Friday, April 13, 2012

There are alternatives to the bankrupt neoliberalism

New Directions in Saskatchewan Public Policy
David McGrane, ed.
Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center Press
University of Regina, 2011. $39.95 paper

Reviewed by John W. Warnock
February 18, 2012

From 1944 through 2007 Saskatchewan politics was dominated by the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and its successor the New Democratic Party (NDP). But the NDP was soundly defeated by the Brad Wall’s Saskatchewan Party in 2007 and routed in 2011. Today they hold only nine seats in the legislature.

The vote for the NDP fell from 275,000 in 1991 to 169,000 in 2007 and 127,000 in 2011. The party membership has dropped from 46,000 in 1991 to around 8,000 today. The provincial Liberal Party has all but disappeared; in the 2011 election they got fewer votes than the Greens. The Saskatchewan Party received 64% of the popular vote and the NDP only 32%. The NDP may never again form the government in Saskatchewan.

Obviously, the Saskatchewan NDP needs to seriously re-evaluate the political direction it has taken since 1991. The move to the right to embrace the neoliberal model has been a failure. Thus it is a good time for a book of serious papers which examine ongoing problems and set out an alternative policy direction.

The child poverty rate in Saskatchewan stands at 19.6%, tied with B.C. as the highest in Canada. James Mulvale and Kirk Englot explain how a progressive provincial government could implement a feasible strategy for poverty reduction.

Saskatchewan has a very high percentage of senior citizens with increasing health care costs. The Aboriginal population is growing fast. Daniel Beland stresses the need for major training and support programs. The province cannot meet the needs of the people while putting its highest priority on cutting taxes.

Bohdan Kordan concludes that recent provincial governments have had little interest in introducing multicultural policies to welcome new immigrants, even with the shortage of skilled workers and jobs unfilled. There are long waiting lists to get into training programs at our technical institutes.

Saskatchewan has a horrendous record when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. In 1997 Roy Romanow’s NDP government introduced a resolution in the legislature denouncing the Kyoto Protocol and insisting that no compulsory controls be placed on emissions. They shut down the Energy Conservation and Development Commission, which had produced excellent studies on projects suitable for the province.

When faced with the challenge from the New Green Alliance and the few environmental organizations in the province, Lorne Calvert’s government finally came up with a set of goals for reductions, but there was no attempt to actually implement any serious program.

Scott Bell and Jamesy Patrick outline a general path that could be taken. But they do not confront the reality of the situation in the province, where neither of the two major parties has ever had any commitment to doing anything which would reduce the consumption of fossil fuels.

Saskatchewan has the longest and deepest experience with CCF-NDP governments. Therefore, it is somewhat surprising to discover that this tradition is almost absent at the level of municipal government. The alliance of developers and builders rules. There is no history of planning municipalities for the general welfare. Ryan Walker’s excellent essay on “equitable urbanism” shows how urban planning and development should be in human-scale development.

But the reality today in Saskatchewan’s larger cities is the worst of suburban development: overpriced, oversized single detached houses, linked to “power centres”, where large transnational firms congregate, creating a huge black hole which sucks capital out of the community. Junkscapes are the norm. Heritage buildings are torn down. Older, affordable apartments are converted to condominiums. There is no concern for people who want to rent, seniors, people who have moderate or low incomes, the disabled, or the many with few resources coming to our urban centres from reserves. As Walker makes clear, our urban development is the opposite of smart growth.

Charles Smith’s article on the impact of neoliberalism on the trade union movement is one of the best in the collection. He contrasts the open support that workers got from the CCF government of T.C. douglas with the refusal of the NDP under Romanow and Calvert to in any way enhance the rights of labour. The first priority of the Romanow government was to build a special partnership with the business community. They refused to introduce any pay equity legislation. They legislated Sask Power employees and nurses back to work.

Labour must cease its practice of unquestioning support of the NDP and work in the broader community, Smith argues. It is surprising that he overlooks the example of the very successful role that labour played in helping to build and finance the Saskatchewan Coalition for Social Justice.

The shift in agricultural policy from the social democratic activist support of the CCF-NDP through the Blakeney government (1944-81) to the neoliberal program of the subsequent governments is covered by Darrell McLaughlin and Daniel DeLury The Romanow-Calvert governments (1991-2007) were aggressive in their support for agribusiness. Calvert’s government even lifted the restrictions on foreign and corporate ownership of farmland. The alternatives set forth are those we generally associate with the Food First movement. In the era of climate change, democratic justice, stewardship and decentralized control are required.

The failure of the NDP governments to address the status of Aboriginal peoples in the province is well covered by Bonita Beatty and Priscilla Settee. The democratic alternative to neoliberalism is set forth by Settee, who draws on traditional Cree principles which stress community life, well being for all, sharing, a deep respect for nature and animal life, and a commitment to the betterment of humankind. Local ownership and import substitution are required as well as the democratization of our important institutions.

The weakest paper in the book is by David McGrane, a look at the province’s tax policy from 1991 to 2011. He laments the “limited academic research” on the subject while ignoring Phillip Hansen’s Taxing Illusions, an excellent study which compares the tax policy of the CCF-NDP governments through Woodrow Lloyd with that of the Romanow period.

He completely ignores the role of the Personal Income Tax Review Committee under Jack Vicq, which strongly endorsed the Romanow government’s tax cut program. He needed someone other than Eric Cline, the former NDP finance minister, to read and comment on his paper. McGrane argues that the Romanow-Calvert governments were “ideologically committed to increasing economic equality” and “redistributing wealth.” But as Paul Gingrich has shown, under the Romanow-Calvert governments Saskatchewan experienced a dramatic increase in income inequality. This is the government that froze welfare rates between 1991 and 2006. McGrane does note that Brad Wall’s government reversed a key policy of the NDP governments when it raised provincial grants to school boards and municipalities and removed a large segment of low income earners from the taxation rolls.

The overall position of McGrane follows that of University of Regina professor Howard Leeson: we have seen the two major political parties “crowding the centre.” But most people would see a broad move to the right as both parties embraced the neoliberal agenda set by big business.

The papers in this book were first presented at a conference at the University of Saskatchewan in 2009. It coincided with the NDP choosing Dwain Lingenfelter, one of Romano’s key cabinet ministers, to replace Lorne Calvert. At the same time the world was watching the collapse of the neoliberal model and the social democrats’ Third Way. There are some very good alternatives presented in these papers. The key question, of course, is who is going to implement them. Certainly not the NDP as we know it.

John W. Warnock is a Regina political activist and author of Saskatchewan: the Roots of Discontent and Protest.

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