THE SIGNS OF IT ARE EVERYWHERE – university tuitions almost out of reach; poverty both systemic and entrenched; the decline in research almost across the board; significant cuts to foreign aid and diplomatic initiatives; and an increasing sense that Ottawa might as well be situated in some other country.
Then there is the emotional damage created when a people no longer look to the future with a robust sense of optimism or to government with any real kind of expectation. This collective decline in optimism is, in every way, as significant as the previously mentioned challenges.
Government itself is changing and it’s in the process of disappearing. The so-called “austerity agenda” has crippled numerous regions, including southwestern Ontario, and the much hoped for “austerity dividend” never really arrived. Proportionally, it seems as though only the wealthy and corporations are better off for all this. Governments, once so essential to our collective and individual quality of life, are in retreat but show no inclination to inform us that they are slowly leaving the field.
For three decades now the message has remained consistently the same: governments are to big, corporations require more tax breaks, and citizens do too. And so we bought into the rhetoric, watching with increasing alarm as the things we valued and cherished continue to be chipped away in favour of global competitiveness and domestic restructuring.
And it’s all gotten us where exactly? Phenomenal wealth has been created even during our times of restraint but it feels less and less like it descends into our lives. The tools we require to function as a prosperous and affluent nation no longer seem in our hands. Our public infrastructure – roads, railways, harbours, airports, electricity and water – will require literally billions to repair and upgrade, but that isn’t likely to happen when we can even contain the costs of spiraling post-secondary education.
In dealing with this decline in discretionary spending, governments feel they have only one option: slowly disappear from public expectations. And though it appears to be working (Canadians continue to feel less confidence in government’s ability to solve our greatest obstacles), the result is that the country itself is functioning less and less. We would never anticipate constructing a St. Lawrence Seaway today or expanding rail service across the entire country. We know better than to expect that from governments that continue to cry poor.
Part of the reason governments can shrink back into the background is because citizens have been doing the same thing. With little engagement and persuasion possible with their political representatives, Canadians feel they can do little else but provide for their families and perhaps focus instead on their local communities. Some battles are being won, but the war will be lost if we continue down this road.
With capitalism and democracy beset by numerous interconnected problems, and wealth housing itself in international venues far away from our beleaguered communities, it appears likely that the partnership between economic prosperity and social justice is no longer strong enough to carry us into the future. Three of the top ten economists listed by The Economist magazine – Paul Krugman, Thomas Piketty, and Joseph Stiglitz – worry that the historical consensus between these two important partners is perhaps beyond repair. The only thing that can restore it is a healthy democracy, where citizens successfully transition their ideals into the political space. But that’s no working so well now either.
This is precisely this time when visionary politics is supposed to show up, just as in the past. Instead, we have political parties looking to the middle-class to help them capture government when their ultimate concern should be for the welfare of all Canadians, not just one sector.
Naturally, there will be those who resent such thoughts, claiming things have never been better. But we all know that view is no longer saleable. Globe and Mail columnist, Lawrence Martin, reminded us recently that we are enduring the lowest run of economic growth in eight decades. He says the economists he has spoken to expect the trend to continue. He quotes Ivey Business School’s Paul Booth’s concern: “If we have another decade of growth at such a low rate, a whole bunch of economies, including emerging economies, will catch up and pass us by.”
If our political and economic elite maintain that the only answer to this is to head down the same course but at a faster rate, then our decline will only come that much quicker. Our only way of keeping governments from fading away from their responsibilities is to challenge them to present us with new and different visions for discovering a more equal and sustainable future and for us as citizens to be willing to invest in that future. Like it or not, government is us, and we can’t lose it without losing ourselves.