Blog | April 11, 2013

By Josh Marcellin, Vue WeeklyIf corporations are people, as some would say, then they're not the kind of people you'd want to fight; a corporation is big, faceless and prohibitively powerful.But Public Interest Alberta (PIA) says the battle is worth it, fair fight be damned. PIA, a non-profit and non-partisan organization, is holding its seventh annual advocacy conference April 11 to 13, Fighting for our Future: People Power vs Corporate Control. Speakers are coming from the United States, Canada and India, including a keynote panel on Thursday evening featuring Beaver Lake Cree Nation oil-sands activist Crystal Lameman, award-winning journalist and author Linda McQuaig and Amazon Watch's Gregor MacLennan.PIA's executive director Bill Moore-Kilgannon says the annual conference has always focused on people power—the power of ordinary folks to tackle Alberta's problems. He says the 2013 conference is meant to show Albertans that they can push back against big business's oversized influence."We're seeing more and more power to large corporations—this can lead to privatization of health care, massive cuts to public services and, like we are seeing, cuts to post-secondary education," Moore-Kilgannon says. "We're bringing in speakers to inspire people, to remind them that we live in a democracy and that we can advocate for change."Toronto author and journalist Linda McQuaig—her latest book being The Trouble with Billionaires—says the one percent are getting richer at the expense of ordinary folks, and points to Alberta's austerity budget as an example of what happens when the wealthiest citizens and corporations influence the ruling government. Alberta, what with the oil sands being developed at a feverish pace, should be awash in cash—not slashing university budgets and battling to pay teachers, nurses and doctors as little as possible."That money is going to private industry," McQuaig says of the petro-dollars.The problem? She says Alberta collects an embarrassingly low royalty rate from oil development, lower than Angola and much lower than Norway's. And the oil industry exerts considerable pressure to keep it that way."There's an extremely powerful vested interest that blocks any attempt at reform," she says.The author says that the wealthy, and their proxy in government, are ideologically opposed to a powerful tool that would help Alberta out of their deficit hole: tax reform. McQuaig says changes to Canada's tax structures in the early '80s have overwhelmingly benefitted the rich. Statistics Canada says the income of the top .01 percent has quintupled in the last three decades, while wages for the middle class have stagnated and actually decreased for the lowest earners.Fellow conference speaker Dennis Howlett agrees. Howlett, executive director for Ottawa-based Canadians for Tax Fairness, will be joining Parkland Institute researcher Diana Gibson to talk about "tax cuts, greed and the corporate agenda."Howlett says tax cuts—like Alberta's 10 percent flat income tax—do more to help the rich and actually harm ordinary citizens and society as a whole. He argues that a progressive tax, where higher earners pay a higher rate, would help solve income inequality and contribute to better social programs."Canada and Alberta had good, progressive taxes," Howlett says on the phone from Ottawa. "But we saw that disappear in the last 10 to 20 years. Now we're seeing cuts to programs and growing income inequality. That income gap hurts economy; ordinary Canadians have less and less money to spend and wealthier folks are more likely to just put their savings in the bank."The idea of raising taxes, even for the rich, sounds provocative. But it's provocative because we've been conditioned for years to consider taxes as the devil. That, says conference speaker Wendell Potter, is a testament to the power of profit-driven propaganda. And Potter knows that power first-hand.As a senior executive in the American health-insurance industry, he has an intimate understanding of how a business will put money over anything else—including the lives of tens of millions of people. But he switched from insider to whistle-blower, famously testifying against the health-insurance industry in front of the US Senate in 2009. He's since written a book on the experience, Deadly Spin, and blogs regularly on the US health-insurance industry's deceptions.He says insurance companies spend tens and hundreds of millions of dollars on propaganda and to lobby politicians. While 50 million Americans have no health insurance—because their illnesses are pre-existing conditions and disqualify them from coverage or they simply can't afford the premiums—the health insurance industry was promoting US health care as the best in the world. The US ranks 47th globally in life expectancy, behind Bosnia, and 54th in health-care fairness, worse than Bangladesh."It's incredible how much influence these corporations have," Potter says on the phone from Philadelphia. "They have campaigns with their allies in business and politics, which is basically fear-mongering, meant to scare people away from any reform. They manage public opinion and put out distorted information, like saying Canadians have to ration out health care or wait months or years for medically necessary care."He strongly warns against letting even the tiniest whiff of privatized health care waft into Alberta. He calls it a "slippery slope" towards the American system, where corporations have enormous influence on politics and public opinion through propaganda campaigns."The system creates unequal access to care," Potter says.McQuaig, Howlett and Potter will be joined by a dozen more speakers, including Afsar Jafri, who will speak about control of agriculture in his native India; Sean Devlin, creator of the bitingly satirical Shit Harper Did website (shd.ca); and Kevin Millsip, co-founder and director of youth leadership program Next Up. PIA's Moore-Kilgannon encourages people to see Thursday's keynote panel with McQuaig, Lameman, MacLennan and a video link with Peruvian indigenous leader Peas Peas Ayui.Thu, Apr 11 – Sat, Apr 13
Chateau Louis Conference Centre, $15pialberta.orgBy Josh Marcellin, Vue Weekly
josh@vueweekly.comThis article was published in Vue Weekly on April 11, 2013. Read more on the Vue Weekly website.