When did compassion become unaffordable?

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Thu Dec 01 2011.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

It has become the mantra for an era of tumbling expectations. “We will protect health care and education,” Premier Dalton McGuinty assured anxious Ontarians last month as his government unveiled its updated austerity plan.

Economist Don Drummond, who heads the province’s Commission on the Reform of Public Services, has been signalling for some time that he intends to recommend that only health and education expenditures be allowed to increase. All other public services will have to be cut to accommodate this growth.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered the federal version in last spring’s federal election. A re-elected Conservative government, he promised, would guarantee a 6 per cent annual increase in health spending until 2016. (His finance minister had already pledged to spare the provincial transfer payment that supports education from budget cuts.)

The country’s finance ministers are all reading from the same script.

It is easy to understand this convergence. The mantra reflects what the opinion polls say taxpayers want. It gives politicians a palatable way to sell bare-bones government. It satisfies credit-rating agencies that Canada is managed by fiscally responsible governments.

The political rationale has been talked about, written about, commented on.

What hasn’t received much attention is what this mantra means for the province, the nation and the value system Canadians once shared.

Here are a few of the implications.

It relieves governments of their role as economic stabilizers. All they have to do to fulfill their new contract with the people is preserve medicare and public education.

It strips the disadvantaged of their last vestiges of bargaining power. Funding for poverty reduction, narrowing the chasm between rich and poor, supporting people with disabilities and helping the unemployed get back on their feet can only decrease.

It puts to rest the tradition that Canadians take care of vulnerable citizens in good times and bad.

It weakens the guarantee of fair and equitable justice enshrined in the Constitution. Disinvesting in the courts means swelling backlogs, longer trial delays and less reliable evidence.

It relegates aboriginal development, the environment, the non-profit sector, public transit, immigrant integration and infrastructural renewal to second-class status.

It is not safe to assume the nation’s leaders will deliver on their pared-down agenda. Harper’s health-care commitment is vague and extends the existing federal-provincial funding formula by only two years. McGuinty’s plan is based on the premise that the economy will pick up strength over the next four years,

What is more troubling, however, is the passivity of the population. Few people are asking questions, seeking alternatives, discussing the consequences of this pared-down agenda.

It is partly because there are so few places left to debate public issues.

Parliament is no longer the nation’s debating forum. Everything is decided in the Prime Minister’s Office. The provincial legislatures are on same trajectory. There is still a measure of public debate about municipal priorities, but it is waning. Universities, community centres and the social media provide outlets for people to exchange views, but they don’t have a connection to the levers of power.

It is partly because citizens feel powerless.

Even if they object to what their leaders are doing, they know they can’t stop them. Leaders will just use their executive authority, invoke closure and reintroduce defeated bills session after session.

And it’s partly because most people genuinely don’t know what to do in the face of what McGuinty calls “howling economic storms.”

They’re not equipped to gauge the severity of global risks or judge how much belt-tightening is needed to insulate Canada from them.

Maybe a vow to save health care and education is all citizens want from the political leaders.

But it is a top-down untested consensus, not a real one.

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