A prime minister going the wrong way

Posted on July 5, 2010 in Governance

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thetelegram.com – Opinion
July 3, 2010.   Lana Payne, The Telegram

Stephen Harper is probably feeling pretty smug these days.

And why shouldn’t he be?

He thinks he can now justify spending a stunning and obscene $1.2 billion (and still counting) on a three-day G20 meeting, mostly in security costs, all because a few malcontents/hooligans got the better of the police, or were allowed to get the better of the police.

The police, from all accounts, were busy reinterpreting civil liberties and arresting legitimate protesters – many of them young people wishing to exercise their freedom of expression and assembly. Others were simply standing up for a better world, as idealistic as that may sound to the jaded masses.

His fellow world leaders (and they were for the most part fellows) didn’t embarrass him by publicly disagreeing with him on home soil. They managed this through a deftly written communiqué.

But despite the so-called “Toronto consensus,” the reality is most of these world presidents and prime ministers are now home having to deal with their own citizenry, many of whom are none too happy that they are forced to pay a steep price for a recession they did not cause.

The gilded walls of that giant-gated, or rather, fenced and heavily-armed community known as downtown Toronto is but a distant memory.

He can also pat himself on the back for standing up and going to the wall for those “poor old” banks – representing their bloated interests over the interests of the citizens of the globe.

He fought hard against an international tax on financial transactions. The other world leaders who wished to implement a teenie, tiny tax on the banks and financial institutions – those largely responsible for the present economic crisis – will create their own bank tax, without Canada.

He got the G8 countries to agree to his maternal health plan – a plan that will not fund abortions.

And he bullied until he got the other leaders to agree to undertake a so-called austerity plan. The goal of that plan is to cut deficits in half by 2013. Such actions will have painful repercussions for the people of the planet, many who continue to suffer from the worst financial and economic crisis since the 1930s. For them, there has been no recovery.

In fact, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman says such action will exacerbate the current global economic crisis. He argued in his New York Times column last week that this same austerity approach was taken in the Great Depression, intensifying that crisis.

“We are now, I fear, in the early stages of a third depression,” Krugman said. “The cost – to the world economy and, above all, to the millions of lives blighted by the absence of jobs – will nonetheless be immense.” Krugman called it a “victory of an orthodoxy that has little to do with rational analysis” but is about imposing suffering on other people as a way to show real leadership in tough times.

“And who will pay the price for this triumph of orthodoxy? The answer is, tens of millions of unemployed workers, many of whom will go jobless for years, and some of whom will never work again,” said Krugman. He is of the point of view, as are a lot of economists, that pulling back on stimulus spending and slashing government programs and spending when the economy is still performing poorly, with little or static private-sector investment, is a recipe for a deepening economic crisis.

But Stephen Harper doesn’t care about such things. He likes orthodoxy.

In fact he likes it so much that he and his government end up making horrible fiscal decisions that we all end up paying for, such as wasting surpluses, handing out billions and billions in tax cuts to corporations, and making plans to spend even more of our money on things like prisons while preaching austerity to the rest of the world.

Just days before Prime Minister Harper hosted the G8/G20, Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page exposed yet another costly Conservative government plan.

Page pieced together a price tag for the government’s “Truth in Sentencing” law. The new so-called tough on crime measures will cost Canadians, at the federal level, an additional $1 billion a year for each of the next five years. Presumably this money will be spent at a time when the federal government is cutting deficits by slashing spending for other programs, like perhaps transfers to provinces for health and education.

In addition, provinces will have to fork out tons more cash in order to meet the sentencing requirements.

So we have a Conservative prime minister who has made and continues to make poor economic and fiscal choices – placing orthodoxy over economic reality. He gutted funding for early learning and child care which would have done plenty to support the labour market and perhaps boost Canada’s productivity numbers. He wasted away billions in surpluses left by the Liberals. He continues to hand out billions in tax cuts. He squandered $1 billion on a meeting that could have been far cheaper to have on a luxury liner in the middle of the ocean. And now the cost of his new tough-on-crime bill will end up costing all of us, in more ways than one.

I won’t get into how such public money would be better spent on the front end, on things like poverty reduction, as that is a topic for another column.

In the meantime, Kevin Page has earned my unwavering affection. No single person has caused Harper and his government so much grief. Perhaps his next report will look at the detailed costs of the G8/20. I am sure it would be an enlightening read.

Lana Payne is president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. She can be reached by e-mail at lanapayne@nl.rogers.com. Her column returns July 17.

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