The Commons: Life under occupation

Quit your whining and show some gratitude, Canada!

by Aaron Wherry

Simon Hayter/Maclean's

The Scene. These are awkward times. Various people are marching in the streets and camping in the parks, shouting various things about various concerns. No one is quite sure what it means or if it means anything except to say that some people are somehow unhappy about something. And that they may have some cause to be somehow disenchanted.

Our elected leaders are thus put in variously awkward positions. And so increases the likelihood that they will say awkward things.

Witness Ted Menzies, affable-seeming minister of state for finance. Yesterday he was presented with the spectre of said protests and the suggestion that perhaps said protestors were on to something.

“Mr. Speaker, it is fortunate that all Canadians have the right to peacefully express their views,” he said, as if this were some kind of profound observation.

“Canada does not, by the way,” he continued, “have the degree of economic inequality that we are seeing in other countries that have perhaps started this movement.”

Two sentences in, Mr. Menzies had already gone wobbly. For while we can indeed boast a level of inequality less crushing than that of the United States, our gini coefficient is still on par with that of riotous Greece. Which is to say that the sea of troubles is lapping from inside the house.

The minister of state pressed on. “We have a very progressive tax system that favours the vulnerable in this country. We have a social system that supports the unemployed. We have universal health care,” he said, slipping momentarily into his Tommy Douglas impersonation. ”There is a great deal of difference in what we put in front of Canadians and offer to Canadians that they should be thankful for.”

So there. Bill Clinton felt your pain. Ted Menzies feels you should count your blessings.

A moment later the NDP’s Peggy Nash was suggesting that the Conservatives, through their tax policies, “continue to give gifts to the wealthiest.” Here, Mr. Menzies apparently decided to try a little spontaneous wit.

“Mr. Speaker, the only gift that this government has given to Canadians,” he said, “is an opportunity that has provided 650,000 more jobs.”

For sure “gift” is an odd word to use when describing the allocation of funds collected from taxpayers for the benefit of taxpayers. Though perhaps a gift you don’t have to pay for is the greatest gift of all. Indeed, the term might also have a way of making the G8 Legacy Fund sound less like an abuse of public funds and parliamentary accountability and more like the generous offering of a modern day Santa Claus. Only if Santa Claus had sideburns instead of a full beard. And delivered gazebos and public toilets. And only to one of Canada’s 308 ridings.

In fairness to Mr. Menzies, his awkwardness seems minor when compared with the actual policies espoused by our political parties, each seeming mostly determined to drive economists to distraction with a variety of ideas that run from merely unhelpful to rather quite cynical, each chasing a populace that may not actually be prepared to deal honestly with reality or simply doesn’t care.

The result is something like a standoff.

“Mr. Speaker, instead of answering the concerns raised by the Occupy movement, the Conservatives are boasting that Canada’s level of inequality is better than others,” Nycole Turmel charged this afternoon. “However, the very conservative Conference Board has a different take: Canada has the highest increase of inequality of 16 peer nations, including the United States. Surely the Prime Minister is aware of this. Instead of bragging about its record, where is the plan to reduce inequality in Canada?”

Thankfully for Mr. Menzies, the Prime Minister was in the House this day to carry the rhetorical load.

“Mr. Speaker, as this government has said repeatedly, our focus is on jobs and growth,” he offered, “and I would take this opportunity to note the job creation figures last month, which means that Canada has now created over 650,000 jobs since the recession.”

Some degree of toing-and-froing proceeded en français. Ms. Turmel warned that government policy was shrinking the middle class. Mr. Harper lamented that Ms. Turmel’s side had failed to support the budgets that included the government’s tax cuts and restated his big-sounding number. Ms. Turmel said Mr. Harper’s big-sounding number disguised the fact the unemployment rate is still higher than it once was. Mr. Harper insisted on his math.

No doubt noting yesterday’s exchanges with the official opposition, the Prime Minister and his team of writers had apparently stayed up all night trying to devise the perfect one-liner for use on this third and final round with the interim NDP leader. So apparently delighted was Mr. Harper with the result that he switched back to English to deliver it.

“The NDP seems to misunderstand its role when it stands up and votes against job-creation measures,” he prefaced. “It is not supposed to just occupy the House, it is supposed to do something for the Canadian people.”

The Conservatives around him leapt up to salute their man’s withering wit.

A few minutes later, almost as postscript, Liberal leader Bob Rae stood with another of his side’s little ideas (of the sort, it should be noted, that the Prime Minister regularly makes a show of requesting). On previous days, to little obvious effect, it has suggested the government should cancel plans to increase EI premiums in the new year. Here, Mr. Rae offered another gift.

“One practical step that could be taken to deal with the lack of progressivity in the tax system, which, by the way, was referred to yesterday by the Minister of Finance as a big plus for Canada, would be to make the non-refundable tax credits refundable,” he ventured. “Those tax credits apply to kids who are taking piano lessons, kids who are on the margins. Their parents are so poor that they cannot pay taxes. Why will the Prime Minister not change the bill before the House and make sure that those kids can get those benefits?”

On this there was mostly laughter about how silly the Liberals are.

Those laying siege to our parks and public spaces best get comfortable. For while the good news is that your general angst is being noted, the bad news is that your elected leaders are not much more coherently organized than you are.

The Scene. The Canadian Wheat Board, six questions. The economy, five questions. Research and development, four questions. Air safety, the G8 Legacy Fund and crime, three questions each. Trade, the auditor general, bilingualism, democratic reform and salmon, two questions each. Canada Post, Iran, Saudi Arabia, poverty and veterans, one question each.

Stephen Harper, six answers. Gerry Ritz, five answers. Gary Goodyear and John Baird, four answers each. Denis Lebel, three answers. Gerald Keddy, James Moore, Keith Ashfield, Peter Van Loan and Rob Nicholson, two answers each. Tim Uppal, Steven Fletcher, Tony Clement, Vic Toews, Diane Ablonczy, Diane Finley and Steve Blaney, one answer each.

The Commons: Life under occupation

  1. “For while the good news is that your general angst is being noted, the bad news is that your elected leaders are not much more coherently organized than you are.”

    Best line of the month, Wherry.

  2. ‘that we are seeing in other countries that have perhaps started this movement.??

    Canadians started it.

    And Harper just brilliantly connected the NDP….the Opposition….with the Occupy movement.

    Dippers couldn’t have asked for better….LOL

    • Yeah, but it was that Other Canada.  Not this one with Canada out of the name of the government, off of business cards and the like.

  3. The level of contempt, anger, disdain, and ridicule of the “occupy” movement coming from Canada’s comfortable business, media, educational, and political elites is astounding. The protestors must be on to something even if their grievances over inequality, poverty, unemployment, end of the middle class, tax unfairness, don’t, as the elites tell us, apply to favoured Canada.    

    • It is rather amazing isn’t it?

      Usually when large groups of people gather in your cities to protest, it’s a cause for concern.

      • That sounds like a strong endorsement of the Tea Party.

        • I don’t see how. LOL

    • Heh, did you see that Youtube where the Wall St. guy is obviously trying to bait the protestor into violence where he called him Monkey all the time?  Classic.  And not to mention the great sales job of “all the stock market does is invest in little start-up companies that give you jobs.”  Does it even DO that anymore?

      • Mostly, no. Unless the company is issuing shares, whenever you make a trade you’re buying that stock from another investor. That’s all. The company itself sees no additional investment from it. Consider that for all of 2010 there were only 157 US IPOs. And while it’s highly debatable whether any of them are “little start-up companies” by the time they arrive at an IPO level, you could still shut down the stock market for half the year and these “little start-up companies” could each still have their own day for people who want to provide money to the company itself, and not to other traders.

  4. Aaron, I don’t know what I’d do without your pithy commentary. To your credit, I can’t quite tell what your political inclination is, other than no BS. Thanks for all you do.

  5. My problem with the Bay Street Occupiers is that they are addressing issues that are pressing in the US, not Canada. We rank 25th in the world in inequality, despite having a small size of government, and far greater economic freedom than the average Scandinavian welfare state. We also have a far more stable financial system than the US.

    But that doesn’t mean we lack problems. Canada has a serious housing problem. Lets leave aside the high probability that Canadian housing prices are in a bubble – inflated by the CMHC. Higher house prices are a terrible thing for Canadians. They mean that young Canadians – of the age where they might start families – cannot enter the equity lobby. Older Canadians, on the other hand, feel richer, although what they really own is a lot of paper equity that is likely to disappear when the markets correct. 

    This country’s industrial base also faces a serious problem. Canada is doing well because commodities are doing well, but I don’t think it is in the interest of this country to have our economic fortunes tied to global commodity markets. Nortel was the canary in the coal mine, and RIM is about to follow it – we have a real problem if we can’t sustain cutting edge industry in this country. We suck at biotech, we suck at IT, while the few industries we have historically done well in (autos and airplanes) are mid-techs that will face increasing competition as developing countries become able to produce those types of goods. 

    But the fact that our erstwhile youngsters, and august pundits choose to debate US politics, instead of talking about real Canadian problems suggests a bigger problem – one of Canadian identity. Are we just a northern annex to Vermont, or are we our own country, worthy of having a substantive debate on Canadian issues? Did we win the war of 1812, only to lose the war of 2012?

    • equity lobby = equity ladder

      • It’s not about Canada or the US…it has occurred all around the world.

        The protest is about the system…the whole world situation….not local problems.

        • This is a silly argument. There is no single system. The Occupy protests are upset with capitalism, the riots in Europe are due to the EU and its single monetary system, and the Arab spring was a revolution from long held regimes.

          Local problems are the only problems. Each community, like each person, has different motivations. To group them all together is not only naive, but also undermines the messages held by each group.

          • No, there are lots of individual complaints, but the overall one is against the current system….the current way of running things.

            The ‘Occupy’ protest is not the same as Greek riots, or Arab overthrows.

  6. ““One practical step that could be taken to deal with the lack of
    progressivity in the tax system, which, by the way, was referred to
    yesterday by the Minister of Finance as a big plus for Canada, would be
    to make the non-refundable tax credits refundable,” he ventured. “Those
    tax credits apply to kids who are taking piano lessons, kids who are on
    the margins. Their parents are so poor that they cannot pay taxes. Why
    will the Prime Minister not change the bill before the House and make
    sure that those kids can get those benefits?”

    On this there was mostly laughter about how silly the Liberals are.”

    ————————

    Why is this particular point silly? There is a truth in Bob Rae’s statement. Child activity tax credits are supposed promote activities for kids and youth in order to get them active and out of the house, learn a few unique skills and in some cases hopefully keep more young people out of mischievous activities (like graffiti). There is a gap in this though because many of the people the tax benefit are supposed to help the most are those whose parents/families are near the bottom of the income scale. These families near the bottom however will be hard pressed to afford programs like after school sports, music lessons etc. Many may not qualify to pay income tax so if the tax credit is non-refundable (see definition here: http://www.investopedia.com/terms/n/nonrefundabletaxcredit.asp#axzz1bCMCZGHE) it means it is basically useless to them.

    • That’s rather the point.  This way the gov’t can make a big show about the tax-credits it’s giving away but in fact needs to give very little because most people who can take advantage of the credit don’t need it, and those who need it most can’t take advantage of it because they’re too poor to purchase the service in the first place. 

      This is known. This is intentional. This is how it’s supposed to work.  Any party that suggests non-refundable tax-credits is a party that’s trying to screw you.

  7. Good blog. Now you’re saying something, Aaron.

    Response:
    Stop the effete ‘war on poverty’, and start the war on wealth.

    There is the idea of ‘minimum’ wage; nothing wrong with a symmetrical maximum wage:

     • Nobody deserves more than $99,000 year. That includes NDP MP’s, just for the record.
     • Equal pay for equal work. And all work is equal. That includes pot-scrubbers AND the CEO of RIM, just for the record.

    No hair-splitting, just rough justice. Start there, and the disadvantaged, homeless, over-charged students, workers, unemployed, et al, will start being reasonable.

    • Good gawd, no.

      This is why the left-wing isn’t taken seriously.

      • This isn’t left-wing.  It’s authoritarian (almost fascist).  Huge difference.

        • I’ve heard the same thing from left-wingers for years.

          Fascism however is the marriage of the state and corporations plus nationalism.

          Both bad, but not remotely the same thing

          • Just because you don’t understand the difference between social justice and authoritarianism doesn’t make the distinction invalid.

          • Everyone on the planet knows the difference, except the leftwing it seems.

          • Smothering an inherently good idea behind a smokescreen of political science terms of art, right/left conceptual vectors, Bono concerts and Steve Jobs memorials should do the trick.

            It’s OK, the thing is dead. ‘Occupy’ will fade away. Go play with your sweatshop-manufactured smartphone Angry-Birds games…

          • d., You are so far off the mark on your characterization of me, it’s kinda amusing.  I’m the guy who won’t buy a cell phone because I don’t want a social leash attached to me all day.  I want a whole shitload of scammers arrested and tried for fraud because the ratings agencies and the banks were (are) in bed together, falsely rating toxic assets as AAA.

        • ‘Authoritarian’ means you don’t have a vote in it.

          This max income idea must be carefully screened from the democratic national conversation. Voters might get some really stupid ideas. Like fairness. And its democratic installation.

          • You really think people would vote for a $100,000 maximum wage?  Have you met the Tea Party?

          • Good. Now we’re getting somewhere. You have cast out my second proposal as mere fascist rhetorical flourish and gotten to the real issue, and I will cast out your second point as mere argumentum ad risum.

            If the polity are not too drunken on the virtues of their children dropping out of college and becoming another saintly Steve Jobs, then the simple act of putting it fairly before them might prove only too surprising to the likes of Mulcair and Harper.

            Which is why I don’t expect the matter ever to appear on their party meeting agendas.

            And I expect Mr. Wherry will pray this d.-fellow stops posting such mad nonsense on his neat and clean blog and take his leftist-fascist views elsewhere in the future.

            Edit: no I didn’t write $100,000 max. I wrote $99,000. $100,000 is too much. However, in the spirit of leftist-fascist cooperation, can we agree on $99,900 maximum?

            In honour of Herman Cain’s 999 plan, beloved of the Tea Party faithful. I take hope in the fact that someone could actually put so brain-damaged a proposal before the people, that putting $99,000/year before a vote isn’t too far gone to at least imagine.

    • Put it to a vote and the people will decide.

      ‘Liberalism makes the poor sick and the rich yawn.’
             –Christopher Hitchens

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