Linda McQuaig couldn’t resist. Standing at the Mayor’s podium at the Toronto City Hall council chambers, she told the Older Canadians Network: “I have never smoked crack cocaine.”
Linda McQuaig for Mayor?
The author (The Trouble with Billionaires w/Neil Brooks) and journalist compared the recent Senate scandal to the U.S. Watergate scandal that led to the impeachment of President Nixon. While in Canada we may not have had a burglary, we did have the involvement of the highest office in the land in “an attempt to stop an investigation that was an embarrassment to government,” she said.
On hand for the presentation of the Alexander Gorlick Humanitarian Award to former Parliamentary Watchdog Kevin Page, McQuaig criticized the Harper government for shuffling off the Senate scandal investigation to ethics commissioner Mary Dawson, who is now going to conduct her investigation in secret.
McQuaig said she particularly liked Page because he publicly raised questions of accountability around austerity programs, which had an enormous impact on Canadians.
“He exemplifies the best of the public service and the best of Canadians,” she said of the now unemployed budget officer.
McQuaig says the best way to understand that a better more equitable society is possible is by simply looking to the past.
She asked who in the room had been borne since 1980?
That was the year corporations and the wealthy began the class war that has seen a tremendous rise in economic inequality in Canada.
“Conservatives were always comfortable with inequality,” she said, noting earlier figures such as Bob Stanfield, Joe Clark and Flora MacDonald all at least had the sense to balance it out with the public interest.
Under the new Conservatives, that tradition is lost.
“They have abandoned the notion of the public good,” she said, or what economist John Kenneth Galbraith once referred to as “the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”
McQuaig said the evidence that a more equal and prosperous society can be found in the past. She calls the period from 1940-1980 the golden era of capitalism in Canada – one in which prosperity was shared more widely among citizens.
Legislation made possible union bargaining that won higher wages, pushing up the standard of living throughout society and creating a middle class.
Despite this sharing, those 40 years were also among the strongest economically in Canada.
“It was the most egalitarian age in history,” she says. “it’s not an impossible dream.”
During that era popular magazines speculated on what we would do in the future with all the extra leisure time our wealth would afford us.
“There was every reason to believe in a future in which there would be a large economic dividend,” she said.
Instead there was the counter-revolution by the country’s elite. Their agenda was tax cuts, cuts to social spending, attacks on labour and privatization.
One of the promises for this sacrifice was wealth would trickle down. Thirty years later it is abundantly clear that never happened.
“It is absolutely clear that virtually all income gains have gone to the top,” she said.
Over the last 30 years the share earned by the top 1 per cent doubled in real terms. The top 0.1 per cent tripled. The 0.01 per cent had their income quintuple. Yet for most Canadians, their wages remained stagnant after inflation.
McQuaig says the middle class shielded itself by working twice as hard. Where one income earner could support a family, it now takes two incomes to remain in the middle class.
And what happened to all that leisure time?
“Harper took away two more years of our leisure time,” she said, referring to the Federal government’s decision to extend the retirement age to 67.
Looking to her co-presenter, McQuaig says Page pointed out the justification for rolling back retirement to 67 was “silly.” Old Age Security is sustainable.
Had we remained a more egalitarian society, the economic dividend could have been represented by more holidays or early retirement. Instead the benefits went to the top and we get to work two more years.
Back in that golden era CEOs earned 25 times more than the average Canadian worker. That’s a big gap – we’re not talking about perfect equality she said.
But now the average Canadian CEO earns 250 times the average worker.
“Today’s CEOs are no more talented or hard working than during the golden age of capitalism,” she said. The idea that this somehow represents a meritocracy is ridiculous.
Free markets are not a natural law – “that’s absurd,” McQuaig said. They are a set of human made laws. Those laws can and do change. Those laws are different than they were 30 years ago – hence the run up of incomes at the top.
While many do not have issue with public institutions becoming increasingly reliant on philanthropy in the absence of public funding, she says this does mean the rich get to make decisions on what gets supported. Under the tax system, we all get to decide. “That’s the essence of democracy.”
Universities have a history of being centers of critical thought, where the status quo can be challenged.
How possible is that when companies exert such enormous influence?
The Munk School of Global Affairs is reliant on such funding. In its contract with Canadian Mining giant Peter Munk, she says the school agrees that the front door will be literally reserved for senior faculty and guests of the school. Junior faculty and the rest of the public will have to come through the back door. This is despite that fact that the majority of funding still comes from the public purse.
McQuaig also questions the ability of the Munk Centre to take a critical look at Canadian multinational mining companies.
Our social contract had previously worked well – “we had a strong economy for four decades.”
While some say that globalization has changed that equation, McQuaig says the social contract model is thriving in the world today in northern Europe.
“The have high taxes, big unions, big government, yet have strong economies,” she said.
We can’t be afraid to start using words like redistribution again, she told the audience, urging them to be bold in pushing back.
She made a particular plea for an inheritance tax for amounts in excess of $1.5 million. Canada is one of the few countries without such a tax.
A progressive inheritance tax would raise enough money to give every 16-year-old in Canada a $16,000 educational endowment, she said. If we thought about it, Canadians would support such a tax.
Evidently Linda McQuaig is not the only one to make the connection between the present Canadian Senate scandal and Watergate. Today’s (Thursday) column by the Toronto Star’s Thomas Walkom also draws the parallel. Walkom writes the real cause of President Richard Nixon’s downfall was “his own paranoia, his insistence on political overkill and his willingness to have operatives commit dirty tricks that were beyond the law. Is Harper going down this path? Let’s just say there are worrying signs.”