COLUMN

The Mulroneyites are with us yet

We still live in a Cheapskate Society, one that doesn’t care if it does anything well any more, as long as costs are reduced

CHARLES GORDON November 28 1994
COLUMN

The Mulroneyites are with us yet

We still live in a Cheapskate Society, one that doesn’t care if it does anything well any more, as long as costs are reduced

CHARLES GORDON November 28 1994

The Mulroneyites are with us yet

COLUMN

ANOTHER VIEW

We still live in a Cheapskate Society, one that doesn’t care if it does anything well any more, as long as costs are reduced

CHARLES GORDON

As the best-seller lists indicate, Canadians are spending a great deal of time and money luxuriating in the pleasures of hating Brian Mulroney. But the enduring legacy of the Mulroney decade will not be the vanity and corruption detailed in Stevie Cameron’s On the Take. It will be something far worse, a philosophy that outlives his government and cripples Canada.

It is the worship of the bottom line, and the legacy of more than 10 years of it is the Cheapskate Society, a country that doesn’t care if it does anything well any more, as long as costs are reduced.

The most visible manifestation of the philosophy is the governmental obsession with the deficit. But it has spread far beyond government, creating a climate of timidity and inertia in both the public and private sectors. In the Mulroney years, those who spoke for the government were so persuasive in preaching the doctrine of cutback, of budget-balancing, that the entire society pulled the covers over its head, refusing to hire, refusing to spend. A full year after the supposed rout of the Mulroneyites, we are still where we were, in full and fearful retreat.

Canada is not hiring. The recession is supposedly over, but unemployment stays high. It is inconvenient for business to expand— some say the taxation system is a disincentive to do so—so the private sector hunkers down and the number of jobs shrinks. One of the best health-care systems in the world declines steadily. Governments cut back on health spending, and hospitals cut back on beds. People wait longer for operations, travel to other communities for care they used to get in their own.

Services—from passenger rail to mail delivery to neighborhood movie theatres—disappear. Worse, so does opportunity. In the cultural sector, a potentially powerful creator of jobs, Canada has become a nation of darkened stages. Despite indications of a

growing public appetite for Canadian literature, drama and film, governmental support continually drops. The National Arts Centre in Ottawa used to have an opera season. It used to have a resident English-language theatre company. Now, it has neither. This is not just an Ottawa problem: the shrinkage is at all levels that support the arts, down to the municipal, threatening theatres, orchestras and festivals across the country.

And why? Because someone—everyone, actually—during the Mulroney period decreed that Canada could not afford it, the “it” being passenger rail service, day care, opera, local news on the CBC, repairs to bicycle paths, high-school football, affordable university education, the family farm.

And to what end? So that the bottom line would be better. We have now had almost 15 years of this philosophy, the philosophy of the Cheapskate Society, a time when everybody, governments and businesses, tended to their own little bottom lines. And what do we have to show for it? See above. See also a decade characterized largely by economic misery. See also continuing high deficits.

We are too cheap to have jobs. We are too

cheap to have culture. We are too cheap to have a national identity. Are we too cheap to have a future?

We are also too cheap to be generous, which, on the face of it, is no surprise. The realization that our reputation for, and tradition of, international generosity is vanishing should shock many Canadians. But the reputation is no longer deserved. We still do valuable things internationally, most notably our contribution to UN peacekeeping, but we give less and less to developing countries, saying we can’t afford it.

This did not begin with Mulroney, of course. He was inspired by the experiments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. The forces unleashed by them were powerful enough, as early as 1981, to force the Trudeau government to back away from an expansionist economic policy, according to another new book, Trudeau and Our Times, Volume 2: The Heroic Delusion, by Christina McCall and Stephen Clarkson.

If it didn’t begin with Mulroney, it thrived under him. And worst of all, it has survived him. The ultimate irony of the Mulroney years is that it is his proudest accomplishments that will condemn him most strongly. They will have impact far beyond any scandals.

The American off-year election results show that the demons of Reaganism, far from being exorcised by the defeat of the Republicans two years ago, live on. And the behavior of the Chrétien government in Canada, particularly in its economic policy, shows that the Chrétien people are just as fearful as the Mulroneyites.

Oddly, the polls indicate that people are not dissatisfied with Chrétien. This could mean that Canadians are incapable of being disappointed by government any more. But it could also mean that the great distrust of government that the Mulroneyites both encouraged and embodied is ending, and that the government could poke its head out of the bunker and actually try something.

The other reason to hope is demographic. The children of the baby boomers are old enough now to be looking at their futures and not liking what they see. Their parents are a formidable block of taxpayers to whom cutback and restraint might have looked pretty good. But now, they have kids who want to be dancers and writers and scientists and CFL football players and even public servants, and the kids look around a bit and realize that they can’t make a living in their own country doing what they want to do. Because the country has decided that it cannot afford to have them.

The kids will be angry, because Canadian kids do want to stay in Canada. Perhaps their parents will get mad too. Together, they could throw their considerable political and economic weight and demand that both the politicians and the captains of industry get their noses out of their bottom lines and think about creating opportunity. That is what many Canadians thought was happening in the last election.