Reflecting closely on both the crisis and movement against austerity in Greece here in Canada is clearly important, not simple due to the unprecedented nature of the latest events in recent history, but most critically because of the under-reported but very real impacts that deep austerity policies are having at home from coast-to-coast.
Austerity in Canada has been imposed and prescribed as viable economic policy by both Liberal and Conservative governments over the past couple decades.
Similar to austerity’s proponents in Europe, the claim by politicians and also the Bay Street banking sector since the mid-1990s, is that through inflicting serious spending cuts to the public sector and public institutions, the easing of public debt would relieve the national economy and create growth for everybody.
In reality pro-corporate tax policies in Canada have worked to ensure that public debt was never seriously addressed, while neoliberal austerity simply has equaled extreme growth for those at the top of the financial strata. Canada has the lowest corporate tax rate within the G7 economies, which works to loot billions from potential public revenues.
In Canada the corporate sector has been increasingly relieved of facing the economic challenges facing our society, they are unjustly protected by corporate-oriented tax policies that we pay for. In parallel key public institutions, like health care, essential to the functioning of society and our also collective well being, are being severely destabilized.
In real terms Canada’s invisible hand of the market has been stealing massive amounts from the wallets of working people, while receiving full backing by the state.
Austerity in Canada is real and urgently needs to be called out. The fact that all major politicians competing for the fall 2015 election are largely avoiding any deep criticism of austerity, NDP included, is a real problem. This relative silence on austerity today points to a potential future disaster, the deepening of a Liberal, Conservative and NDP consensus on the issue, that works to sustain much of the political space for the violence of corporate-driven austerity to continue. Sounding the alarm on this is important.
Looking at the sustaining impacts of austerity on public health care is also key within this context.
Since the 1994 IMF backed austerity budget, presented by former Liberal Finance Minister Paul Martin, public health care has been on the cutting block. Aside from inflicting budgetary cuts then that have never been fully recovered, Martin’s neoliberal budget over two decades ago began the drift away from federal policy responsibility toward national public health care. Martin worked to solidify a federal transfer payment funding method, which places the burden of dealing with systemic underfunding on the provincial administrations, who are intrinsically forced through systemic federal underfunding to deepen austerity measures in the health sector.
In reality the gradual, austerity-driven, undercutting of federal policy responsibility toward a viable public health-care system has only compounded the growing financial storm facing the public health sector.
One of the last critical major policy decisions that Conservative finance minister Jim Flaherty made on this front was in December 2011, during a top-down meeting with provincial politicians in Victoria. Flaherty outlined a non-negotiable plan to link federal health care funding to GDP, essentially linking health care spending with the uncertainty of the private market, an important ideological move, shifting health care away from being a collective public responsibility, toward being a ’service’ facing at a fundamental level the instability of free market winds.
Also by extension, the Conservative government in Ottawa and Harper particularly, has refused to sign a new federal health care accord.
Canada’s last federal accord expired in 2014 and the Conservatives have been very specific about not engaging in any efforts to secure a new framework agreement with the provinces to help secure public health care in the long term. Ideologically speaking, the free market oriented fundamentalism that drives these decisions around public health care, is driven by a basic view that sees public health care as an economic burden to the economy and views health services as a potentially enormous private sector market, as it has become in the U.S. At odds with this fundamentalist view is the collective health of society, as an austerity policy mentality views public policy shaping as simply as a process to open up as much possible space for private sector profits to grow.
Beyond health care, austerity in Canada is equaling incredible economic violence. A systemic violence that has been the most brutal for already oppressed communities, like Indigenous peoples, the homeless, low income and non-status communities.
On a basic level, two decades of austerity in Canada have equaled major growth at the top of the economic spectrum, while poverty in Canada continues to expand as corporate profits rise to new heights. There is an economic crisis in Canada for the majority, those who have little influence over the market-oriented narratives pushed by the mainstream media, which are in real terms largely ignoring the financial crisis facing so many today.
Last year Canada’s banks made $31.7 billion profit, officially, that is state-sanctioned economic violence in action, the formalization of economic looting. By extension working to survive on minimum and low income wages is becoming basically impossible for the long term, as the basic costs of living go up especially in urban centres, as rents climb sky high as compared to relatively stagnant working wages.
Recent government statistic indicate that 4.8 million people Canada are living in poverty, a number that has increased successively over the past decade. Austerity in Canada is real and violent.
The fact that this real crisis is largely ignored by politicians and mainstream media, while being stoked on a policy level, speaks to a great need for grassroots anti-austerity action. Austerity is not a priority focus in the lead-up to the fall election, it needs to be, toward the election and way beyond.
Like in Greece, any real challenge to austerity in Canada needs to be rooted in the streets and community action. Recent global jubilation over the ballot victory against neoliberal-driven EU creditors is fair, but must be placed into a grounded context, that takes into account the long term work of activists on this issue.
Anti-austerity organizing in Greece extends over years and really took off in 2011 and 2012, when mass protests physically confronted symbols of political and economic power that backed the violence of austerity.
Recent demonstration-driven struggles in Québec are an inspiring start at home, both the 2012 strike against tuition hikes and the 2015 spring strike actions against austerity, really did take direct aim at the austerity framework as imposed in Québec.Clearly the struggle in Québec is profoundly linked to Canada and the Conservative push toward austerity, extending both via federal policies on the corporate sector and also the nature of federal transfer payments in health and beyond.
Finding commonalities in our struggle against austerity across these lands called Canada is important, Greece needs to serve as a profound wake up call for both the urgency and possibility for collective power and action to challenge austerity.
Stefan Christoff is a writer, community activism and musician living in Montréal who contributes to rabble.ca find Stefan @spirodon