COLUMN

Once a kinder and gentler nation

Everybody now wants something for nothing, and the result of such selfishness is to sandbag honest workers with soaring taxes

DIANE FRANCIS September 17 1990
COLUMN

Once a kinder and gentler nation

Everybody now wants something for nothing, and the result of such selfishness is to sandbag honest workers with soaring taxes

DIANE FRANCIS September 17 1990

Once a kinder and gentler nation

COLUMN

Everybody now wants something for nothing, and the result of such selfishness is to sandbag honest workers with soaring taxes

DIANE FRANCIS

Every society has its unique morality which influences individual behavior and shapes its economy and politics. And it was a pleasant surprise for me, as an American immigrant coming to Canada in 1966, to find such a fair and generous society north of the border. The United States is a great place to live, providing you are not poor, sick, old or black. In contrast, Canada generously provided the essentials, medical and educational opportunities for all, thus breaking the poverty cycle and allowing the cream to rise to the top. But it is a paradox that Canada’s unselfish society has led to a selfish one. Canadians are increasingly asking not what they can do for their country, but what their country can do for them.

The welfare state seeps into every crevice of this country and has evolved into the politics of envy, no matter who is in power. The manifestations are everywhere. Provinces vie for federal money. Some demand special privileges over others. The three richest provinces— Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta—recently took Ottawa to court and stopped the federal government from capping massive transfer payments, even though most people agree that spending restraint is needed. To buy votes, virtually all governments continue to build unnecessary schools, prisons, museums or roads. Politicians of every stripe hand out grants and goodies galore. The latest available figures show that in 1984 Canadian governments gave $8.1 billion in grants to businesses while the Americans gave somewhat more, $10.6 billion, even though their economy is 12 times larger than ours.

Of course, Canadians get the politics they deserve. Everybody wants something for nothing. Fat-cat corporations line up for grants. Multicultural groups demand that other taxpayers contribute towards keeping alive cultures they left behind. Aboriginals break the law, and cost taxpayers a fortune to uphold their “rights.” Car workers and other powerful unions hold a gun to employers’ heads, de-

manding overly generous compensation for inflation even though such compensation forces up inflation for the rest of us. Senators and aldermen alike award themselves huge raises. The result of such selfishness is to sandbag honest workers with soaring taxes and soaring interest rates, which are the result, in great measure, of soaring government debts.

I still believe most Canadians are honest and don’t abuse government largess, but the rationalizations of the welfare state increase. “If I don’t get that government grant, somebody else will” is a common refrain. Others include: “I paid into it for years so why shouldn’t I collect,” “The government’s budgeted for it,” “Everybody does it,” “Canada’s a rich country,” “Why should Quebec get it all?” “Nobody cares,” or that irrational, and self-fulfilling, old saw “The government will waste the money anyway.”

Look around for examples. I have a neighbor whose son works outdoors during warm months and collects Unemployment Insurance Commission benefits during the four coldest ones. Meanwhile, want ads for unskilled workers like himself, in his wage range, bulge in local newspapers every winter. His mother is disgusted, but still he collects because rules

allow him to refuse a job if it is not exactly what he wants, where he wants to go and at the salary he expects. Another friend got a grant to pay for research he would have been willing to pay for himself if no grant had been available. Then there’s an electrician I know who lives on disability benefits even though he could support himself if he retrained in another, unphysical line of work. It’s all perfectly legal, but should not be.

There’s also out-and-out crookery: Tradesmen who ask you if you want an invoice made out to a company so work or services can be unfairly written off against corporate profits; cleaning ladies who only take cash because they don’t pay taxes on their income; or wealthy businessmen who go out for dinner and claim it as a business expense. Still others do not need rent, legal aid or day care subsidies but claim them anyway.

Such people take and never want to give. Case in point is the debate over the looming Goods and Services Tax. Critics fail to mention that the amount the tax will generate will not be more than what is being collected now from an existing hidden manufacturers tax. Also missing from the debate is the fact that the estimated proceeds, about $19 billion, is far short of the $27.3-billion federal contribution towards two beloved benefits, medical insurance and old-age security payments.

Instead, increasing numbers of Canadians use such taxes as an excuse for indulging in the despicable practice of border shopping in the United States. They buy goods that are cheaper there because taxes are lower due, in large part, to less generous social benefits. A friend of mine is typical and buys groceries, clothing, gasoline and other items south of the border all the time. She never declares goods at the border or pays duty on them even though she is a cancer patient who has had treatments and operations that have probably cost the rest of us hundreds of thousands in medical costs. I don’t begrudge paying for her medical services, but she and others who shop south of the border are tax evaders who get benefits and do not pay their fair share of the taxes that must be raised to pay for those benefits.

What happened to Canada? When did a thrifty, generous and hardworking society turn into a selfish collection of pressure groups who craftily win concessions from spineless politicians at the expense of others? When did Canada’s generous-spirited intention of helping the helpless turn into a race for handouts paid for by others? It is more than just a disappointment. This society’s selfishness speeds us towards economic oblivion, and we need answers. Perhaps politicians should only be allowed one, seven-year term to remove reelection bribery. Perhaps referendums should be mandatory on all major public expenditures, as is often the case at the state level in the United States, to control costs. Perhaps we should label things properly. How about redubbing the GST the Health Care Charge? I suggested this recently to Finance Minister Michael Wilson and he said, “Canadians understand the links already.” I wish he was right. But I don’t think he is.