EDITORIAL: Federal and provincial budgets spare corporations and the rich at the expense of those in need
If public servants are to make sacrifices, they should get job security in return.
by Ish Theilheimer, Publisher and Editor, PublicValues.ca
Federal and provincial budgets have been coming down in the past month, and the news is not good for those who rely on quality public services or those who deliver them. Last year, with the recession freshly underway, governments put off drastic economic action. This year, deficits are way up, and the chickens are coming home to roost.
At times like these, governments face difficult choices. The kind of transnational corporations that own most of our biggest companies actually will shut down at the drop of a regulatory hat or a tax hike. If you're not sure about this, just ask the people in Timmins, Sudbury or Hamilton. So business taxes never seem to rise.
Wealth taxes tend to provoke howls of outrage from those who know how to howl the loudest.
One option is to raise taxes on ordinary citizens to cover the decrease in tax revenues from the people who still have jobs and the businesses that employ them, but this is considered politically dangerous as well. Instead, govenments raise what they can through stealthy means such as privatization, user fees, new taxing arrangements (eg, the HST) and legalized gambling.
Instead of raising business or individual taxes, the usual route in times of economic distress is to cut services — and to target public servants for abuse. Ottawa, for instance, is flooded with the opinions of tycoon-turned-mayor Larry O'Brien who believes public servants' wages are way beyond what's paid in the private sector, their contracts should be ripped up, and their pay cut.
Of course, this draconian approach is precisely what is happening in many US states, as a result of deindustrialization and of laws passed by phony populists that forbid states from running deficits or raising taxes.
Right-wing commentators and politicians love to blame public servants for economic problems. It's important for the public to remember why public services exist.
Almost every public service was established as a result of a poltical debate launched by public pressure. Now, leaders and talking heads are calling these things that people worked and struggled to have — from public education to road maintenance to health care to dog licensing — wasteful and inefficient. And they're saying the people doing the work aren't worth what they're paid.
Their words become self-fulfilling if they succeed in driving down public service wages, because when public servants are underpaid, the best ones jump to the private sector. This situation is no help to citizens who rely on their services.
Whatever the cause of the economic crises faced by our governments, and whatever they think of them, public servants inevitably will feel the pinch at every level of government. What are they to do? They can fight the cuts and freezes, but only some of them will win. They can accept cuts as givens, but this will be demoralizing in the short term, and lead — in the long term — to possibly more sacrifice and harm.
If governments are going to ask public servants for sacrifice, they should offer something in return, like job security and guarantees against privatization and contracting out. As for the most vulnerable in society, whose services always seem to be cut in times like these, far better to roll back some corporate tax cuts. In today's climate, the only corporations with substantial taxable incomes are companies like banks and oil companies, which cannot leave even if they so choose.
"You think about that corporate tax cut," said Warren "Smokey" Thomas — a mental health worker and President of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU). "All the ones who caused the world problems aren't going to feel the pinch at all," if corporate tax cuts were suspended, instead of cutting public services such as the hospitals he has worked in.
"Real live people are going to suffer the most. That's just wrong."
Posted: April 06, 2010
Public Values (PublicValues.ca) is a project of the Golden Lake Institute and the online publication StraightGoods.ca