation, privatization, and proposals for free trade. We were told that these cuts, policies, were in fact “progressive” and good for the general population, that there would be more jobs, a better life, less tax, more disposable income, that wealth in an expanding economy would trickle down to almost everyone. No need for government intervention. At the time several of us attacked these policies as pure rhetoric, false, misleading, and lacking in substance. We said that such policies would reduce jobs and purchasing power, push more people into poverty, create unrest and polarization in Canadian society, and add a social deficit to an unresolved financial deficit. We said that these attacks on the social safety net and national cultural institutions would undermine national unity by in effect stripping away the national glue which for years bonded our country together. Not only did these arguments make no impact on the Conservative government prior to 1993, but they were abandoned by the Liberal government after 1993, which made a total about-face. The answer given by the government and by my colleagues was “affordability.” They said that, with the deficit as high as it was, we could no longer afford these programmes at the same level. This was despite the fact that in the 1993 election and platform (the Red Book), the Liberal party attacked the Conservatives for such policies, saying that the deficit must be addressed, but principally by growth and jobs; in other words, by generating more revenue. It is interesting to note that on February 21, 1995, Paul Martin admitted in the House of Commons that social programmes were not the cause of the deficit, and in fact were the same percent of GDP as 20 years ago. I must say, to be fair, that in this respect my Liberal friends were different from the Reform Party in Canada and the Newt Gingrich Republicans in the U.S. My Liberal colleagues believed that these social programmes were right and good, but for the moment, not affordable. The Reformers and others would cut them or eliminate them, because they thought they were wrong, that they were wasteful, that they required too much government, that we should be self-reliant. I make this distinction, because for Liberals we do not have to prove that these programmes are desirable, simply that they are still affordable. This has not been an easy task, because most of the country was “conned” into believing otherwise. It is evident that major interests systematically waged a successful campaign to convince Canadians, Americans, and others, that these cuts, these changes, were necessary. Unfortunately, that belief became so entrenched in our collective thinking that very few people even challenged it. Our argument in response was that these programmes in health, education, and social services were not only affordable, but essential to increased growth, stability, and economic prudence over the long-term. We pointed out that Canadians were spending billions on liquor, cigarettes, cosmetics, diets, pet food, fashions, holidays, swimming pools, jacuzzis, lawn furniture, boats and skidoos, and on and on. There was nothing wrong with any of these products, but when you consider the millions spent on them, it is difficult to argue that we could not afford health care, education, day-care and pensions. Businesses certainly believed that we could afford those products just mentioned, because they were continually hammering us with ads, on radio, television, in newspapers, magazine, in subways, on the highway, to buy, buy, buy and if you are short of cash,
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borrow or use credit. They do not question the affordability of these items by Canadians. So the real issue is one of priorities. What is more important for Canadian society - lawn furniture or day-care, Club Med or Medicare, skidoos or pensions? Furthermore, how long can you sustain private consumption without healthy, well trained workers and consumers? And without an efficient public infrastructure? What has been the result of this lean-mean approach? It is correct that GDP has increased, there is greater productivity, more exports, more wealth, but the equitable distribution of that wealth has declined. The gap between rich and poor has widened, child poverty has increased dramatically, more people live on the street, hospitals are closing, and the most of the new jobs are minimum wage, part-time, temporary, no benefits. The trickle-down theory has not worked as promised. In 1993, the National Council of Welfare reported that an additional 500,000 Canadians fell under the poverty level, even though the economy was expanding. This trend has continued since 1993. In 1996, Canada spent less on social programmes than any western country except the U.S., Greece and Switzerland. In 1995, John McCallum, Chief Economist for the Royal Bank, pointed out that between 1966 and 1989, over a period of 23 years, real per capita income increased every year, because more people were working, and real wages were rising. But in the next five years, from 1989 to 1994, per capita income fell, the percentage of those employed fell, and the income of those with jobs fell. Michael Lind, writing in Harper’s Magazine in 1995, attributed the growing gap between rich and poor to the growth of the global economy and free trade, especially to the globalization of the labour pool which resulted in downward pressure on wages and social programmes. He pointed out that in the U.S. in 1994, while 20% made gains in the economy, 80% lost. We had a similar picture in Canada, that is with respect to wages and income support programmes. What about our tax system? Between 1990 and 1994, personal income taxes in Canada rose to become 70% of federal revenues, while corporate taxes decreased from 25% of federal revenues in 1955 to 7% in 1992. By 1996, Canada had the lowest corporate taxes of all G7 countries. Recently, 62,000 Canadian corporations which made over $12 billion paid no tax. In 1996 Canada ranked 14th of 24 OECD countries in terms of total taxes paid. This ominous trend has not stopped. In a report released this month by the Canadian department of Human Resources Development, it was indicated that there was a growing gap between the health of the economy and the well-being of Canadians. The Report stated that since the late 70s, improvements in the economy have not been matched by increases in the social well-being of Canadians. In fact, it shows that as the economy has grown, Canadians’ social health has declined. “In terms of social well-being, Canada experienced its best years in the later 1970s.” During the Free Trade debate of 1988, many of us argued that the agreement as drafted would result in pressure to harmonize social, labour, and environmental programmes with those of the United States, to reduce them to the lowest common denominator, and that in fact is what has happened and what has been happening. With globalized trade, more Canadian firms are out-sourcing their manufacturing and supplies to escape labour and environment standards, and to make larger profits, and they are downsizing at home for the same reasons. Very often they can do abroad what they can’t do at home. They cooperate with governments which ignore the International Bill of Rights, including the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Next week the APEC heads of government will meet in Vancouver. This international trade association of 18 countries describes itself as a grouping of “economies,” not “states” and by this fiction pretends to have no obligations under international labour and human rights treaties, and maintains that these items have no place on their agenda. As a result the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development with the Canadian Labour Congress and Amnesty International is organizing a parallel people’s summit and a labour forum, just before the official summit where we hope to hear the views of unions, NGOs and civil society from many of these same countries. We have already had some interesting reactions from the leaders of some of these countries, such as Indonesia and China. So the alarm bells have begun to sound. Important statements are being made by workers and commentators. The public is beginning to see the damaging results in their own neighbourhoods. The results of a new poll by EKOS Research indicates that Canadians are upset with the widening gap between rich and poor and almost three-quarters believe the situation has deterioMcGill Institute for the Study of Canada | L’Institut d’études canadiennes de McGill 3
rated in the last five years. Seventy-two percent said it is time for Ottawa to patch up a social safety net stretched by cuts and still-high poverty and unemployment. The results differ from a similar poll in February 1994, shortly after the Chrétien government was first elected. Then, debt and deficit reduction was Canadians’ top priority and there was a higher demand for tax cuts. It is interesting to note that in this year’s federal election, Atlantic voters finally rebelled against these non-progressive policies which hurt them more than others. The government lost every seat in Nova Scotia and endured considerable losses in New Brunswick and Newfoundland where key ministers were defeated. As I stated earlier there have been new proposals, ideas and solutions put on the policy table. The Tobin tax, the ILO draft declaration on the rights of labour, the draft declaration on the rights of the indigenous peoples, codes of international business conduct, and expanding global networks of civil society, labour and NGOs. But what is the future for these progressive ideas in terms of public policy? Can and will these ideas be translated into popular programmes for political action? This remains to be seen. We certainly can’t expect the “culture of greed and the quick buck” to roll over and surrender without a fight. Although even businesses are beginning to complain about corruption, favouritism, and the absence of the rule of law in some of the global markets. The recent crash in Asian finance markets and the BRE-X scandal are also leading to some rethinking. For the moment there doesn’t seem to be much response in the Canadian Parliament (nor for that matter in any western parliament). Unfortunately in the last three parliaments there was a decline in the power of MPs in the Canadian system and too much power, too much control has been centralized in the Prime Minister’s Office. Dissidents, or those who would take a different approach were not tolerated. This has come about as a result of several changes. 1. Amendments to the Elections Act which gives the leader the right to veto any nomination. 2. The speaker’s cooperation with whips and leaders in accepting lists of members who will ask questions, debate, make statements, and the screening of questions. 3. Power of the whip to change committee membership at will. 4. Reduced time for statements in the House (90 to 60 seconds). 5. Closure and the allocation of time. 6. The Caucus research bureaus serving the Parties and not the members. The claims that Parliament has been seriously reformed are grossly exaggerated. As I just pointed out, the opposite is the case. The only item where some progress has been made is with respect to private member’s bills. In this case some bills can now come to a vote, and they are dealt with on a free vote basis. But even here, the whip and the House Leader intervene when they don’t like the bill’s content. In the last parliament I was able to get a bill (liability of nuclear power plants for risk of accident, meltdown) accepted as votable by the special committee and by the House at second reading. It was sent to committee but died there when the election was called. The most notable such bill in the last parliament was one by Roger Galloway (Sarnia) who got his bill through all stages in the House, but it was sidetracked in the Senate and never got through. Whether the present parliament will have more power remains to be seen. In Parliaments where the government is a minority or only a small majority, MPs generally have more power. I saw this in 1965, 1972 and 1979. If governments don’t listen to their backbenchers they might stay away or vote against. However, as I said above, it is too early to assess whether or not backbenchers and opposition members will use this clout in this parliament. I referred to this situation in parliament simply to indicate that it may not be easy to get a hearing, a debate, on the new ideas, the new policies, the new demands, which are rising to the surface from critical writing and grass-roots discontent. The question is whether governments and power elites will be flexible enough to modify and change direction, to alleviate the increasing misery of growing numbers of people, or will they be forced to do so by strikes, demonstrations, civil disobedience, and even violence? Will the mainline political parties take up these causes, or will they be left to more extreme, radical parties as happened in the past in certain other countries? My own conclusion is that there will be a change; that there is a future for progressive policies in Canada, but it won’t happen
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without a struggle, without organization, without a strategy and especially without global partners in a global political forum. The struggles for economic and social justice which took place within states in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries will now have to take place in a global arena with world-wide solidarity in unions, NGOs and civil society. This is the only way in which the new millennium will mean real progress for all of mankind.
The Honourable Warren Allmand, P.C., was called to the bar of Quebec in 1958, and was first elected to the House of Commons in the riding of Montreal-N.D.G. in 1965, retaining his seat in Parliament until 1993. As a member of the Liberal governmnet, he was minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs (1977-1979) and of Indian and Northern Affairs (1976-1977), and was the Solicitor General of Canada (1972-1976). He is currently the president of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, an independent, non-partisan Canadian institution with an international mandate to initiate, encourage and support the promotion, development and strengthening of democratic and human rights and programs as defined in the International Bill of Human Rights.
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