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election

The State Of The Nation, Part The Second

One last look at where Canada’s at before the big vote

So what's the country looking like? How are we doing? Here's a glance at a few areas of national importance. Remember to vote on May second, unless you're planning to vote Conservative - that election is on May 3. Uh, yeah.

Note: This is a longer version of the feature that appeared in the print version of prairie dog.

THE STATE OF CANADA'S CLIMATE CHANGE POLICIES

Sometimes I wonder if it isn't time to give the voters of Canada a pile-driver and force them to put on the sunglasses - by which I mean John Carpenter-approved, They Live-style sunglasses - and then have a look at our PM. I'm not suggesting what you'll find revealed behind his doughy neocon mask is a skull-faced alien who's using his environmental policies to modify the earth's climate into something more conducive to his outlandish physiology, because that'd be irresponsible journalism. On the other hand, I'm not saying you won't, either.

In five years, Canada has gone from being a sluggard at tackling the climate change problem (just like every other nation, basically) to being an international pariah. Thanks to Stephen Harper, we were the first country that ratified Kyoto to formally abandon our targets. At international climate summits, we've repeatedly "won" the Fossil of the Year award (given out by environmental groups to the country that does the most to disrupt such talks). And in November of 2009, a group of prominent scientists, climate campaigners and politicians called for Canada's expulsion from the Commonwealth. Super.

Here at home, the Conservatives oppose carbon pricing, their intensity-based emission targets are widely acknowledged to be far too little and far too late, and their promise to phase out $1.4 billion in annual tax breaks to the oil sector has yet to be fulfilled. On top of it all, Harper has gutted funding to climate research and muzzled Environment Canada scientists. As a result, coverage of climate science has dropped by 80 per cent and, going into this election, when Canadians are polled about which issues concern them most, the environment ranks below "Unsure."

Considering all that (and it's just the tip of the ever-melting iceberg), you'll excuse me if I wonder sometimes if the skull-faced aliens aren't in charge after all. / Paul Dechene

THE STATE OF SMALL BUSINESS

In their 1979 hit "The Man in the Corner Shop," The Jam outlined the relationship between small business owners and society. In the song, a factory worker goes into a corner store to buy cigarettes just before closing time. The smoker is jealous of the man in the corner shop, because he has the ability to set his own hours. The man in the corner shop is jealous too, but not of the factory worker. He's jealous of the factory owner, because that guy makes a lot more money than he does.

And so it is when you look at electoral platforms endorsed by groups, such as the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses, claiming to speak for small businesses. They've just issued a policy platform, thinly disguised as a questionnaire, aimed at short-circuiting talk of raising Canadian Pension Plan contributions from both employers and employees.

The argument goes something like this: if governments collect fewer tax dollars, there will be more money for consumers to spend and for businesses to reinvest. It sounds good in theory - but it's bullshit, according to a recent examination of Canada's captains of capitalism by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives' David Macdonald.

Macdonald's report, released on April 6, analyzed 198 of the largest companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange, and found that those companies are making 50 per cent more profit and paying 20 per cent less tax in 2009 than they were in 2000. Those tax changes cost the federal treasury $12 billion during that time - and for what? From 2005 to 2010, Canada's job market grew by six per cent; those 198 companies the CCPA studied grew their labour force by five per cent.

"The bargain that Canadian governments made to provide Canada's largest companies with massive tax breaks in return for the promise of jobs and prosperity has not materialized," Macdonald says in his report. "These companies are the ones that should be showing the best job creation results from corporate tax cuts because they get the biggest benefit.

"Instead, the most tangible result of those cuts," he says, "is that corporate profits are up, government deficits are also up and Canada's biggest companies are laughing all the way to the bank." And those titans of capitalism are laughing at small businessmen and franchise operators as much as they are laughing at the other rubes they've fleeced.

At the end of "The Man in the Corner Shop," all three - the factory worker, the corner store owner, and the factory owner - go to worship at the same church, to learn that "God created all men equal." That, however, is not what the man in the corner shop wants to hear: even though the factory worker helps to provide him with his living, he thinks the factory worker is a lesser being, and he really thinks he deserves to be the man who owns the factory.

Sounds familiar. /Stephen LaRose

THE STATE OF HEALTH CARE

With about two weeks to go in the campaign, the federal Liberals have brought out what they clearly hope will be their Violent Torpedo of Truth, announcing that the Conservatives will, if elected, gut national medicare by cutting $11 billion from its budget next year. The Liberals maintain that one can't cut that much money from the federal budget without throwing something overboard (and they're right, of course).

The Cons, meanwhile, are doing the political equivalent of sticking their tongues out and yelling "I know you are but what am I?", talking about the cuts in transfer payments made during the Chrétien era.

Well, if the Conservatives want to fire up the way-back machine, so be it - in fact, let's make it into a game! So, who said this in 1997: "Well I think it would be a good idea … Moving toward alternatives, including those provided by the private sector, is a natural development of our health care system"? Or this, in 2001: "What we clearly need is experimentation with market reforms and private delivery options [in health care]"?

If you said Stephen Harper, reward yourself with a cookie!

With the federal and provincial governments negotiating a new deal to fund federal-provincial transfers after the current deal expires in 2014, having this guy representing Ottawa in the negotiations doesn't sound promising for the future of medicare.

Privatizing elements of Canada's medicare system probably won't produce any cost savings - but what it will do is give those in medicare administration the option to create a second income stream. That may be fine for people who can get private health insurance, but for those who either can't afford it or who are denied private medical insurance (including the sickest people), this spells financial disaster. Not that this matters to Harper or his supporters - or anyone willing to make a profit off of human misery. /Stephen LaRose

THE STATE OF THE FAMILY

The Family Tax Cut - one of the first planks in Stephen Harper's 2011 election platform - was pitched as yet more evidence of his party's commitment to Canadian families. It's expected to cost federal coffers $2.5 billion a year, which is no small chunk of change.

Despite the Conservatives' protestations that they believe in small government, I've never seen a group so eager to create a whole new policy, program or line-item on the tax form when a perfectly good program already exists.

Call it social engineering, Harper-style.

Couldn't they just invest that $2.5 billion in expanding the Canada Child Tax Benefit, a program that's been in place since 1993? Oh, but the CCTB doesn't have that Harper Government brand stamped on it - bad election optics, I guess.

Well then, how about investing more in their own Universal Child Care Benefit? (That's those cheques for $100 a month the Harper Government has been giving out as compensation for the universal childcare program they scrapped the day they first got elected.) Nope - apparently not.

Being superfluous isn't the Family Tax Cut's only problem: as several analysts have pointed out, as a form of income splitting, it only benefits two-parent families where there's a significant difference between the incomes of the parents. So, single moms won't benefit a whit from the FTC - and the same goes for families where both parents work and earn roughly the same amount.

The big winners? Why, they'll be families where one parent chooses (read: can choose) to stay at home. And, as too few men are willing to postpone their careers for their children, that means the FTC ends up helping families where the women are the primary caregivers - the kind of traditional arrangement favoured by conservative, fundamentalist and evangelical churches, much like the one Harper frequents, the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church. Oh, and the kind of families that sure seem to likely to vote Conservative - just sayin'.

If, by now, you're thinking the proposed Family Tax Cut is a multi-billion dollar, backdoor social engineering-style incentive for a certain type of family, who am I to argue? /Paul Dechene

THE STATE OF CANADA'S INTERNATIONAL STANDING

Outside of a jaunt down to Minot, ND on a rainy day during a family vacation to Kenosee in the mid-'70s, I've never travelled internationally. Still, I've always thought that no matter where I went in the world, as a Canadian, I'd be welcomed warmly. Now, I'm not so sure.

For nearly 30 years, beginning with the election of Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservatives in 1983, we've cultivated a pretty close relationship with a powerful empire that has many detractors - the U.S. The Free Trade agreement we signed in 1988, for example, essentially erased the border between us economically. With our abundant natural resources, we're their larder - and in return, we get access to America's vast market and seductive consumer lifestyle. Basically, we're helping to fuel the American Dream - and then buying it back from them.

Thanks to that growing integration of our economies, Canadian corporations have become increasingly cut-throat and aggressive, like their American counterparts - a fact that's especially true of our mining companies in Central and South America.

Then there's the matter of us being dicks in a number of international arenas - with climate change being the most grievous example. As noted above, the American Dream is seductive, and it's built almost entirely on cheap energy - and that means carbon emissions, baby, and plenty of them, so we resist international efforts to cap emissions.

If that was all, we could probably still rate at least decently as a country on the international stage. Every nation's entitled to look after its own economic interest, after all, and fossil fuels are a big driver for us. But what can't be excused is our increasing militancy. Among U.S. allies, only Britain has been more steadfast in its support of military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Don't think that goes unnoticed everywhere else in the world.

No longer are we regarded as an honest power-broker; instead, we're looked upon with suspicion as a possible American lackey. That's why we didn't get nominated to the U.N. Security Council when we applied last fall. The Harper government put a brave face on, but it was a pretty big rejection.

If I were to travel abroad now, I'd still make an effort to identify myself as a Canadian instead of an American - but I don't think it would mean as much now. /Gregory Beatty

THE STATE OF CYBERSPACE

You don't have to be sci-fi icons like William Gibson or Robert J. Sawyer to understand that the psychology of people or organizations doesn't change when they go from the real world to cyberspace. Basically, if you're not a dick in real life, you're probably not a dick on the Web.

Similarly, Stephen Harper's Conservatives appear paranoid and controlling to a near-psychotic degree in real life, so it's no surprise they seem that way in the cyber-world. Early in the campaign, for example, Conservative campaign workers screened Facebook pages of people coming to their rallies, in order to eject people who - horror of horrors - have had their pictures taken at political rallies involving other parties.

Furthermore, the Cons promise to ram their Crime and Justice legislation through the House of Commons within the first 100 days, if they get a majority. Among other things, the bill will allow greater disclosure to the government of your Internet viewing habits without a court order, and increase demands placed on Internet service providers to create systems allowing police to access people's Internet use in real time (and to use this information in court cases) - all without warrants. Orwell would be proud, and dozens of dictatorships around the world would be green with envy.

The Liberals' position? Umm, apart from a great advertisement that called Harper an Internet stalker (which was created after the "rally removal" controversy)… well, they really don't have one.

The New Democratic Party's platform calls for the guarantee of net neutrality, for Internet carriers to increase access to high-speed Internet, and for the prohibition of usage-based billing. It also calls for the Canadian Radio and Television Telecommunications Commission to rescind its 2006 order to favour telecommunications companies over consumers when making decisions regarding Internet operations. Whatever you think of the NDP's position, one has to admit that at least the platform wasn't made by someone with the mentality of a Facebook stalker. /Stephen LaRose

THE STATE OF POLITICS

If I had to pick one word to describe the state of politics today, it would be polarized.

Maybe it's always been that way, and I was just more naïve before - but over the last decade in particular, it's hard to deny that the rhetoric and rancour has really been ratcheted up.

When Pierre Trudeau was running for the Liberal leadership in 1968, he coined the term "Just Society" to describe his vision for Canada. That was a radical time, admittedly, with all sorts of progressive ideas in play - whereas now, most political discourse is framed in economic terms.

While many progressive measures were implemented in the '60s and early '70s, it's been backlash-city since then, sadly, with conservatives determined to reverse gains made by the left during that tumultuous time.

Probably the biggest contributor to the polarization of politics over the last 30 years is the disappearance of the middle class. (How's that capitalism treating you? For most of us, not so good.) Before, they acted as a bridge linking the upper class and the under-privileged, but now, economists say, our society resembles an hourglass, with a wide divide between well-off Canadians and millions of working poor.

That divide is reflected in the rough-and-tumble world of politics: take Stephen Harper's vow to end subsidies for political parties based on their share of the popular vote. In my mind, the subsidy helps ensure the health of our democracy, by providing resources to parties from different parts of the political spectrum so that ideas can be debated and policies implemented that promote our long-term well-being - rather than those that benefit wealthy partisan donors.

For Harper, though, politics isn't about democracy, it's about power. And if the Conservatives are able to accumulate millions more in their war chest through donations from wealthy benefactors than their competitors are, well, that's the capitalist way.

Crap - I'm almost out of space. Did I mention that during the last three decades, Canada has also seen rising tide of social conservatism in our politics? With God supposedly on their side, the Religious Right is especially strident and uncompromising, and that too has had a polarizing effect on politics.

So, If Harper wins this election, here's betting politics will remain just as polarized and generally shitty as they are right now. Still, it's only the future face of our country that's at stake. /Gregory Beatty