In 2000, in the small Ontario community of Walkerton, seven people died of E. coli contamination in the local drinking water supply.
Hundreds more were sick.
In January 2002, the Walkerton Commission of Enquiry released its findings.
To no one’s surprise, the report found that provincial government spending cuts were both directly and indirectly responsible for the tragedy.
The Walkerton dead are only the most easily identifiable victims of the Common Sense Revolution, the Ontario Conservatives’ plan to Thatcherise the province with massive cuts to government services.
Promising to slash debt and deficit by cutting programs, reducing regulation, and lowering corporate taxes, the Mike Harris Conservatives left behind a whopping deficit and the province’s social network in shambles.
The bottom-rung employee whose job it was to monitor water quality in Walkerton did prison time for his part in the tragedy. Harris and his cabinet walked.
One of those cabinet ministers is now keeping the books for Canada, and guess what? He wants to do the same for the country he once did for its biggest province.
Jim Flaherty, Canada’s finance minister, held a number of cabinet posts under Harris, including attorney general and Finance minister, and is considered one of the key architects of the Common Sense Revolution.
A right-winger’s right-winger, Flaherty once ran unsuccessfully for the premier’s job on a get-tough-on-crime platform, which included a promise to make homelessness illegal.
Flaherty released a “fiscal update” last week, outlining the direction his government will take with its 2007 budget — in a word, backwards.
It’s the CSR all over again, only this time Flaherty’s actually cutting taxes by reducing the debt. Following this innovative formula, whoever’s left standing when the net debt’s paid down gets a tax cut, because there’s less interest to pay.
Along the way, of course, it will be necessary to slash program spending and “cut the regulatory burden of paperwork for business by 20 per cent.”
Bulletin: the regulatory burden on business helps to prevent workplace fatalities, tax evasion, fraud, sloppy handling of hazardous products, criminal negligence, and outbreaks of E. coli, to name but a few.
In plain language, Flaherty is promising once again to put Canadian lives at risk for the sake of tax cuts and corporate profits.
The Reform/Alliance/Conservative Party was founded on the basis that a country must manage its finances carefully, just like a family.
Like any household we must pay down the debt, even if it means we have to abandon our parents, starve one in five of our children, let the roof cave in on 20 per cent of the house, do nothing to help our needy neighbours or mentally ill relatives and dump our sewage in the nearest creek.
By the standards of even the most ruthless family, Flaherty’s plan is nuts.
Whatever else Canada may be doing wrong, we’re making our payments.
It would be nice to pay down the debt faster, and so we should when the day arrives that there’s cash to spare, but who makes extra payments on the mortgage when they can’t afford clean water or decent housing for all their family members?
Canada is spending its resources like a crew of drunken pirates, and taxes on the resulting revenue means huge government surpluses.
In short, we are a very rich country.
We can afford to feed and house the poor, to clean up the water supply, to spend on conservation, health and education, to contribute our fair share to eliminating poverty in the world and still pay down our debt at a reasonable rate.
When Conservatives pledge to cut cut cut, rest assured that certain areas of spending will remain sacrosanct.
There may be nothing in the jar for water treatment, but there’s still plenty over there in the war kitty.
Big Oil needs more subsidies to exploit the tar sands? No problem.
New prisons? Coming right up.
Housing for the homeless? No, no … sorry, we don’t do handouts — we have debts to pay you know.
Very likely this budget, when presented to Parliament next spring, will be the death of Steve Harper’s government.
They’ve never managed to get their popularity up past minority status even while their only serious rivals are busy squabbling over who said the dumbest thing most recently.
It’s pretty clear where things are likely to go once the Liberals finally quit chewing their cud and elect a leader — always assuming they don’t shoot themselves in the foot by choosing some waffling Harvard academic.
Much is made in the Liberal leadership race of number two contender (really number one contender) Bob Rae’s past in Ontario, where all the seats are.
His struggles with the provincial finances divided the province and created havoc with old left-wing alliances, and many Liberals think that this past will catch up to them if Rae fronts their outfit next election.
Flaherty has just thrown Rae a lifeline by reminding Ontarians that there are far, far worse days behind them than Rae Days.