Hugh Pouliot | CUPE Communications
It doesn’t take a magnifying glass to see a new political pattern developing across Canada over the last few years. From Saskatchewan to Nova Scotia and many points in between, a troubling trend has been picking up steam. Right-wing governments have been taking hold and attempting to uproot how governments serve their people, and fundamentally redefine labour rights in Canada.
There are differences from region to region, and the colours of their political stripe may vary, but overall the formula used in each case is about the same.
Important public services are starved of resources, crippling their ability to serve their communities, and putting increased stress on employees.
Important services are privatized or contracted out despite consistent evidence that publicly-delivered services are higher quality and cost less.
Attacks on workers’ wages and working conditions have become routine. Using legislative options to respond to labour disputes used to be a last resort, but these days, it’s seemingly number one in every right-wing premier’s playbook.
A quick look around the country shows how this trend is playing out.
In Nova Scotia, the governing Liberals under Premier Stephen McNeil have assaulted workers’ rights and public services in a way that would make a lot of Tory governments blue with envy.
They forced through Bill 148, which took away the right of public sector workers to bargain their wages and severance for years. The law will probably be struck down as unconstitutional by the courts – but the McNeil government has forged on all the same. Meanwhile, the Nova Scotia Liberals are pushing public-private partnerships in health care, and trying to privatize things like highway maintenance even though CUPE members can do the job better at a lower cost.
“How will the province save money by paying private companies to do this work?” wonders Mike MacIsaac, treasurer of CUPE 1867, the Nova Scotia highway workers union. “The province’s highway workers can do the job more efficiently and cost-effectively. Why would you go out and rent a car when you already own one?”
The reality is, no one is forcing the McNeil government’s hand when it attacks workers and diminishes public services. It’s a case of letting ideology trump good public policy. As CUPE NS President Nan McFadgen notes, “That’s a mistake we’ll all pay for.”
People in Saskatchewan have been living a similar story for over a decade under the conservative government of Premiers Brad Wall and Scott Moe and the Saskatchewan Party.
The Sask Party enjoyed years of major economic boom but instead of investing and saving, the Wall government wasted precious revenue resources and cut taxes for the province’s highest earners. They let the province’s social deficit grow even as revenues from oil skyrocketed – and when the boom went bust in late 2014, they blamed public service workers, working people, and the disadvantaged for Saskatchewan’s budget deficit.
“Last year’s budget introduced sweeping cuts and proposed rollbacks, on the revenue side, the increase in sales and consumption taxes hit workers and every day people the hardest,” said CUPE Saskatchewan President Tom Graham. “I think Saskatchewan people would prefer to see sound investment in this province’s future. That starts with a fairer tax system on the revenue side.”
Newly-installed Premier Scott Moe has shown there’s not much daylight between him and his predecessor,
Brad Wall, with a 2018 budget that cries poor while dumping billions into expensive P3s.
The Sask Party has made a great deal of noise about slaying the provincial deficit, but in reality, the government is simply offloading responsibility onto municipalities, non-governmental organizations, and ordinary people to make up the difference when services get cut.
Right-wing governments in Canada aren’t succeeding because they are wildly popular with the public. In fact, the opposite is usually true. They’re successful because they effectively manipulate our arcane electoral systems that prevent the majority of voices from being heard.
It’s been shown time and again that Saskatchewan could take a measured medium-term approach to eliminating its deficit that would keep jobs and services intact. But even more than the McNeil government in Nova Scotia, the Sask Party is more interested in an ideological attack on public services than good public policy. For Brad Wall and Scott Moe, a budget deficit is just useful political cover.
And finally, we arrive in Ontario where, after the Wynne Liberals went to war with teachers and education workers, and took on the dubious distinction of spending the least of any province per capita on health care, we now have a Conservative government under Premier Doug Ford.
Ford came to power on a promise of $7.6 billion in tax cuts, $500 million in annual spending reductions, and a balanced budget by 2021. “There’s no way around it: Doug Ford’s plan to shell out billions in tax cuts – often to people who don’t need them – and to balance the budget by 2021 would mean deep spending cuts and significant job losses,” says CUPE National Senior Economist Toby Sanger. He estimates between 46,000 to 159,000 public and private sector job losses could occur as a result of Ford’s budgetary policy. “No matter which way you cut it, this is bad news for working people in Ontario.”
Ford has also pledged to scrap the scheduled increase to Ontario’s minimum wage in the coming year, and people are rightly concerned about what a Ford government will mean for labour rights across Ontario.
There’s no question that the right is on the rise in Canada.
And if the 2016 presidential elections in the United States and the 2018 provincial elections in Ontario have told us anything, it’s that elections matter. Across the board we need to step up our engagement in election campaigns at every level of government.
But as right-wing governments continue to rise despite a lack of popular support, the question of how we elect is becoming as significant as who we elect.
Hillary Clinton won two million more votes than Donald Trump but still lost the election. And in Canada we have a voting system that awards majority governments to parties who win a minority of votes.
It’s called first-past-the-post, and it’s the reason premiers like Stephen McNeil and Doug Ford enjoy 100 per cent of the power in their respective legislatures despite only earning around forty per cent of the popular vote. It’s the reason why the Saskatchewan Party has enjoyed a significantly hampered opposition, where the NDP won 30 per cent of the vote but only occupies 16 per cent of the seats in the legislature.
The solution is proportional representation, a system where every vote is counted, and every voice matters. Forty per cent of the vote equals 40 per cent of the seats – simple enough!
While the right is on the rise from coast to coast in Canada, there is hope on the horizon as well, with referenda on electoral reform during upcoming elections in British Columbia and PEI.
Canadians cherish their public services, and we need to mobilize now to defend them as they fall under attack by right-wing governments from coast to coast.
But in the long run, one of the best ways we can protect public services and the rights of workers is to implement a system that actually recognizes the voices of the majority of Canadians when we go to the ballot box. That journey starts in BC and PEI, but it continues with all of us across Canada for the months and years to come.