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The Slow, Quiet Death of Medicare

Aiming to privatize, the Conservatives deprive our system of its sorely-needed salve: taxes.

Linda McQuaig 9 Jan 2015iPolitics

Winner of a National Newspaper Award, Linda McQuaig has been a reporter for The Globe and Mail, a columnist for National Post and the Toronto Star. She was the New Democrat candidate in Toronto Centre in 2013. She is the author of seven controversial best-sellers, including Shooting the Hippo: Death by Deficit and Other Canadian Myths and It's the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet. Her most recent book (co-written with Neil Brooks) is The Trouble with Billionaires: How the Super-Rich Hijacked the World, and How We Can Take It Back. Reach her at [email protected].

She is a columnist at iPolitics, where this column first appeared.

The Harper government's anti-democratic actions have been so numerous, it's easy to lose track of them.

I almost forgot, for instance, about the way it clamped down on that little bird-watching group in southwestern Ontario, putting its charitable status under surveillance after the group raised concerns about government-approved chemicals damaging bee colonies.

Harper's behaviour -- his attack on the chief justice of the Supreme Court, his muzzling of government scientists and disdain for scientific evidence, his proroguing of Parliament to save his own skin, his use of omnibus bills to avoid Parliamentary scrutiny -- has been so at odds with democracy and the democratic process that he's even alienated many of his natural allies in Canada's elite.

Hence, he's come under fairly harsh attack from nothing less than the editorial board of The Globe and Mail, which could be said to be a mouthpiece (often an intelligent one) for Canada's establishment.

Indeed, the prime minister's apparent contempt for the democratic process has been so outrageous it's sucked all the political oxygen out of the room.

In our distraction, we've barely noticed something else important going on. In addition to sabotaging our democracy, Harper has been restructuring our country in a fundamental way -- something that will be hard to reverse and, incidentally, very pleasing to Canada's elite.

Which explains why the Globe editorial board and many prominent commentators berate Harper for his democratic shortcomings -- but conclude that, overall, his record is pretty good.

The essence of the Harper makeover of Canada has been the deep slashing of taxes, putting serious constraints on what government is able to provide in public programs and services.

Previous Liberal governments had started down this path already, but Harper has taken the aversion to taxes to new heights, turning it into something like a cult. "I don't believe any taxes are good taxes," he said -- which is an odd comment for a prime minister to make, given that taxes are the necessary building blocks for any national project.

Under Harper, taxes as a percentage of the economy are at their lowest in 70 years. But 70 years ago, governments weren't providing the extensive public benefits and services -- in areas like health care, education, pensions, public transit -- that we want and expect today.

As a result of Harper's cuts to the GST, personal and corporate taxes, Ottawa now collects about $45 billion less revenue per year. No wonder we're told we can't afford anything but austerity.

So Harper has accomplished his deeper agenda: to destroy our sense that we can do things collectively as a nation... besides fight wars, patrol the Arctic, punish criminals and watch hockey.

Take public health care, typically at the top of the list of public programs that Canadians deeply value. All seems pretty quiet on the health care front, currently presided over by Rona Ambrose, who previously held other portfolios of little interest to the Harper Conservatives, like the environment, labour and women.

We don't see much in the way of fireworks over health care these days -- no big blow-outs with the premiers, no loud accusations that Stockwell Day and his Reform Party would bring in two-tier medicine.

So things must be OK now, right? Well, no.

Quiet, threatening changes

True, there are no theatrics over medicare these days. But that's because Stephen Harper is craftier than Stockwell Day. In reality, two-tier medicine is a virtual certainty if the Conservatives are re-elected.

Harper has quietly put in place the mechanism for deep cuts to federal support for public health care. There was, of course, no proclamation pointing that out. His government simply announced, just before Christmas in 2011, that there would be no negotiations to renew the expiring health accord with the provinces.

Instead, it unilaterally imposed a new formula -- which will cut federal support for health care by an estimated $36 billion over the next decade, leaving the cash-strapped provinces scrambling to cover costs, with private, profit-seeking health entrepreneurs buzzing at their doorsteps.

Yet the media treated this hugely significant change as a dull story about federal-provincial spending formulas, and largely buried it in the rush of year-end media trivia. It has received little attention since.

As a result, few Canadians seem to realize that, as things stand, our medicare system -- an institution cherished by millions -- faces serious spending cuts starting in 2017.

At that point, we'll be told we can no longer afford a public health care system. What we won't be told is that the revenue to pay for a public health care system has been spent already -- in tax cuts.

Harper appears to have figured out how to discreetly undermine and eventually end medicare. This shouldn't surprise us, since he once headed up the National Citizens Coalition, an organization established in the 1960s with the goal of killing medicare.

Harper's anti-democratic tendencies are only part of the story about him. Beneath his autocratic tendencies beats a heart bent on stripping the national cupboard bare and forcing Canadians to fend for themselves in the harsh world of the private marketplace.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Politics

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