The sector that dares not speak its name

TheStar.com – opinion/editorials
Published On Fri Sep 16 2011.   By Rick Salutin, Columnist

Here’s what I find so unsatisfying about arguing with the Ford brothers. It all gets conducted on their ground. They said there was gravy and there isn’t. So they lose that one. They said they won’t cut services and they will. They lose that one, too. But we’re still talking gravy and savings. It’s their turf.

What else is there to discuss? Ah, that’s when you see the genius of the Ford position. We are a society that has largely lost sight of the fact that there is anything to debate in politics except how to save money. So even when they lose, they win — by reinforcing the ground rules. Don’t credit Rob and Doug for inventing this mindset. It’s been drummed into the public ear for decades by think-tanks, pundits and politicians. But the Fords reproduce it ably.

So Mayor Rob says, “We have to find different ways of delivering services. If the private sector can deliver them more efficiently, then why not have them?” I think he means it rhetorically but there are answers. For starters, he assumes services are the same no matter who delivers them. They aren’t.

Take libraries. What’s the “service” — lending books? Indigo could do that. So could Amazon, which is considering it. But even if they could do it cheaper, it wouldn’t be the same. A children’s librarian who loves books and is employed to put that love at the service of kids differs from a retail clerk who may also love books but whose job is to increase sales (or rentals) of whatever the marketing department chose to stock. Not to mention the existence of a place in your area to and from which people flow that helps make it a community rather than clusters of housing from which consumers fan out to shop.

Take health care. Talking to your own doctor about treatment is different from negotiating with a number-cruncher at a health management firm in the U.S., whose job is enhancing profits for shareholders along with the bonuses of the CEO. It’s obvious when you think about it, if you think about it.

It took time to forget these truisms. Take the arts. Almost 30 years ago a new Tory government began cutting culture funding. Artists went to Ottawa to lobby cabinet ministers. But their arguments were mostly “economic”: all the jobs generated, how cheaply artists work, the “multiplier” effect on the economy. The ministers yawned; everyone who comes to Ottawa talks like that. The compelling arguments would have stressed things that publicly supported culture gives Canadians that they can’t get otherwise. Once you shift off your own ground, you’ve basically lost, even when you win an occasional round.

We’re now mired in this profiteering, privatizing mentality. It cuts off every alternative viewpoint. Brian Topp is running for NDP leader. The worst the Harper Tories can say about him is, he has “deep union ties” and can’t “speak on behalf of all Canadians.” They don’t say why, it’s taken for granted. But tell me one thing unions have done that was even slightly as damaging as a business class that shipped out good industrial jobs (and factories) to cheap labour zones; or a financial sector that concocted useless and incomprehensible “devices” that contributed to an economic meltdown rivalling the 1930s. Yet no one challenges the ability of people with “deep business ties” to represent us.

CBC News’ nightly hour on business promotes itself with host-journalist Amanda Lang saying: “I think what is really special about the show is that it does celebrate business.” What — are they feeling needy? They don’t get enough support? They need a party every night? Is there a whole hour per year celebrating unions, librarians or teachers? And this is our public network.

How did it come to this? It’s a matter of culture, of being trained to think in certain ways, over decades, and of how to gradually unlearn that. Someone in a bistro recently suggested there should be a contest for the top 10 words that the Ford brothers have trouble spelling. He said first on the list is library. A 12-year-old overheard. “I’ve got one,” he yelped. “TTC.”

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