Harper's Plan to Dismantle Canada's Safety Nets

His social engineering aim is to privatize social services and leave the job to charities.

By Murray Dobbin 7 Nov 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Murray Dobbin writes his State of the Nation column every other week for The Tyee and on Rabble, and he also publishes articles on his blog.

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Scrooging Canada? PM Stephen Harper. Photo via Creative Commons license: Remy Steinegger

The Harper government's announcement that it will change the laws regarding capital gains taxes to encourage more charitable giving strikes an ominous note for the country's political culture. Harper is mimicking -- through tax incentives -- the Conservatives in Britain who are trying to pull the same trick with what they call the Big Society initiative: promoting the privatization of social services through increased private giving. Both efforts smack of social engineering from the right.

When Harper stated that we would not recognize the country after he was through, this is in part what he was talking about.

Ideology is meaning in the service of power, and the Conservative government, libertarian to its core, intends to create the appearance of an increasingly volunteer society as it systematically guts the social and cultural role of government. Harper hopes to justify massive cuts to programs (and in general the role of the federal government period) by shifting responsibility to charities and foundations. This is the Americanization of Canada -- remaking the country in the image of the minimalist government that the U.S. has experienced for decades. The problem is that there is very weak tradition of foundations and corporate giving in this country, so it has to be engineered, too.

The notion of social engineering was one of the most popular concepts on the political right in the past (when it was out of power). The phrase is intended to describe a process by which liberals and the left (read the Liberals, the NDP and the Bloc/PQ) "engineer" society -- that is, set out to remake it by implementing government programs, intervening in the economy, and redistributing wealth so that there is a measure of economic equality (in a capitalist economic system defined by inequality). The implication is that these changes were undemocratic and thus illegitimate -- imposed by politicians, intellectuals and bureaucrats.

Harper as social engineer

Those shocked at how Harper can shamelessly implement an agenda completely at odds with the vast majority of the country need look no further than this notion of illegitimacy. For Harper and his political base it can all be dismantled because it was all an elite conspiracy in the first place.

Yet right-wing social engineering is exactly what Stephen Harper intends with his program. Indeed, it is simply an extension of his policies implemented during his two minority terms. We are now a far more militarized culture than we were when he came to office four years ago with an aggressive "war-fighting" military. Our foreign policy is now in lock-step with that of the U.S., shamelessly serving corporations and aiming for the status of junior partner in an increasingly aggressive and desperate American empire.

Harper's assault on the political culture has included concerted attacks on science, cultural organizations, human rights and women's groups and now the collective bargaining rights for public service workers. None of these actions were ever part of a campaign platform or, for the most part, even legislation; they are simply seen as a political imperative rooted in the core values driving the re-making of the country.

This is true social engineering if by that term we mean the illegitimate remaking of Canadian political culture and governance. When all the social programs and the activist government that Stephen Harper seems to detest were implemented there was widespread public support for them. Governments were responding to social and labour movements pushing for these things: unemployment insurance, Medicare, subsidized university education, Family Allowances, public pensions, old age security.

These programs were not imposed by a cabal of liberal and socialist intellectuals and bureaucrats. They were rooted in the expressed values -- and votes -- of the vast majority of Canadians. At the pinnacle of this stage of Canadian democracy in the early 1970s there was a virtual consensus on the part all three federal parties about the direction of the country. This was not a conspiracy. It was democracy as it should be.

All of these elements of Canadian political culture were the result of a democratic imperative. All the polling on these government programs and the social equality they promote suggests at least three quarters of Canadians still support an activist role for government in the interests of community, not to mention the viability of families.

Bringing in the wrecking crew

If it were not so destructive and dishonest Harper's engineering project would be something to marvel at. It is multi-faceted with many moving parts and Harper is totally committed to it regardless of what anyone, including Bay Street, thinks. The political process of reversing 40 years of nation-building (begun by Brian Mulroney and Paul Martin) consists of two stages.

The crucial second stage, the gradual dismantling of federal government activism, depends on the first: the gutting of federal revenues. Logically, that stage was implemented early on with the huge, five-year, $60 billion tax cut plan implemented by Jim Flaherty in 2007, the year following Harper’s first election victory. That move, and the cut to the GST, created the deficit -- the useful crisis Harper needed.

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