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'Turning the Screws'

Give up on social programs, says Harper budget.

By Murray Dobbin 4 Mar 2008 |

Murray Dobbin writes his State of the Nation column twice monthly for The Tyee.

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Bean spiller: Tom Flanagan, former Harper chief of staff.

Harper's Conservatives in their latest budget have taken their lead from the Bush administration. They are simultaneously increasing the military's budget and cutting government revenue to set the stage for future cuts to social programs.

Just like Bush, who also came into office with the "problem" of huge budget surpluses, Harper is well on his way to achieving the neo-con objective of permanently hobbling government's ability to fund anything but the military. Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a dedicated Bushite, might have been speaking for Harper when he said "My goal is to cut government in half in 25 years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."

Previously announced Conservative tax cuts will mean an annual loss of government revenue of $40.2 billion by 2012-2013. Economist Erin Weir has commented, "It is striking that the tax cuts will cost as much as it currently costs to run the government of Canada's entire non-military side."

The tax free savings plan announced in the February budget will, through its compounding effects, mean another erosion of government revenue. Initially involving only small amounts, in twenty years this plan is estimated to cost the government $3 billion each year. Since poor and middle class families are mostly heavily indebted and not in a position to save, the rich are the most likely beneficiaries of the plan.

Impossible dreams?

A national childcare program, a housing program for the estimated 250,000 Canadians living on the streets, pharmacare -- these are meant to become impossible dreams. More, though, is apparently in the gun sights of the Harper Conservatives. Government revenues as a per cent of GDP are to drop to levels that existed before the establishment of key programs like medicare, so these programs too will appear increasingly unaffordable.

Former Harper chief of staff Tom Flanagan recently praised the Conservative government for pulling off "quite a performance," achieving radical changes with successive revenue cuts without ever tipping their hand about what they were up to. Flanagan described the Conservatives as "turning the screws on the federal government." and "boxing in the ability of the federal government to come up with new program ideas . . ."

Tax critics 'part of the plan'

The Canadian public is apparently being played for a bunch of saps. Flanagan revealed that critiques of the government for not going far enough from right-wingers like Harper's former National Citizens' Coalition colleague Gerry Nicholls, or representatives of the Canadian Taxpayer Federation were actually "part of the execution of the plan . . ."

In his comments on the budget to The Tyee, Anthony Salloum, program director for the Rideau Institute, stated: "There was nothing in the budget for working parents or the homeless. But if you were sitting in the offices of the Department of National Defence, you'd be pretty happy." DND is the only department being promised permanent annual increases.

Meanwhile, we militarize

The motion on Afghanistan the Conservatives worked out with the Liberals might have caused concern at DND. However, lest this motion be misinterpreted as some fundamental shift away from militarism, Harper chose to unveil it in a February 21st speech to the military lobby group, the Conference of Defence Associations (CDA).

Harper explained he was pleased the Liberal Party had agreed "we should prolong the mission until 2011 and we should leave operational decisions up to our military commanders who are on site in Afghanistan". In other words, it will be left to the military to decide how aggressive their tactics are and hence the fundamental character of the Canadian role in Afghanistan.

Harper went on to promise the CDA, which got $500,000 in taxpayers' money last year, that by 2011 military spending would be increasing by an automatic 2 per cent each year.

This would be over and above the huge increases DND has already received. According to the Rideau Institute, over the past year military spending increased by 9 per cent. It has now reached $18.24 billion, more in inflation-adjusted dollars than it was at the height of the Cold War. Next year it will rise to $19.4 billion. Of twenty-six NATO members, Canada has now climbed to the sixth highest spender. The question Canadians have never got to ask is: Why?

What's the big threat?

What threat to Canadian security is Harper foreseeing in 2011, which is the year Canadian troops are supposed to withdraw from Kandahar, that requires more resources for the military? And what role is this beefed up military going to play?

Harper said while many Canadians might yearn for a return to classic peacekeeping -- a role that is now all but eliminated -- that is not what his government is going to deliver. Canada's future "peace" missions will involve "the robust use of force," requiring "a strong, modern, multi-faceted military backed by the political will to deploy." Given the extreme costs of state-of-the art military equipment, a "modern" and "multi-faceted" military is a recipe for runaway military spending, far beyond the increases the Conservatives have already promised.

The historical justification Harper gave for this new aggressive policy would make your head spin. Harper even drew on Canadian John Humphry's drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as an argument for militarizing Canadian foreign policy. Up is down, black is white, and waging war is peacemaking.

Remember that Harper once said it was a "serious mistake" that Canada had not joined the U.S. military intervention into Iraq. He subsequently claimed his real position was that Canadian forces had been so neglected they were in no shape to play a role in Iraq, a deficiency all this new military spending seems designed to correct. The Canadian military is apparently being equipped to intervene along with the best of them in Iraq, Iran, or wherever else a "peace" mission is called for. That is what Canadians have to look forward to if Harper ever gets a majority.

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