COLUMN

Of politicians who bear gifts

Dian Cohen December 26 1983
COLUMN

Of politicians who bear gifts

Dian Cohen December 26 1983

Of politicians who bear gifts

COLUMN

Dian Cohen

It is never too late to do good.” Thus commented Secretary of State Serge Joyal on his party’s package of so-called Christmas goodies presented in the Dec. 7 speech from the throne. The speech offered no clues about how the Liberal government would actually do good but it provided more than enough good intentions to pave the way to a hundred hells.

The promises, of course, were legion. Among them: government help to own a home. To learn a trade. To open a business. To preserve medicare. To improve pensions. Help for the antinuclear crowd. For Third World countries. For exporters. Automakers. Shipbuilders. Clothing manufacturers. Fishermen, foresters, miners, farmers, workers, both full and part-time. Help for tourist operators, restaurateurs and, of course, the railways.

Within two weeks of the opening of the second session of the 32nd Parliament, many of the promises had begun to appear hollow. The $1 billion of “new and reallocated” funds that the new minister of state for youth is to use for a Youth Opportunity Fund to create jobs for young people turned out, within days, to be mostly reallocated funds: $740 million already announced and $260 million of new funds. Finally, all indications are that there are no new funds at all, since the spending total is identical to that announced by Finance Minister Marc Lalonde in his budget last April. The much-touted $500 million of “new” money to be transferred to the provinces to help them do away with medical user fees and doctors’ “over billing” turns out, upon examination, to be money Ottawa is legally obliged to transfer. The new Canadian rail pass to encourage tourism and travel within Canada thrilled the tourist industry, yet recent rail policy has for the most part been directed at reducing the number of passenger rail cars, not increasing them.

Perhaps the festive season and the state of the economy lend themselves not so much to Christmas goodies from Ottawa as to resolutions for the new year. Here are some issues for consideration.

Credibility in public: The federal government’s overriding responsibility to Canadians is to provide an environment in which people can work toward both their own goals and those of society. In economic terms that means setting out

the goals realistically and indicating what, in the government’s opinion, constitutes the best possible contribution individuals can make to achieve the goals. The overriding responsibility of the federal government is not to stay in power regardless of the social and economic cost to the country, as the Liberals in Ottawa seem to interpret their mandate. The confusion of where responsibility lies has led the present government to such futile exercises as the throne speech, for which an editorial in The Globe and Mail on Dec. 8. offered one of the kindest evaluations: “If throne speeches were any less substantial, they would rise like gas and dissipate on delivery.”

The poverty of Canada’s senior citizens:

The history of social assistance to older, retired Canadians is an unbroken record of legislated poverty. Canadians are led to believe that the combination of public pension plans, old-age security

The Liberals in Ottawa seem to think that the government's overriding responsibility is to stay in power'

and the Guaranteed Income Supplement are either generous or all that we can afford. Neither is true. The 700,000 Canadians who receive the GIS live below the poverty line simply because our government chooses that option. The income of seniors is legislated income. Majority governments can legislate whatever incomes they choose. They certainly do when it comes to determining either their own incomes or those of their (civil) servants. As for being able to afford it, it remains a matter of what kind of society we are now, or what kind we want to become. An extra $1,000 a year for each senior citizen would go a long way toward putting all pensioners’ incomes above the poverty line. Total cost: less than three-quarters of a billion dollars. Incredibly, the Trudeau government prides itself on having delivered a $35 increase in 1980.

Women in Canada: Michele Landsberg best summed up their plight in her extraordinarily insightful book about Canadian women, Women and Children First. Wrote Landsberg: “What we have here in Canada today is a spectacular, massive affirmative action program, a

juggernaut of privilege for one sex only. Special encouragement, education, support, extra pay, opportunity, training and promotion—all awarded on the basis of sex. Male sex.” Canada has an official (female) affirmative action program and officially argues for equal pay for work of equal value. Yet the average Canadian woman earns only 60 cents for every $1 that a man earns. According to a 1980 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development survey of 19 countries, Canada ranked 19th in male-female wage disparities.

Public spending of private money: Every December the auditor general reports to the country on how effectively the government has spent taxpayers’ money. Every December, for at least two days, the media have a field day with the horror stories: topping the list this year are the Riviera Motel in Tracadie, N.B., built with a $315,000 federal loan guarantee, auctioned in bankruptcy in 1982 for $200, and the $282 million paid out to the railways to compensate for their grain-hauling losses before the Nov. 15 passing of the Crowsnest legislation. Both those and myriad other examples reflect an ignorance of successful money management techniques and an attitude of apathy toward other people’s money—yours and mine. The Prime Minister’s comment on the auditor general is even more telling: “He is a perfectionist; he is paid to find fault.” Such a dismissal minimizes the seriousness of the report’s criticisms. It suggests that the waste of several billion dollars each year is not very important. It suggests that the auditor general’s criticism of how the government keeps its books is a mere technicality about which prissy accountants will forever argue.

The Prime Minister’s comments could not be farther off the mark. Not only is the government wasting billions of dollars, but decisions that affect the budget deficit, unemployment, inflation, old-age pensions and wages are made by politicians who do not have sufficient financial information to make economic decisions. Until each and every one of us—public and private citizens alike—resolves to change our attitudes and approaches, no new year will see us making strides toward the enormous potential that we have. And none of the secretary of state’s platitudes will ever come to pass.

Dian Cohen is a Montreal-based economics writer.