COLUMN

Lead us or leave, prime minister

Dian Cohen January 24 1983
COLUMN

Lead us or leave, prime minister

Dian Cohen January 24 1983

Lead us or leave, prime minister

COLUMN

By Dian Cohen

Dear Prime Minister:

Canada has long needed a leader with the tact, skill, compassion and diplomacy essential to sell what has been for millions the bitter medicine of inflation and recession.

Instead, we have had a leader who has vacillated over confrontation, is arrogant and patronizingly condescending. Almost since the April day in 1968 when you took office, your biggest mistake has been to equate toughness with leadership. This despicable attitude was, once again, illustrated just recently when a group of Roman Catholic bishops decried the immorality of so much unemployment in a country as rich as ours. They pleaded for your government to give a higher priority to a situation that results in so much hardship. You responded, sir, by trying to defrock the priests: “. . . the bishops are not necessarily better economists than other economists,” you said.

Sir, you misjudge the concerns of Canadians. Your government’s responses to economic events of the past few months leave such a feeling of déjà vu that one is hard-pressed to see new ways out of the morass. Your dismissal of the bishops’ concerns simply mirrors your past responses to other pressing issues. Your policies create such feelings of anxiety, hostility and even hysteria that the basic problem gets lost in the polarization of opinion and the defence of position.

Item: In 1969, when unemployment was hovering at about 4.5 per cent, you launched your first anti-inflation drive, suggesting that you were prepared to accept an as yet unheard-of six-percent unemployment rate as the price of stability.

Item: When, in 1972, with an unemployment rate of 6.5 per cent, such respected groups as the Conference Board of Canada and the C.D. Howe Research Institute criticized your economic policies, you responded by saying that all those who did not wholeheartedly endorse the policies of your government were “reactionary poor-mouthers” who “bellyache at all the little things that go wrong in the system.”

Item: When people living on land that was to be expropriated for the proposed Pickering airport east of Toronto expressed concern about their fate and said to you, “You’re stealing our land,” you casually replied, “Why don’t you call a policeman?”

Item: Since your arrival in office, Canada has experienced three recessions— in 1970-71, 1975 and 1982. Between the recessions the economy has, for the most part, operated disappointingly below its potential. Not once have you responded with compassion to the deeply felt concerns of people fearing for their livelihood. In 1971 in Victoriaville, Que., you suggested that the unemployed are in the “front ranks of a new leisure class”; in 1975 you said to The Financial Post that some people are “going to get their asses kicked”; in 1982, to the people in Salmon Arm, B.C., you made rude gestures with your fingers.

Actions and statements such as these, Prime Minister (“Where’s Bangladesh?”; “Mangez de la merde”) “Well, why should I sell the Canadian farmers’ wheat?”), do not elicit co-operation or inspire a desire to pull together to solve the economic problems troubling us all.

What this country really needs, first

‘The nearly two million Canadians who are unemployed cannot wait for deliberations of royal commissioners'

and foremost, Prime Minister, is a clear-cut statement committing you and your government to full employment. A parliamentary white paper on employment and income to that effect was written just after the Second World War. Canada also signed the United Nations Charter in which articles 55 and 56 embody what has been called “the full employment pledge.”

Yet, sir, Canada did not experience full employment once during the 1970s. In fact, during your entire 14-year tenure, only once—in 1969—could Canada lay claim to being even within hailing distance of full employment. You may remember, sir, that it was in this same year that, with inflation at 4.5 per cent, you launched your first anti-inflation crusade.

There has been a tendency, Prime Minister, for you to dismiss the ideal of full employment, historically defined as less than four per cent out of work. But your government has suggested, at times, that generous unemployment insurance benefits mean that more people do not have to look for a job, that the hardships of unemployment are less

onerous than they once were. At other times you have suggested that Canadians don’t really want to work, that the “real” unemployed are, basically, married men between the ages of 25 and 45.

There is, however, a very good reason, sir, for a wholehearted commitment to the concept of full employment: unless there is a job available for every person who wants one, it will forever be impossible to solve our country’s other problems.

Neither economic growth nor the elimination of poverty nor the equitable distribution of our economic resources are achievable without full employment. Redefining the full employment rate at seven or eight per cent will simply not do. Neither will shrugging, making offensive finger gestures or handing the problem over to the private sector. It is interesting, sir, that you, who apparently hate “handouts,” find it easier to set up welfare programs to give people money than to set up work programs to give people jobs.

In addition to a commitment to full employment, it is essential that we have other clear-cut and specific statements from you. Where do you want the economy to be one, two and five years from now? How does your government plan to achieve these goals? What do you expect of us, the public? The answers to some of these questions would go a long way toward relieving the great uncertainty that has been one of the most frightening aspects of Canadian life since your government took office.

The problems today, sir, are pressing. The nearly two million Canadians who are unemployed cannot wait for the results of the deliberations of philosophers or royal commissioners. They require urgent action. You, Prime Minister, were elected to lead this country, which is currently crashing to the depths, not because we do not have the tools to get back on an even keel but because the goals have not been in sharp focus, and the leadership has been less than adequate.

If you cannot immediately provide us with a specific program, I would suggest, Prime Minister, that a first step toward getting this country back on its economic feet would be your imminent departure. If you cannot lead us, leave us.

Sincerely, Dian Cohen

Dian Cohen is a Montreal-based economics writer.