Export, Eh?


Archer

 

In January the Canadian Trade
Minister, Art Eggleton, came down with competitive advantage
flu and mused that the state should not support or protect
Canadian culture, but instead "free" it for export
and, one assumes, to flourish accordingly. He was speaking
generally about the increasing presence of U.S. media in
Canada, but seemed unencumbered by any sense of absurdity in
attempting to establish that Canadians have a comparative
advantage in cultural production and must therefore export
our culture to the United States. These musings spurned a
number of hastily convened meetings in Ottawa to discuss the
erosion of Canadian cultural institutions, meetings convened
by the Trade Minister’s counterpart, the Trade Minister
of Heritage Sheila Copps. Their government has presided over
deep cuts to public broadcasters and support for cultural
industries, so with great fanfare exactly nothing happened.
This kind of political contortion provides an opportunity to
pause and take stock of the recent history of the neoliberal
agenda in Canada.

Like the United States and
England, Canada was governed by two consecutive terms of
conservative governments during the middle and late 1980s.
These governments, under Brian Mulroney, implemented a
rollback of the state, the goal of which was (and is) to
erode and dismantle as much of the Canadian mixed economy as
possible, enter free-trade agreements, and reform or
eliminate social policies at odds with the first two
objectives. Nineteen ninety-three saw the election of the
Liberal Party on a platform of creating employment and
abrogating NAFTA. What the government delivered, however, is
even stricter economic and social policy conservatism,
largely at the hands of the Finance Minister, Paul Martin,
Jr. In addition, two neoconservative provincial governments
in Alberta and Ontario lead to the regional implementation of
the neoliberal agenda, an agenda that has been adopted in
different degrees by almost all ten provincial governments.

The period from 1945 to 1974 is
now seen as the "golden age" of the social security
state in Canada. In the context of post-war activism, strong
economic growth, and the women’s, peace, environmental,
and civil rights movements, universal social programs began
their period of fullest expression. Nineteen ninety-six saw
the introduction of two important programs, Medicare
(universal medical insurance) and the Canada Assistance Plan
(universal "living wages"), among other reforms
toward creating equality, inclusiveness, and redistribution
of wealth and opportunity.

Early neoliberal advocates and
researchers in Canada were organizations like the Business
Council on National Issues (BCNI), a group of the largest 160
corporations, and right-wing think tanks like the CD Howe and
Fraser Institutes. They generated economic and social policy
analysis reminiscent of the Chicago School of Economics.
Additionally, "citizen’s coalitions" formed
around issues from tax relief to direct democracy. Such
coalitions often have either funding or staffing
relationships with neoconservative foundations, institutions,
or leaders and gate-keepers. In contrast to the previous
decade, 1975 to 1985 was a decade of cuts by the state as a
spender and an employer. There were greater corporate tax
expenditures and a reduction of transfers for program
spending. Other measures were introduced, including an
increase in contracting out, privatization, and promotion of
private sector insurance, such as Registered Retirement
Savings Plans. Much of this program was justified as
"targeting the needy," the well-worn euphemism for
obfuscating cuts.

The 1980s were characterized by
further reductions in government expenditures, two free trade
agreements and "social policy by stealth"—that
is, the dismantling of relatively popular programs through
technical amendments in the budget process, such as
de-indexing transfer payments, clawing back old age security,
cutting payments to other governments who share the costs of
programs (like welfare), and changes in qualifications for
wage support and other programs. Immigration policy was
refocused on wealthy applicants and away from humanitarian or
family reunification applicants. This didn’t all happen
without protest. Some struggles emerged for social programs,
like the fight against de-indexing pensions in the late
1980s, which the government was forced to abandon after
popular outcry. The BCNI, generally supportive of the
Mulroney government, supported the pensioners on this
issue—it later turned out that it didn’t want an
entire program of rollback threatened by the conservative
government’s obsession with any one issue. The
"free trade election" in 1988 marked perhaps the
most obvious alignment of corporate interests against large
coalitions of other groups, a struggle which is remembered by
activists as one of the best and most cohesive campaigns in
recent history. Unfortunately, it lost.

In the fall of 1994, there was
an unprecedented, and since then unmatched, bout of deficit
hysteria in Canada. Suddenly, it seemed, the sky was falling
and with it credit ratings in New York brokerage houses and
Canada’s status as a developed country, etc. Shortly
thereafter, in the spring of 1995, Paul Martin’s
back-to-the-future budget took Canada in the Minister’s
words, "back to spending levels of 1951" (7:1 cuts
to spending ratio). Equally importantly, the guiding
principles of social programs in Canada were effectively
dismantled by the introduction of the Canadian Health

and Social Transfer (CHST)—a block
fund allocated to education, health, and wage support
programs together. Without control over the funding formula,
Ottawa had effectively given up their main tool for
implementing and upholding national standards of social
programs. These standards vary for each program, but include
things like universal access, minimum levels of support and
criteria for the provision of services. Although we are still
in the process, the CHST foreshadows the end of universalism,
the guiding principle of the state programs. The funny thing
about the 1995 budget was that it was from a government
elected two years earlier on a platform of anti-conservatism
(Brian Mulroney having achieved the honor of being the most
unpopular prime minister in the history of polling), and job
creation. The landslide victory for the Liberal party
translated into an intensification of the neoliberal agenda.

@HEAD 1 = Other Contortions of
Late Neoliberalism

@PAR AFTERJ<@191>UB = The
aforementioned episode between the trade minister and the
heritage minister typifies the ever-emerging conflicts
between the neoliberal agenda and its steady erosion of
programs of economic and social justice that have been (so
far) important to Canadians. To a certain extent, these
programs have been part of a national identity that is
characterized by a reliance and trust in interventionist
government in social and economic spheres. Here, the health
care system is often contrasted with that in the United
States, not just as an example of state intervention, but as
an expression of identity, an identity somewhat less
concerned with an individual’s right not to have
universal health insurance. But this connection is not to be
taken too far—at its fullest expression, the state left
much to be desired, and did not include all equitably in its
redistribution of opportunity and benefits. We have
opportunities to witness these ever-present divisions as
groups are
pitted
against each other during the gradual dissolution of the
safety net. In this particular case, those in state-supported
or otherwise protected cultural industries are getting a
taste of what people of color, low-income, and other marginal
populations have been living with for the past 20 years, and
more.

The much discussed "death
of the middle class" has evolved into divisions along
class lines, perhaps the most stark expression of which was
found in an extensive polling project conducted by EKOS
Research Associates in 1994 on behalf of the federal
government. Of those polled, over three-in-four believe that
politicians and business leaders "seem to have taken
care of themselves and friends while average Canadians have
suffered badly." When asked to rank priorities for the
government, the sample as a whole cited freedom, clean
environment, healthy population, integrity, and individual
rights as the first four priorities, and competitiveness and
minimal government 20 and 22 (out of 22) respectively. The
survey also polled the attitudes of "elite
decision-makers" who numbered 19 percent of the sample.
This group ranked as
the
first four priorities of government: competitiveness,
integrity, minimal government, and thriftiness. Health ranked
ninth. As the EKOS Associates write, "the diminished
strength of Canadians’ generosity and compassion is most
evident among the more comfortable social class," and
the "preeminence of economic interests over values
reflects a growing class fissure, which increasingly defines
the foundation for political economic disputes in
Canada." Regional divisions have also been exacerbated
through the dissolution of national. There has been a
traditional tension in Canada between "have" and

"have not" provinces, who have
shared revenues through national programs. It became a
practice in Alberta not long ago to take people cut off
welfare and bus them to British Columbia, where a left-wing
provincial government had yet to cut welfare rates. The EKOS
study also indicated significantly less tolerance for both
immigration policies and equity programs—that is,
programs that are associated with people of color.

Although neoliberal policies
have been the mainstay of public policy for about 20 years,
the cause and effect of public sentiment and official policy
are, as usual, difficult to establish clearly through polls.
The government released the EKOS polls, one assumes, to
establish that it was responding to public opinion in
restricting immigration and cutting the deficit (although
that didn’t stop it from ignoring the mandate they were
elected on). But the EKOS study is an example of the
intensified arsenal of tactics governments and large
institutions have been using to implement policies generally
at odds with the majority of public opinion. It might also be
noted that polling occurs almost exclusively in English and
French, effectively ignoring significant segments of the
Canadian population, who, surprise surprise, tend to be from
ethnoracial groups. In the words of John Wright, vice
president of Angus Reid, one of Canada’s largest polling
firms, "Communities vote in blocks and sometimes they do
… but the key is, do they participate? If they don’t
vote, I don’t care about their views."

To gain and retain power, the
governments implementing these neoliberal changes have also
turned to some race-traditional and duplicitous methods of
control: outright lying and crisis management (the current
government promised to eliminate a regressive consumer tax,
the GST, and abrogate NAFTA), targeting disempowered groups
as causing declining standards of living (largely immigrants
and social assistance recipients), blaming employment equity
for unemployment, and creating a false sense of crisis or
inefficiency in government programs. The Minister of
Education in Ontario briefed his staff in September 1995, to
"create a crisis" in education funding so he might
more easily introduce privatization. The national health care
system is currently in the same position as funds are
withdrawn and hospitals close, although we might reliably
guess that people have not suddenly become healthier.
Alternately, a sense of false consciousness is also being
encouraged. The above-mentioned Heritage Minister has created
a $20 million flag-waving campaign (literally, to give people
flags to wave). It is apparently intended to foster a sense
of unity and belonging, perhaps in response to the separatist
movement in Quebec gaining momentum—as real benefits to
confederation in Canada are withdrawn. This particular
campaign betrays either deep racism about the current
devolution of government, or more likely, a lack of insight
into the history of Canadian identity and culture, which is
often characterized by an ambivalence to overt nationalist
sentiments, and certainly to ministry-sponsored flag waving.
Polling and presentation is, of course, one of the lessons
Canadian neoliberals learned from experience around the
world. The story is sadly familiar by now—a government
recently elected on a platform mixing an odd assortment of
pro-jobs, pro-health care, deficit cutting, tax-cutting,
anti-immigrant promises proudly declares that it won’t
wait, won’t stop, and won’t blink as it
systematically guts itself and a good number of productive
members of society along the way. When Conrad Black goes out
of his way to applaud a government, as he did recently the
Ontario government, you know you are in deep shit.

The neoliberal culture of
government has created an interesting confusion among the
members of various right-wing factions. Big-government
conservatives (as often reflected in their columnists) are
regularly appalled by the prescriptions of their younger
neoconservative colleagues seeking to carve a piece of
history for themselves. This has lead in part to the Reform
Party, a new national "populist" and
deficit-fighting party rose to prominence in the last federal
election largely capitalizing on the misery of the previous
progressive conservative legacy, and blaming the state of the
nation on everyone from same-sex couples to immigrants to
welfare mothers. But with the governing Liberal Party now
predicting the end of deficits in Canada, speculation on
soon-to-be revealed election platforms displays a paucity of
policy options, summarized by a sort of macho
whose-tax-cut-is-bigger. The Reform Party is without an
economic platform of blame, and has announced a fresh start
including tax cuts, more cuts to programs, and some promises
about health and education. How these three appear to be
irreconcilable is not explored. Aside from promising to cut
things even faster, the Reform Party has resorted, a la Dole,
to the moral high ground which, as the left has found, can
also be moral quicksand. Meanwhile, a reinvigorated
Progressive Conservative Party is rolling out its new
platform: a bigger tax cut, and some reinvestment in health
care and education. Deja vu. The New Democratic Party has
made the most consistent statements toward reinstating social
programs but receives little mainstream coverage, and the
official opposition, the Bloc Quebecois, has just elected a
new leader whose direction is as yet unclear.

If Sartre worried about the
banality of evil, neoliberal post-deficit platforms are
presenting us with the evil of banality. The mess
neoliberalism has left the country in casts a shadow over the
latest state-of-the-nation analyses. Three recent books have
been published about the neoliberal legacy (though not
explicitly phrased that way) and the current state of
Canadian peoples and preferences—in the pollster’s
style.
Sex in the Snow: Canadian Social
Values at the End of the Millennium
by
Michael Adams and
Shakedown by
the aforementioned Angus Reid are the two most recent
summaries of the mood of the people. The tip-off about these
two books is that they are written by pollsters who have made
a good living under the past three governments. They more or
less trot out a clustered history of the opinions of
Canadians as the state withered and the middle class
collapsed into bizarrely termed groups like "disengaged
Darwinists," "New Aquarians," and of course
"Anxious Communitarians." Their tone approaches
lament for the days of the middle class, especially when they
come up against the divisions discussed above. The third
book,
Boom Bust
and Echo
, is
written by economist-demographer David Foot and
anti-immigrant, anti-refugee columnist Daniel Stoffman. It is
a weightier treatment of larger demographic trends in roughly
the same method, with perhaps more Malthusian overtones: What
shall we do with the large aging population seeking status
but facing fewer jobs and opportunities? The popular press
has also been asking for more in the way of vision from
Ottawa. The right-of-center
Globe and
Mail
ran several articles in January on
"Ottawa’s Missing Mind," and the generally
liberal
Toronto Star makes
reasoned editorial requests for some sort of promise on
employment every week or two.

Pollsters attempt to construct
narratives about public opinion not just to explore symptoms,
but to estimate trends. The emergence of these books (and
related ones by the likes of Jeremy Rifkin and Nuala Beck),
seem to be asking with some sincerity, What do we do next
about this state of things? In a sense, the challenges that
federal governments have set for themselves are more reduced
in scope than ever before: federalism has been severely
eroded and is now limited to enforcement of a justice system
and promotion of "competitiveness" by leading trade
junkets around the world once a year. The prime minister has
responded by peppering his speeches with the word
"vision" and references to the year
"2001," but no substantial trends have emerged for
the direction of post-deficit politics. A cynical observer
might surmise that that is because he wants things to stay
the way they are
. Jean
Charest, the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, is
emphasizing his youth in relation to the other candidates. As
far as I can tell this has absolutely no policy value at all.

With each wave of
privatization, the persistence of relatively high
unemployment and record levels of bankruptcies, and the
promised land ever in the distance, the question, What is
government for? is getting raised in a most public way, as
perhaps it hasn’t in Canada in several decades. This is
arguably a good thing, and I hear
the
same questions from U.S.-based writers and media as well. The
unfortunate part is the rather limited scope of the answers
that get floated. Canadian-style neoliberalism is ensuring
its survival by forcing the majority of citizens to define
their interests as narrowly as possible, and fostering a
false sense of what is and isn’t desirable

 

Simon Archer is a Toronto-based
writer and activist. He has worked in communications for the
New Democratic Party and several community-based services.