In us we trust?

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Thu Mar 17 2011.    Rick Salutin, Columnist

The opposition wants to frame the looming election as a vote on whether Canadians can trust Stephen Harper. I think trust is an issue, but the question isn’t: Do Canadians trust Harper? It’s: Does Harper trust Canadians?

Trust is an essential component in a successful society and politics is the main way that societies attempt to act together. Those with high trust levels tend to create programs like public health care or education. Those lacking trust do less together; at most they build prisons or surveillance systems to keep watch on each other.

Take the U.S. It achieved most — as a nation rather than as individuals or isolated groups — during the Depression or civil rights years when there tended to be more trust, fostered by leaders like Roosevelt and Kennedy.

High levels of social trust don’t just happen; they’re earned. In Finland, where I was last fall, parents trust public schools with their kids and don’t demand endless proof in the form of test results. But there’s reason to trust your fellow citizens there: everyone is looked after, young or old, and there’s an attempt to keep income gaps fairly narrow. Most societies with high trust levels tend to be small and homogeneous, like Finland. It helps them build strong social programs.

Canada is an exception. Tony Judt, who I’ve quoted before, called us an unusual “crossover case” because we’re quite large and diverse, yet have achieved enough trust despite that to build strong programs that benefit everyone. I think this is what Stephen Harper meant when he called us a “second-rate socialist country” and I think we should wear it with pride. Not because we’re remotely socialist; we’re not. But I think we’ve managed to be highly social, or sociable and build on that.

There are people who don’t just have trouble trusting others, they don’t even seem to trust trust when they see it in action. They cringe at the sight. I think of Stephen Harper in this category. It’s not just his attempt to control what others say, or the flow of information. He couldn’t wait to cancel the national child-care program and replace it with small grants to families. You’ll never accomplish a lot that way but you avoid anxiety and disappointment over how a large national program might work out. Ask yourself this: Can you imagine the Harper government (as they now say) bringing in medicare?

What of Harper’s claim that this election shouldn’t be over “distractions” like trust, but about the economy? I’d say an economy is all about trust and distrust. Next Tuesday’s budget will focus on taxes, which are the concrete form of political trust. If we trust our leaders to use our taxes to do things we can’t achieve on our own, then we pay — not happily but willingly. If we don’t trust them, then we’d rather not pay and we choose leaders who will do less. The whole Harper economic program has been to lower taxes incessantly, starting with the GST, so there’s less money to do things and less reason to take a chance on the kind of public trust required to deal with large problems.

Nothing is more fragile and easier to lose than public trust, especially in the area of taxes. When bankers took tax money as bailouts and then used it for further bonuses, they hammered that trust, justifying Harperian distrust.

Recently, Harper ministers like Chuck Strahl and Stockwell Day have said they won’t run again. They’re from the West, and the old Reform party that preceded Harper’s Conservatives. Those folks didn’t trust government because it was distant and eastern but they knew about trusting each other in the rugged western environment.

Stephen Harper shares nothing of that tradition. When Day announced his intention to retire, he had to tell reporters the PM was “surprised and disappointed,” as if he didn’t, er, trust Stephen Harper to come out himself and say so. It was odd, and revealing.

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