Friday, September 9, 2011

Killing The Bob Rae Myth

Watching the Ontario election you'd think that there was nothing of much import going on in the world. Why else would there be so little difference in the platforms of the three major parties in this election? For instance, you'd never know that a majority of Ontario's workers live pay cheque to pay cheque with 40% expecting that they will have to retire later than they had planned.
A major contributing factor to the low savings rate [i.e. retirement savings - rbh] is that many Canadians are living close to the line. The CPA survey found that the majority of Canadian workers continue to live pay cheque to pay cheque, with 57% saying they would be in financial difficulty if their pay was delayed by even a week.
The numbers were even higher for younger Canadians aged 18 to 34 (63%) and single parents (74%). The regions with the highest percentage of workers living pay cheque to pay cheque were Ontario (60%) and the Atlantic provinces (64%), which may be the result of their slower recovery since the last recession.
Financial planners generally recommend that people have approximately three months of expenses (rent, mortgage, bills, groceries, etc.) as an emergency fund.
How is it that this fact never gets mentioned? We know why the Tories never mention it - because they helped contribute to it. Ditto the Liberals, particularly at the federal level. But why hasn't the NDP said a word about the decline in living standards amongst working people? We can get some idea from the present media onslaught on the legacy of the Bob Rae government in Ontario. Federal NDP president - and leadership hopeful - Brian Topp made sure to take a dig at Bob Rae this week, contrasting the Ontario NDP government with the "successful" governments in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. And Andrea Horwath made a point of attacking the government of Bob Rae in the early 1990s.
“I know there are probably many different opinions out there in this room about the NDP’s record in government. So I’m here to set that record straight. Contrary to what my opponents may tell you, New Democrats across Canada have a very good track record when it comes to managing books and balancing budgets,” Horwath said during comments at Mayor Jim Watson’s breakfast speakers series, which is held at City Hall by the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce and Ottawa Business Journal.
“I’ve got to say here, straight out: That not every NDP premier has had a stellar record. But since the premier with the absolute worst record is campaigning for another party nowadays, I am not going to take any lectures from my opponents,” Horwath said, laughing.
On the one hand, I'm loathe to defend Bob Rae for reasons that ought to be obvious. However, it is not at all for the same reasons as Horwath and Topp. The problem with the Rae government wasn't that it ran up a deficit trying to fight the recession of the early 1990s. In fact, I remember being impressed when Floyd Laughren, the then-finance minister, announced that with his 1991 budget he was faced with "fighting the deficit or fighting the recession - we're proud to be fighting the recession." Of course, the business media went insane, attacking Ontario's first labour government - Ontario's credit rating was downgraded and there were even bankers and businessmen demonstrating on the lawn at Queen's Park. Now, when Stephen Harper runs up a deficit nobody says boo. It was and is about a class war on Canada's party of the labour movement, an attempt to tame them into operating in the interests of the business class. So, when Horwath - who was supposedly the "left" candidate for ONDP leader - and Brian Topp laud the governments of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Nova Scotia, what they are really celebrating is the fact that those governments capitulated utterly and completely to the agenda of big business. Oh, sure, they had some reforms here and there but, like the NDP in this election, their vision was so pathetic and pedestrian that business didn't need to protest - as long as they got the big picture right, which was to discipline the economy (i.e. the working class) and to orient towards business profits.

One look at Horwath's policy platform reveals just how low the NDP has set its sights. Whereas Rae's "Agenda for People" election platform called for nationalizing auto insurance, legislation to prevent the use of replacement workers (scabs) during strikes, better social assistance, and tax reform - Horwath's "Plan for Affordable Change" offers very minor reforms like reducing the use of consultants, forcing the government to buy Ontario goods, freezing transit fares and cutting HST on home heating. Not only is this basically indistinguishable from the Liberal platform - in fact, the Liberal platform appears more bold, promising 50,000 green energy jobs compared to the NDP's plan of creating jobs with a "buy Ontario" law - it appears on the surface to be indistinguishable from the Tories' platform. Our choices in the election have been reduced to a choice between brands rather than any substantive difference in political direction. Even the possibility that there might be a voice for something off-message needs to be stomped out - as we've seen this past week with the Ontario NDP's overturning of the democratic election by the riding association in Thornhill to run well-known socialist Barry Weisleder as the riding's candidate.

All of this speaks to the collapse of post-war social democracy into neo-liberalism - which is precisely what Bob Rae's government represented. Elected on a - by today's standards - bold platform of reform, by the end of their term the NDP government had firmly laid the groundwork for the Tories. They attacked public sector workers with a "Social Contract" that imposed unpaid work days. They demonized welfare recipients and began the war on the poor that Mike Harris took up in earnest. They eliminated grants for poor students attending post-secondary education. And they completely capitulated on public auto insurance, making it the last time that a serious proposal for nationalization would cross the lips of an NDP leader (not quite true - Horwath is talking about re-merging the Ontario hydro utilities and keeping big electricity producers publicly owned). By the end of their tenure, the majority government of the NDP couldn't even pass same sex spousal legislation, which wouldn't have cost the government a dime. Disappointment, betrayal and cowardice in the face of right wing, business opposition ought to be viewed as the mistakes of the Bob Rae years. The lesson ought not to be that we need to surrender having a big vision for a better society. If the point isn't to change the world, what's the point in having an NDP? If we accept that there is nothing we can do in the face of autocratic corporate power, what's the point of elections? My guess is that many people are asking themselves similar questions during this election campaign - or, perhaps more likely, they're just bored.

What is your most important provincial issue of concern? - The Globe and Mail


Lornep said...

Thanks for a very astute analysis.  I, too, am very disappointed in how conservative the NDP's platform is in the run up to the Ontario election.  For example, unlike the compelling arguments for increased income taxation of the very wealthy that Linda McQuaig makes in her book, The Trouble with Billionaires, the best we can get from the NDP is the occasional mention of possibly rolling back the latest decrease in corporate taxes.

On a related note, it seems to me that Barack Obama has made the same mistakes that Bob Rae did when he governed Ontario.  By trying to placate the power elite, he has destroyed the promise of his presidency.

Shawn Whitney said...

Comparing the NDP's timidity to McQuaig's arguments is a useful comparison. And the funny thing about Obama is not how pro-corporate he is - the Democrats, after all, get most of their funding from corporations and the rich, with unions being (at best) a junior partner. What is interesting is that even a centre-right president like Obama has been willing to pour another half a trillion dollars of deficit financed spending on jobs while the best that the NDP can put forward is a "buy Ontario" law and some tax breaks for businesses who hire. Hell, even Harper is starting to talk about more Keynesian infrastructure investment to spur job growth.

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