Harper Conservatives bent on deregulation
by Frants Attorp
• Since they came to power in 2006, the Harper Conservatives have been on a single-minded mission to rid Canada of rules – rules that protect the environment, ensure public safety, protect workers’ rights, support social programs and promote Canadian culture. The name of the game is deregulation and increased power and profits for corporations, but, of course, that objective is never articulated. Instead, the public is fed euphemisms such as “streamlining regulations,” “stimulating the economy,” “facilitating permits,” “cutting red tape,” “improving efficiency” or “updating the process.”
Tax laws: Over the past eight years, the government has slashed corporate income tax to the lowest level among G8 nations while providing additional incentives through lax regulations, loopholes and generous handouts. Contrary to Conservative spin, corporations have not used the extra profit to reinvest and create employment in Canada. Rather, they have accrued enormous wealth, to the point where even the Bank of Canada has reproached them for hoarding hundreds of billions in “dead money.” Is it just coincidence that during this same time Canada’s national debt has ballooned by a whopping 160 billion dollars, a quarter of the total accumulated since confederation? And what portion of this massive debt is due to Harper’s corporate welfare scheme? We may never know, but one thing is certain: average Canadians will be paying for his profligacy for many years to come.
Environmental laws: Nothing, it seems, raises the ire of Conservatives more than laws and institutions that protect the environment. Whether by sabotaging climate talks, firing Parks Canada staff, excluding projects from environmental review or giving the fish farm industry carte blanche, Canada has gained a reputation as an environmental outlaw. Using stealth legislation – giant omnibus bills – the Conservatives have stripped away protection from more than 99% of Canada’s lakes and rivers. Worse yet, they have locked in the destruction for decades to come by signing trade agreements that give foreign corporations the right to sue Canada for billions if anyone tries to change the rules of the game.
Perhaps the most telling indicator of who is pulling the strings is a 2011 letter obtained through access to information laws. The letter, from the energy industry to government ministers, requested changes to six specific environmental laws. Within months, the laws in question were gutted, raising the question of who writes Canadian law – elected representatives or corporate interests working behind the scenes?
Science: Since science is often the basis for legislation – legislation that could impose extra costs and restrictions on industry – why not just get rid of science? And this is exactly what the Conservatives have done by muzzling government scientists, firing those who study the environment, defunding research projects that monitor pollution and suppressing scientific reports. The most remarkable example of Conservative contempt for science must surely be the shuttering of fisheries libraries and the physical destruction of decades of research data. How can this type of book burning happen in a modern, democratic nation such as Canada?
The assault on Statistics Canada is another attempt to suppress knowledge. In 2010, the Conservatives abolished the mandatory long-form census despite warnings from top statisticians that data from the voluntary version would be useless. With the demise of the long-form census, governments across Canada lost a valuable tool for making sound policy decisions.
Privatization: The legislation that underpins social services is also under attack. By sabotaging the Health Care Accord, undermining the Canada Health Act and manipulating the funding formula, Harper will leave the provinces little choice but to let the corporate sector assume more responsibility for health care delivery. Costs will rise and the commitment to universality will wane as Canada adopts a for-profit health care system like that in the United States.
Even Canadian culture has not been spared the corporate axe. Harper has used budget cuts, patronage appointments and assaults on the Broadcasting Act to bring the CBC to its knees. Prominent Conservatives are now suggesting the public broadcaster be abolished altogether and that private media outlets be given the responsibility of airing Canadian content.
Public safety: The consequences of deregulation were driven home in 2008 with the tainted meat scandal that cost 20 people their lives. Investigations showed that, prior to the listeriosis outbreak, Canada’s food safety agency had dropped the rule requiring meat processors to inform the agency about positive bacteria results. The change came as part of a government decision to allow companies to develop their own food safety programs.
More recently, there was the horrific Lac Mégantic rail disaster that claimed the lives of 47 people. The report into that incident slammed the rail company for poor safety practices, but also cited Transport Canada for ineffective auditing of the company’s safety plans, insufficient oversight and a lack of follow-up on recurring safety problems. The accident occurred after significant budget cuts to Transport Canada and warnings that rail companies cannot be trusted to regulate themselves.
Who’s in charge?
Corporations are not evil, but, just as when swimming in shark-infested waters, it pays to know whom you are dealing with. Corporations do everything they can to maximize profit and bring the best returns for their shareholders – period. They do not like to pay taxes or spend a lot of money meeting environmental and safety standards. Invariably, they choose short-term gains over long-term sustainable development. They are acutely aware of politicians who are sympathetic to their cause and will donate vast sums to get their puppet leaders elected.
The true culprits are the politicians who have a misguided sense of loyalty – those who are elected to represent the people, but actually do everything they can to advance the corporate agenda, especially through deregulation. These are the people who are ultimately responsible for the abandoned tar ponds, the train wrecks, the exploitation of workers, the erosion of social programs, the unchecked pollution, and the sell-out of our resources and sovereignty.
We have a right to live in a safe and healthy environment and to build a just and compassionate society. Corporations have a role to play, but they should be forced to operate on our terms, not the other way round. For that to happen, we need rules that serve the public interest and those rules have to be respected and strictly enforced. Simply put, we need a new vision for Canada.
Frants Attorp is a writer who lives on Salt Spring Island.