Unions and the Free Market

Okay, so, labour politics are a big deal in both Canada and the United States right now. The specific details of each situation are important, but there are some broad trends that need to be discussed seriously. Namely, trends in the way unions and their relationship to the labour market are being represented. Conservative politicians and a large swathe of the general public denounce public sector unions (basically the only unions) for demanding salaries and benefits higher than those found in the private sector (ie, in non-unionised jobs). These unreasonable demands are represented as distorting the labour market, crippling business, and ultimately doing damage to the broader economy.

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Yes, Brigette, there is a santa claus

Brigette DePape

What Brigette DePape did was deeply Canadian. It was quiet, dignified, and eminently sensible.

Let’s be equally sensible in our response. Anti-Harper alarmism aside, it is a serious problem that our system produces unstoppable four-year Kings of Canada with the assent of a quarter of the population. That should offend your conscience, whoever you are, and (in that much if nothing else) you should tip your hat to this young girl and the frustrated outrage she embodies with such Canadian dignity.

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Wow, look at the Americans

If you want to feel really, really good about Harper’s election, go watch the Republican primary debate just hosted by Fox. None of the “candidates” there are actually expected to have a chance at the nomination. (In fact, it’s difficult to see any figure in the Republican Party right now who could be considered a serious candidate). But, nevertheless, some of the things they are saying are flatly horrifying. Here’s a quick list:

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Fortress Toronto, before and after

Fortress Toronto, before and after

Wow, look at the Liberals

Am I the only one noticing this?

Some of the most beautiful and articulate and compelling defences of the Liberal party are coming out this week. The remaining Liberals are shell-shocked. They’re crushed, they’re devastated, and their voices have a sadness that almost borders on despair. They’re often almost eulogising their party. And they’re presenting a clarion-clear vision of what Liberal means in Canada, along with a defence of its role in our public life. And they’re passionate; you can instantly tell that these people aren’t opportunists or cynical power-seekers. Love them or hate them, they’re Liberals because they believe the Liberal Party has something incredibly good and important to offer Canada.

So: where was this during the campaign?

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An important perspective

Here’s a link giving us the business world’s opinion of Harper’s win. Some interesting points:

I don’t read a lot of business news, but the use of the word “investors” strikes me as odd. Apparently “investors” were scared by the NDP and “investors” are happy that Harper will cut corporate taxes and let the Alberta oil industry do whatever it wants. Who specifically are these investors and how do they express these opinions? It’s curious! Is “investors” just a code word for the author’s sense of what would be best for corporate interests?

Another important (and subtle) thing to note: there’s a paragraph happily explaining that Harper will probably approve the merger of the Toronto and London Stock Exchanges (they don’t bother to call it a merger, actually, although Canadian media do. This article names it for what it is: a takeover). Then there’s a paragraph starting with “however” that cites Harper’s refusal to consider privatising healthcare.

Notice that and remember it. Harper’s economic strategy revolves around pleasing “investors,” whatever that means.* And “investors” don’t like public healthcare. Private healthcare produces more profit, which makes “investors” happy.

This is not me trying to be melodramatic or make stupid comparisons between Harper and the bought corporate lapdogs of American politics. But it is an extremely important point to be conscious of, for liberals and conservatives alike. Pleasing corporate interests may actually (no, really) be good for our economy, but there has to be a line drawn in the sand. That particular interest group is concerned exclusively with generating profit, and a Canadian government has other priorities. We cannot subscribe to the moronic proposal that a free market solves all ills, although a certain degree of market freedom is indisputably necessary to maintain a competitive growth environment. Some things in our society need to be exempt from the profit struggle. On some issues — like healthcare — we need to tell “investors” that we don’t care what their opinion is, because government doesn’t exist to serve them. So far, whatever his other failings, Harper is doing just that. His decision to prioritise the happiness of investors before the public good in the issue of the oil sands (the poor, anxious “investors” are apparently “scared” of environmentalists and left-leaning politicians) needs to be evaluated in a similar light.

* Publicly funded job-creating infrastructure projects are arguably better for economic stimulus (per the much-ignored advice of the Canadian finance department), but the general conservative view (ie: the view with which Harper overrules the finance department’s recommendations) is that such interventions are beyond the purview of government. We only got stimulus spending in Canada because we were lucky enough to have a minority parliament. Now the Conservatives happily take credit for its success while ending all its manifestations and replacing them with incentives for private sector activity.

Harper outsmarted us all

Okay, here’s a jumble of loosely connected thoughts and impressions:

Clearly Harper understands Canadian politics better than me and most of the pundits I’ve been listening to. He made himself the “stability” choice in this election, and he made everyone else the “chaos” choice. It worked, people bought it, and now he’s in charge. Either he’s one of the most masterful politicians of our generation or he’s very, very lucky.

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Coalitions and the east coast

It’s a little ridiculous to be posting predictions like this is a football game. In twenty-four hours, we’ll all know for sure how the seats are going to fall out. There’s not much to be gained at this point by scratching our heads and trying to read the future.

Except that it’s really fun, I guess. Guardedly, I’m going to stick with my pals at EKOS and predict a Conservative minority followed by the NDP, Liberals, and BQ, in that order. If the NDP and the Liberals together outnumber the Conservatives (as they very well may), there is little doubt in my mind that some sort of coalition arrangement will transpire. Jack Layton will probably be our prime minister by this time next week, unless something goes seriously awry.

Layton really likes to be the guy who “makes parliament work” through collaboration, and the Conservatives will be rather desperate to form government, so some deal could possibly transpire. But that seems doubtful. Layton knows that his new support is largely anti-Harper, and it will turn on him if he’s seen to prop up another Conservative minority. It’s also hard to imagine him passing up a real chance to be prime minister, even if it involves making concessions to a bruised and battered Liberal party.

One place that does not get enough coverage is Atlantic Canada. EKOS stays quiet on maritimers (ergo the media stays quiet on them) because EKOS only has small sample sizes there. But those small samples show a transition to the NDP at least as dramatic as Quebec. If they’re not an anomaly, a significant number of seats could go orange on the east coast.

It’s not sufficient to say “vote strategically” or “vote locally” or “vote your heart,” because there are strong arguments for doing all of those things. But, happily, if you can vote, you are an adult. You can walk and chew gum. You can evaluate multiple factors when voting. Look at your local candidates, look at the federal parties, look at previous results, and think hard about vote-splitting. Have an eye on a goal, weigh all the factors, and vote thoughtfully.

Rick Mercer on the ground war

Here’s an article by Rick Mercer:


Read it! It’s a really interesting (though slanted) characterisation of the leaders’ campaigns as they tour the country. I’ve never been a huge fan of Mercer, but he’s showing a little bit of insight (if not humour) these days.

What is Harper thinking?

The Conservative campaign so far has been entirely about scaring Canadians into voting for them. Without a Harper majority, the economy will collapse, Quebec will separate, the military will crumble into dust, and, now, trade with the United States will cease to exist.

So, fine, that’s a tactic you can try. But why are they still trying it? We’re almost done with this campaign. The Conservative team has not won a single percentage point in any poll with their current approach. And now, on the home stretch, all they can produce is more things we should be terrified about.

It’s not working. It didn’t work three weeks ago, and it’s not working now. What are his campaign strategists thinking? Why can’t the richest and most powerful political party in the country find professionals with the ability to tack into the wind? Anyone looking at this situation with a clear tactical mind should be able to see that this message is not resonating beyond the Conservative base. Is the Conservative strategy being planned by ideologues so invested in their message that they can’t adapt to the pragmatic realities of the campaign?

The obvious alternative would be generating some positive virtue to attract new voters, since it’s clear Canadians aren’t that scared of a Canada without Harper. Commentators — even conservative commentators — have been scratching their heads about the Conservative campaign. Why isn’t he running a Reagan-style “Morning in America” campaign? Why all the glowering? They produced a few extra bribe-style tidbits partway into the campaign (this probably hurt them more than it helped them, since it implied they were ready to just throw around money beyond their supposedly solid budget), but the tone has remained consistently ominous and foreboding.

Harper is widely acknowledged to be an extremely shrewd politician, but there’s no sign of that shrewdness here. Perhaps his skill at autocratically managing parliament is better than his skill at charismatically reaching out to new voters. But he’s a proven chameleon; many of his old radical views have been quietly tucked out of sight in an apparent attempt to avoid alienating Canadian moderates. This complete lack of versatility is just odd.

Someone on the Conservative team has tunnel vision and isn’t seeing the writing on the wall. Maybe it’s Harper himself. But if they thought this sort of campaign was going to produce a majority, they were clearly dead wrong. Everyone who can be won by fear is already voting Conservative, apparently.