Public Sector Vs. The Rest Of Us!
By Binoy Thomas
A couple of years ago, during a brief meeting with the then Liberal leader, what’s his name (oops, how short the public memory is!) (let me pause for google search), okay here it is, Michael Ignatieff, I raised the question of the auto workers union’s stand on not giving up anything in return for government aid. There were reports at the time that the auto workers whose wages and benefits cost the companies about $70 plus an hour, were refusing to give up $20 dollars as a way of saving the bankrupt corporations. Actually, I should say the union leadership was acting intransigent and just plain cussed. Because one auto worker I talked to at the time was most concerned about keeping his job, never mind a few dollars more or less.
The governments, here and in the US, paid out billions of dollars to keep them afloat, arguing that allowing them to die, would prove to be too costly in terms of jobs lost and reduced economic output. That may very well be. But shouldn’t the very people who depend on an industry for their survival be a little more flexible?
Ignatieff, in the midst of a Liberal campaign, cautioned me not to make a differentiation between unionized and non-unionized workers. That is not fair, that is not Canadian, we are all one. To quote from Three Musketeers, all for one and one for all, eh. What a nice sentiment! If only it was true. When it comes down to our well being and our greed, we are all human, the much maligned corporations included. Remember, how at the height of the SARS crisis, a pharma corporation threatened to sue the Canadian government because they were going to source a vital drug from a cheaper source. Similarly, in the past two or three years, when every family has felt the pain and uncertainty of a recession, there were one group of people totally unaffected by the economic woes, the public sector workers.
Now here is an unfair social situation, one group of workers left to the vagaries of economics in a so called capitalistic system and another, paid for by the first group, completely cocooned by the laws that they have made for themselves. A government of the public sector workers, by the public sector workers for the public sector workers! Unlike the unionized workforce in the private sector who cannot ignore financial statements forever, the public sector workers can and do throw the statements into the bin, and they will do so, even at the cost of the whole country, as it is evident from their behaviour in Greece.
When did it begin to be so lopsided? It was not always that acute a problem. Mind you, I am not an anarchist, I really do believe that we need governments to watch over us, to make laws, and to keep us safe though I would rather they didn’t get into everything they can lay their hands on, and certainly not so deep into our pockets.
There was a time when the West, free and enterprising, was fighting the perceived evils of communism and socialism, every inch of the way. Come what may, this new ‘demon’ had to be slayed, they said. They did eventually, at a great cost though the Chinese may yet rewrite that history by taking a pragmatic approach. I suspect, while the fight was on, the West was progressively socializing itself. Call it the Stockholm syndrome with a twist, but the Western politics tended to absorb many of the notions that were considered unsustainable or absurd in the natural scheme of things. It wouldn’t have held much water, but for one major development – politicians saw it as a great way to catch voters in their nets.
It began innocently enough, everyone talked about the welfare of the people, and how modern societies must’ve equality and compassion sewn into its very fabric. Really nice thought, and the times were good, there was plenty of money and more was coming in to the treasuries of the Western nations. Job protection, a leg up for the down and out, old age security, in some cases state funded healthcare, all came in its wake, and there is no need for socialism now, is there? Good so far. But what happened in the past couple of decades is that politicians saw an opportunity, grabbed the ideals from the past, as a way of clinging to power, i.e. they began cultivating a constituency directly paid by the government, but funded by everyone else who paid taxes. The public sector as a Party, (or make that a small ‘p’) was born. The agenda was set for and by them, in return for favours granted, the politicians got an army of well-paid, motivated campaign workers. The Union bosses and their buddies, and some like-minded elected reps controlled what we have come to know as democracy.
More and more people jumped on the bandwagon, and as the borrowings mounted, there were less and less people to pay for it. A classic case is Ontario, where the private sector grew by 10% while the government expenses grew by 77%. McGuinty alone has given jobs in the public sector to nearly 300,000 people in eight years, on top of the a million or so people already sucking at the teats, and only a very small portion of it, doctors, nurses or teachers. They are expected to vote and campaign for him when the time comes. While there was no growth in revenue, how can anyone pay for the extras, nearly a trillion dollars by the way. Aha, you say I got one zero wrong. Wrong, buddy. Ontario under McGuinty borrowed a hundred billion dollars, but don’t forget the $100 plus billion dollars that we are spending each year! Yes, he says look at the schools he fixed or built, look at the college/university enrolment, look at the spanking new hospitals. Well, he has a point. Or has he? Anyone given a trillion dollars to splurge, should be able to show something for it. And he has a few things to show. By the way, in our system, you don’t need a basic MBA to spend a trillion dollars!
Again, good so far. But now we are in a hole for nearly $250 billion (Ontario’s total borrowing will keep growing at $15 to $20 billion each year because no party has any plans to cut anything), shouldn’t there be some sort of restraint, a late realization by all concerned that in the interest of public good (as against public sector good) and the generations to come, let’s cut down on the partying, and start being a little frugal.
Premier McGuinty who has pandered to each and every whim of the public sector, was the man best suited to do the hard talking. Who else will have the moral authority to tell the public sector children who he doted on and brought home all the luxuries possible, ‘boys and girls, daddy has a bit of cash flow problems, we have to find ways to get over these difficulties. The rest of our neighbours are all suffering.’ Guess what? McGuinty failed to use his leverage in his second term, and amazingly, refuses to make any firm commitment on curbing government spending if elected to a third term.
While McGuinty can boldly ask us to be prepared to pay much more for the electricity in the future, for the sake of the environment and our future health, how come, he is tongue-tied when it comes to talking to the unions on the need for reining in runaway wages and benefits? Of all the people, I would have expected McGuinty to show the courage and leadership, to ask for this small favour.
But then who is not afraid of the Union wolf!
Look at even the challenger Tim Hudak, he is mum or at best vague on curbing the growing government liability. No doubt, his campaign does make some noises about McGuinty’s faustian relationship with the big Unions like the teachers. Did someone tell him that he would lose votes from the public sector employees? Given the fact that McGuinty is in such a tight hug with the public sector, Hudak can forget about getting any Union votes. Hudak needed to embrace the real have-nots, the regular folk who have been at the receiving end, and their burdens set to increase in the coming years. He needed to get average joes worked up as much as the public sector union membership gets worked up over their defined pensions! That is what Rob Ford did, and that’s what a smart challenger needs to do. There is a mountain of resentment there, waiting to be tapped, and you need to take sides to do so, you need to use tough language like ‘gravy train’ a la Rob Ford, for it to work. And never mind the spurious polls, one that gave just 25% approval rating to Ford, done by a Union. That is like the Chinese commissioning a poll on Dalai Lama’s popularity!
The one and only leaders debate didn’t throw up any winners either. Every one was outdoing the other on how much more they are going to spend. There was no concern on the state of our dire fianances, either from the questioners, or the participants. We are all chugging along nicely, thank you kindly, to the edge of the falls!
I don’t expect much to change. What happens if Hudak gets elected – either he will tow the line, and try to be the same same kind of politician, or if he attempts to set wrongs right, then, there will be, in the words of McGuinty, a ‘war’ in the classrooms. Public sector unions will go on strike, make everyone’s life miserable, and then the media, a large section of them, will blame the leader for being another Mike Harris (he is the Gabbar Singh for the Liberal politicians), and people will swallow that drivel and throw up the white flag. Why are Chretien and Paul Martin who cut the funding to the Provinces spared when it comes to the Mike Harris issue, I wonder. By the way, Chretien and Martin did a wonderful job of securing our future for a couple of decades more by their form of ‘slash and burn’.
If you want real changes, the people have to be motivated enough to suffer, and refuse to give in to blackmail by one section of the society over the other. But then, we are a bit past that, and perhaps, a bit too late for common sense. So if by any miracle, Hudak gets a majority, he needs to be a bit of a Mike Harris, and the people who voted for him need to go the length with him in his battles with the unions. The battles, or as McGuinty describes them ‘war’, is a given. It’s not a possibility, it’s a certainty, given the kind of democratic process we have designed for ourselves in recent years.
Under the circumstances, a possible alternative is a third term for McGuinty, and at least this time, hopefully, he will rise above his cowering self, and show leadership and get Ontario back in the running, show that he really cares for ALL Ontarians and their children yet to be born. Will he be that man in his third avatar? I hope so
Short URL: http://www.weeklyvoice.com/?p=9425