At one level the current parliamentary furor is partisan politics at its worst. Stephen Harper is taking advantage of the scandal to boost the fortunes of the Conservatives while Paul Martin clings to power by promoting a budget not of the Liberals own making. These theatrics in Ottawa are diverting our attention away from how public programs and services are being undermined.
Harper has obvious reasons for pushing an election. Voters rejected the Conservative/Alliance policy agenda in the last election. And, if polls are any indication, that agenda is still too far to the right for most Canadians. Going into an election without having to focus on an unpopular policy agenda is a great opportunity for the Conservatives. They might get elected if they don’t have to talk about what they stand for. Harper’s focus on the scandal confirms many Canadians’ suspicions that Harper has a hidden agenda.
The Liberals are of course also playing partisan politics. By focusing on the new spending initiatives they are able to deflect some of the attacks from the Conservatives/Alliance. The Liberals will be able to campaign on a budget which, while not popular with the CEOs on Bay Street, probably has the backing of most Canadians.
In the midst of all this, defenders of public services find themselves in a difficult position. How do you defend government spending when it is being associated with the kind of corruption that is being revealed by the Gomery commission?
A significant majority of Canadians want governments to deal with the challenges of health care, education, poverty and the environment. But they want it done in a fiscally responsible manner. They don’t mind paying taxes but they don’t support tax dollars going into a bottomless pit where money is unaccounted for or siphoned off due to corruption. Most Canadians are even willing to pay more taxes to support better health care, education and the environment. At the end of the day they want to see programs that meet their individual and collective needs and aspirations and give value for the tax dollars they pay.
The scandal has made people more cynical about whether governments can deliver good honest public services. The Liberals are not credible when it comes to promoting and ensuring effective public services and social programs. The revised budget that invests in many Canadians’ priorities was forced on them by the NDP in the context of a minority government. In reality the Liberals have spent much of the past decade undermining the capacity of the public sector through cutting and curtailing program spending.
During the course of the Chrétien/Martin governments, investments in programs and services have decreased from about 17% to less than 12% of GDP – the lowest level in the Canadian post war economy. While economic activity continues to increase, a decreasing portion of this activity promotes the public interest. Rather than make the public sector more effective, the Liberals have been turning an increasing proportion of the activities that affect our communities and livelihoods over to private corporate interests.
When governments relinquish their capacity to promote the public interest through social programs, regulations and public enterprises, citizens lose the capacity to influence events through the ballot box. As more decisions about our society and economy are left in the hands of for-profit private interests, those who have economic power increasingly drive decisions about our future. Ultimately the result is a less democratic society.
Despite Martin’s musings about dealing with a democratic deficit, Canada has become less democratic under his watch. The Conservatives appear to have no interest in challenging increasing corporate influence over government. Their focus on the scandal is not only about avoiding debate about their policy orientation but it also accomplishes another objective for the Tories – it discredits the whole notion of public services. This fits well with the Conservatives’ views that government spending is inherently wasteful and prone to corruption, hence the need for minimal government and a preference for the private sector.
The partisan politics of the sponsorship scandal are diverting our attention from what is really needed – a debate about how to make government and public programs and services more effective, responsive and accountable to citizens.
John Jacobs is director of the Nova Scotia office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (www.policyalternatives.ca), an independent public policy research institute.