The spectacle of the mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, attacking his fellow city councellors provides a dramatic example of a growing and fundamental division between Canadians. Mayor Ford has spent the past dozen years or so honing a clear political rhetoric that pits the “ordinary” Canadian – middle income Torontonians and those that resent the job security of public sector employees – against Toronto’s so-called elites.
What makes his extreme behaviour relevant to many Canadians is that his political positioning at a municipal level has a strong similarity to the evolving messages of today’s federal government. The Prime Minister’s speech in Calgary at the Conservative party convention earlier this fall is the most recent illustration of his desire to appeal to a “core” constituency, one sharing many characteristics with the Ford Nation.
The Ford Nation and Stephen Harper’s “core” constituency is composed of approximately 35 percent of the Canadian population. According to survey data, they represent a particular subset of the population with a number of key characteristics. Overall, they tend to be based in rural and suburban communities, are fiscally conservative, suspicious about big and active government, and concerned about the encroachment of the Charter of Rights and the courts in their way of life.
There is another key feature of this group that helps to explain their motives as voters and citizens. Globalization and information technology have fundamentally redefined their employment in the most dramatic restructuring of the work place in more than a century. As a result, in an increasingly large segment of the Canadian economy, workers continue to see the disappearance of traditional blue collar and semi-skilled labour jobs. As important, many of those being buffeted by the new economy have seen their incomes stagnate and, consequently, are increasingly pessimistic about their own economic prospects and genuinely fear that their children will be worse off than themselves.
Consequently, the loudest political voices in Canada have become extremely vocal about unjustified taxation, the absence of job security and the loss of economic certainty and are calling for smaller government, lower taxes and a less activist judicial system.
However, this constituency sometimes fails to consider at least two important facts.
First, there will be increasing pressure for greater public spending due to several unavoidable factors. Specifically, Canadians in most municipalities have significant infrastructure needs and, because they are aging, will be facing greater health costs. At the same time, the population is growing due to increased levels of immigration, much of it needed to respond to the job needs in the Canadian work force. Integrating these new workers into the labour force will demand publicly funded programs.
Second, it is far from clear that the majority of Canadians support a political agenda based on smaller government and reduced spending.
There is no doubt that Canada, like other nations, will be facing important challenges in the future, raising issues about the role of government – federal, provincial, territorial and municipal – and the need for public expenditure. Previously, when Canada was facing key policy issues, significant public conversations took place, often based on factual evidence and a range of thoughtful opinion. Obvious examples include the free trade debate, constitutional reform and Québec separation.
Earlier in November, former Clerk of the Privy Council, Alex Himelfarb, and his son Jordan precipitated a conversation about the issue of taxation in Canada when they published a book entitled, Tax is not a Four Letter Word. This publication presents an analysis of the tradeoffs between taxes and citizens’ expectations from publicly funded programs, touching on the issues that will lie at the heart of Canadians’ consideration of how they wish government to deal with the future.
This new publication and other thoughtful analyses of income distribution and changing demographics could provide the basis for a national conversation about the future role of government and the appropriate balance to be struck between levels of taxation, who should assume the burden, and where taxes should be expended. This could lay important groundwork for Canadians faced with a federal election two years from now: without such a conversation and, ultimately, some arguments about differing visions for the country, we could be faced with policies based on the rhetoric of a small but vocal minority that fails to capture the middle ground which has traditionally defined the Canadian approach.