Terry Price, President of Public Interest Alberta
To refer to the happenings of the past several weeks as “head-spinning” or “disorienting” is to seriously underestimate the dizzying and worrying impact of the coronavirus events, especially when combined with volatility and upheaval in so many other aspects of local, national, and global conditions and institutions.
Given the countless post-apocalyptic movies that have been so popular in recent years, we can be forgiven for feeling like unwilling extras in the latest such film. Life really is imitating art, as we deal with rising death tolls, long lineups for scarce necessities, the closing of borders, schools, child care centres, libraries, churches, recreation centres, bars and restaurants; requirements for self-isolation with growing numbers of people working from home; declarations of states of emergency and national lockdowns; relentless round-the clock media coverage; and above all, an unnerving sense of uncertainty and fear of a pandemic that is spreading dramatically and not yet understood let alone contained.
And unfortunately, by all accounts the worst is yet to come.
Most of the emotional reactions are connected to coronavirus issues, but they are reinforced by tremors in other important aspects of our interconnected and globalized world as well:
- The dramatic upheaval in the world energy situation, resulting from an initial disagreement between Russia and Saudi Arabia which led to a price war and a collapse in oil prices, with particularly acute reverberations in oil-producing areas, including Alberta
- Major interventions by national and international financial institutions attempting to avert the growing potential for economic recession resulting from cascading economic effects, including stock market crashes around the globe and rapidly growing job losses from suspensions and closures over a wide range of economic activities
- The overwhelming failure of the Trump administration to competently and quickly deal with the mounting health and economic threats, and the growing possibility that Trump’s presidency will be effectively challenged by the surprising recent political success of Democrat Joe Biden. As writer Peter Wehner said on March 13 in The Atlantic, “It has taken a good deal longer than it should have, but Americans have now seen the con man behind the curtain.”
- The growing impact on social and cultural conditions and behaviour resulting from the shutting down of various kinds of social interaction, ranging across sports events, religion, recreation, and arts and cultural activities, most clearly exemplified by the situation in Europe, where already in Italy, Spain, France, and Belgium, almost the entire populations are under some form of lockdown.
The situation in Alberta is made even worse by the impact of the oil price collapse, which has exacerbated existing problems and points to bigger difficulties ahead.
In the short term, the course of action for governments, organizations, and individuals is clear: We all need to work together to do what we can to “flatten the curve,” prevent the spread of the disease, and protect and support each other – especially those who are most vulnerable.
As University of Toronto philosopher Mark Kingwell wrote recently,
This isn’t panic, it’s just good citizenship under adverse social conditions … You are not above the human herd. A united community, like a tight-formation bomber wing facing incoming fighters, is what offers everyone protection… And whatever you do, remember that public trusts are bigger than your fleeting personal interests.
While much of our focus will necessarily be on these more immediate concerns, we must also be thinking hard about what courses of action will be needed after this crisis has subsided. There are important insights to be gained and lessons to be learned - not just in regard to managing similar future health care threats, but also in regard to the larger problem of the overall paths our governments have been on and the policies we have been pursuing (Perhaps think of it as using ‘intellectual bifocals,’ which allow us to more easily and effectively look at short and longer-term concerns, both of which are essential).
Large corporations are already doing so, and are looking past this crisis and planning for the threats and opportunities that lie ahead.
There seems to be a growing consensus that a global recession is all but inevitable. Business writer Rob Carrick, in his column, “The realist’s guide to the recession ahead,” bluntly stated, “It’s time to start preparing for the recession that will follow the coronavirus outbreak.”
In a column entitled, “CEO’s have one eye on life after the outbreak,” Globe and Mail writer Andrew Willis focuses more on potential opportunities:
Corporate leaders are balancing dual agendas these days. Their first priority is ensuring employees are safe and their businesses can navigate unprecedented challenges. But CEOs and boards are also looking past the storm, to a time when deals are once again possible and attractive assets are up for grabs at significant discounts.
Insights, lessons and necessary changes
Progressive individuals and organizations in the short term will be doing their part in helping to deal with the difficult current situation. But we too must also focus on strategic decisions regarding future actions, policies, and advocacy – and there are many important insights to be gained from what we are now going through, particularly in regard to Alberta.
- The limits of markets and the importance of strong public services and public enterprise
For many people, the view of “just leave it to the markets to solve everything,” the basic tenet of neoliberalism and market fundamentalists everywhere, has been dramatically revealed as intellectually and morally bankrupt.
Markets have never been designed to deliver services to everyone; they are instead giant sorting mechanisms that separate those who get the goods and services from those who don’t - entirely based on the ability to pay. If you can’t pay, you don’t get.
That’s why market approaches have always been so inappropriate for services such as health care and education, which should be the rights of every individual, along with other important public services. Part of the problem with the United States’ inadequate reaction to the coronavirus crisis has been shown to be its largely private health care system, where perhaps forty million people lack any coverage.
And now, in a remarkable turn of events, the U.S. Congress is actually considering the extreme (and very “socialist”) measure of making direct payments of perhaps as much as $1000 per individual and $500 per child to every American, in order to stimulate demand and stave off potential economic catastrophe. Of course, far more modest approaches would have seemed unimaginable only a month ago. So much for “the magic of the market” as panacea.
The crisis has also led Spain to nationalize their hospitals, and across the globe public services are increasingly being seen as far more essential to the health and well-being of individuals, families, and the whole of society. And it’s about time.
- The importance of the role of government
Market fundamentalist ‘think tanks’ and ideologues, lavishly funded by wealthy right wing and corporate interests, have for decades unrelentingly pushed the view that government itself is basically a bad thing, that the smallest possible role for government is the ideal, that regulations are “red tape,” and that people are more free when government plays almost no role in their lives (to the point where in the United States even prisons are largely privatized). Donald Trump’s 2018 decision to disband the office responsible for pandemic preparedness is a reflection of the worst of such approaches, and the consequences are now starkly evident. In Canada, the UCP government in Alberta has been the hotbed for such views.
The coronavirus crisis has made it clear just how important it is to have strong governments committed to the public interest and having the necessary resources, infrastructure, and personnel to act effectively. Not only government intervention, but government itself has been shown to be far more important than many thought. Canada’s federal government seems to have performed credibly during this crisis, but the shortcomings in their resources and capacity have also become evident and the lessons are becoming clearer every day. The success of countries like Taiwan, who swiftly integrated lessons on containment and rapid response from the 2003 SARS epidemic, also make the case for the need for our governments to be much more prepared for these potential problems.
In this regard, we need to think more deeply about our government’s capacity and commitment to respond to another looming and potentially devastating crisis - that of climate change. Surely the lesson here is that we need to take it much more seriously, and that governments need to lead the way in terms of preparedness, resources, coordination, and commitments.
The combination of the coronavirus crisis, the oil price collapse, and the economic consequences of both have dramatically revealed just how misguided and counterproductive the policies of Alberta’s UCP government and its predecessors (to varying degrees) have been, and how urgently major changes are needed.
- The UCP budget of February 27 was revealed to be utterly inappropriate within days of its tabling in the legislature. The approach of cutbacks to public services, clearly based on ideology rather than need, will obviously put many more people out of work and will make the situation much worse instead of better. The idea of massive tax cuts to corporations in order to stimulate the economy has clearly failed and was doomed to do so from the beginning, given the evidence of the widespread failure of previous “trickle down” approaches. Their optimistic estimates for revenue from higher oil prices (projected to be $58) now look absurd, with Canadian heavy oil recently closing at under US $10. The UCP decision to double down and ram the budget through the legislature despite its manifest problems gives new meaning to the term “wrong-headed.”
- Mr. Kenney’s previous approach of blaming all of Alberta’s economic problems on the province’s previous NDP government and the current federal Liberal government has been revealed as a blatant and unwarranted attempt to deflect blame from the failure of his own approach. We will never get more compelling evidence that Alberta’s current and recent problems in government finance are largely due to international factors beyond our control (volatile oil prices combined with falling demand for fossil fuels, particularly bitumen), combined with policies that now look foolhardy.
- The government’s stubborn refusal to consider alternatives to its misguided approach of betting everything on a combination of higher oil prices and corporate tax cuts was summed up in a recent column entitled, “Alberta, a crisis is a horrible thing to waste,“ by writer Gary Mason:
Unfortunately, governments in Alberta have rarely learned from these events in the past. Instead, they have plodded along the same path afterward, plundering their oil riches until the next great fall. Sadly, they are likely to do the same thing again this time …
- The UCP has ignored opportunities in sustainability and cleaner energy which would help to diversify the economy, deciding instead to pursue all possible avenues for increased oil production. This misguided effort absolutely must be replaced by a far more balanced approach that is grounded in a just transition to a future based on far lower carbon emissions and a comprehensive commitment to dealing effectively with climate change.
- Mr. Kenney’s ongoing focus on cutbacks, his continuing denial that Alberta has a revenue problem, and his refusal to consider revenue reform, including a sales tax and higher taxes on the wealthy, is also at the heart of the problem. This is despite the fact that his own recent budget showed that Alberta has an enormous amount of room to move in raising revenues, since Alberta would collect more than $14 billion in additional revenue if it instituted the tax regime of the next-lowest province. Gary Mason summed up the situation as follows:
Now is precisely the time to ask people in the province to make the kind of ‘sacrifice’ they should have been making for years … a sales tax of 5 per cent – which would be the lowest among the provinces in the country – would have helped eliminate several of the deficits the province has incurred over the last several years.
Alberta needs revenue reform, and it needs it now.
Public services and the public interest
In some ways, the most important lesson from this confluence of a pandemic crisis and economic threats has to do with the importance of not only preserving but enhancing our public services, which are now particularly under attack in Alberta.
These recent developments have helped to make clear that not only do we need strong public services in times of crisis, but at all times. Rather than leaving people to the vagaries of unconstrained markets, which have in recent years dramatically increased inequality and precariousness around the globe, our public services foster more equality, equity, and security for all individuals and families, and for our society as a whole.
A slight sense of the necessity of this enlightened approach might even have reached Mr. Kenney in recent days. While continuing to pick a fight with doctors and cutting other services in the midst of this astonishing crisis, Mr. Kenney begrudgingly acknowledged that it might be necessary to put a hold on some of the cutbacks planned for public health care.
But what all of us need to impress on Mr. Kenney and his government is that it is never a good time to underfund, diminish, and undermine health care in particular, and public services in general.
More than ever, now is the right time to support, strengthen, and fully fund public health care, public education, and the full range of our vital public services that are so obviously essential to the wellbeing of Alberta’s individuals, families, and society.
In that regard, it is good to remember the words of Harvard Professor Elaine Bernard, who in speaking to the founding meeting of Public Interest Alberta in 2004, reminded us that on September 11, 2001, when so many people were coming down the stairs of the twin towers, the only people going up those stairs were unionized, public sector workers.
On a personal note, I wish you well in the weeks and months to come, as we all work together to get through our current challenges. But I also want to encourage you to find the time to think about the issues and choices that will be with us when this crisis is over, in light of what we all have learned. Public Interest Alberta was founded to provide a vehicle for advocacy on exactly these issues, and has been working on them for the past sixteen years with other progressive organizations and individuals. I look forward to working with you in the near future to advance these important goals.