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Martin's Slippery Speech

Yesterday's address was full of vague gestures at problems the PM helped create in the first place.

By Murray Dobbin 3 Feb 2004 | TheTyee.ca

Murray Dobbin is an author, commentator and journalist. He is the author of five books and is a former columnist with Financial Post and Winnipeg Free Press. He is a board member of Canadians for Tax Fairness and on the advisory council of the Rideau Institute. He lives in Powell River, BC.

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Paul Martin's election platform - or at least a test run of it - was set out in the throne speech delivered by Governor General Adrienne Clarkson. I wonder how Clarkson felt knowing, as she must, just how much hypocrisy and flim-flam there was in the 52 minute speech? It was a dead pan performance from someone who is usually animated.

As with most throne speeches, especially those preceding elections, this one was meant to make us feel good - and also to reinforce the popular myth that Paul Martin is still his father's son. He talked in several places about the need for a strong social foundation for Canada. Yet there was literally no new money reinvested in the social foundation that Paul Martin did more to dismantle than other federal politician. In his 1995 budget Martin eliminated the two most important pieces of legislation responsible for that foundation  -  the Established Program Funding and Canada Assistance Plan. In the throne speech, Martin pledged allegiance to the principle of universality. Yet it was these two pieces of legislation that guaranteed the principle of universality for two generations and ensured that federal transfers were spent on health, education and welfare.  On medicare, Martin talked again about the unacceptably long waiting lists in Canada, a problem that arguably resulted from Martin's 40 per cent cut to federal medicare funding. A careful listening to Martin suggests that he may he using the waiting list issue as a "useful crisis" to make free market reforms to the system. He talked about the need for "fundamental reforms" but did not elaborate. He said he was committed  to "publicly funded" health care but made no such commitment to maintaining a ban on private surgery clinics. Canadians should watch closely to see what Martin says - if and when he is asked - whether two tier medicare is his preferred solution to the "crisis" of waiting lists.

Students encouraged to rack up debt 

On post secondary education, the new prime minister also stayed the neo-liberal course.  Universities were savaged by Martin's1995 budget cuts. As a result of those unprecedented cuts there was a rapid corporatization of universities and the near tripling of tuition fees. But the throne speech had not one new dime for universities.

Instead there will be increased limits on student loans - so that students can rack up even bigger debts. The user pay principle remains in place - only slightly moderated by a promise of grant money for "...low-income students, to cover a portion of the tuition cost of the first year of post-secondary education."

On democratic reform, Mr Martin set up a straw man and then bravely knocked him down. The "democratic deficit" as far as the prime minister is concerned is to be found the lack of real power of back-bench MPs. But there are much larger democratic deficits that Mr Martin should be concerned about - deficits that were incurred by him.

It is true that Canadians are cynical and fed up with their governments, but according to in depth surveys it is not because they think backbenchers are powerless but because government policies completely ignore Canadians' values. The vast majority of Canadians want money re-invested in medicare, education, and the elimination of child poverty. There is no sign that this democratic deficit will be seriously addressed. Budges on cities, environment The throne speech was not entirely devoid of tangible promises. On the highly charged issue of a new deal for cities, Martin budged a bit. The outcry from big city mayors about long delays in a plan to share gas tax revenue, meant that Martin had to come with some money.  He still fudged on the gas tax promise, but handed over what the government claims will be $7 billion over 10 years in GST rebates. 

As NDP leader, and former head of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, Jack Layton pointed out this was money the government took from municipalities in the first place. And it is a literal drop in the bucket when placed against the deteriorating infrastructure of Canada's cities which will require hundreds of billions to refurbish over the next ten years. 

On the environment front there was what appears to be new money - $4 billion over ten years to clean up dozens of highly toxic waste sites across the country. How much of that is available in the first years of the 10 year commitment is unclear. On Kyoto there was more prevaricating and not even a  hint of a plan being in place, even though Martin has had policy teams working on this speech for over four months. He made vague promises about going "beyond Kyoto" but pledged no money to do so, and included the proviso that any plan had to leave the economy undamaged, a reassurance to Alberta that the energy industry would not be held accountable.

These spending numbers sound pretty good - except when that $11 billion is spread over 10 years it amounts to less than a 1 per cent yearly increase over the current budget. Ten years is an unprecedented time-line in a  parliamentary system that traditionally provides a four year mandate. Of course, if Martin had used a four year period the money would have sounded even less impressive: $2.8 billion for cities over four years. 

While Martin devoted very few actual words to fiscal policy in the speech, it hung over the promises of the speech like a sword. All the other promises made were contingent on "available resources."  And almost buried in the speech was one Paul Martin's most important commitments:  bringing down the debt-to-GDP ratio to 25 per cent from its current 44 per cent (already the lowest of the G7). That objective is absolute - no conditions. This single fiscal objective means that all of the surpluses of the next few years could well go to meeting this arbitrary goal.

Crying poverty, asking for charity

The throne speech talked a lot about the voluntary "social sector" and the measures Martin would take to support it, and to encourage the mobilization of volunteers. While it sounds enlightened at first glance, this was precisely the policy articulated by Preston Manning in the mid-1990s as his strategy for reducing government programs and their paid public employees, with unpaid volunteers. It doesn't sound any better coming from Paul Martin than it did from Preston Manning. While there is nothing wrong with encouraging community volunteers, it is not a replacement for well-funded social programs.

Crying poverty is a strategy that Paul Martin used throughout his time as finance minister - in spite of enjoying increasing surpluses every year from 1997 to 2002. And again, he is deliberately underestimating those surpluses. Even Rick Egelton, deputy chief economist with Bank of Montreal, says there will be a surplus this year of $5 billion. Ellen Russell, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, projects a surplus of $8.3 billion for 2003-2004. But because of budget tradition, 60 per cent of that surplus will go to debt reduction. 

The throne speech declared that this was "...a new government; a new agenda; a new way of working…."  But it looks from here depressingly like the same government, and the same old agenda  that Paul Martin effectively implemented for nine years. He even forgot to mention "the West," a favourite topic just a few weeks ago, demonstrating a memory span even shorter than those of Jean Chretien and Brian Mulroney.

Murray Dobbin is a Vancouver author and journalist whose latest book, Paul Martin: CEO for Canada? published by James Lorimer is in BC bookstores now.  [Tyee]

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