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Good gov't requires a well-informed electorate

By Ed Finn

"You can always get the truth from a politician--after he retires."
--Wendell Phillips.

"Nothing is politically right which is morally wrong."
--Daniel O'Connell.

* * *

My manifestly low opinion of the current crop of politicians has led some of my faithful readers to infer that I am anti-government.

Of course I'm not. I agree with Edmund Burke's description of government as "a human contrivance to provide for human needs." He was referring, however, to all human needs--not the needs of a small privileged élite.

It's the politicians today who have given government a bad name. They are the ones who are openly and blatantly anti-government. Instead of governing in the interests of all citizens, they are operating a catering service for the rich and powerful. And when you reduce government to that limited function, you can safely dismantle the four-fifths of government that would otherwise serve the majority of people.

The Chretien Liberals, for example, are now boasting that they have shrunk the size of the federal government--in terms of its spending as a percentage of GDP--to the size it was back in 1949, well before most of our social programs were established.

The rich and powerful don't need public health care or public education or public pensions or unemployment insurance or any of the other programs and services that they can easily afford to provide for themselves. What they resent is having to help pay for these services for their less-well-off fellow citizens.

In the past, when politicians felt morally obliged to govern on behalf of everyone, they did their best to maintain universal services, and kept unemployment and poverty as low as they could. Now that they serve only bankers, business executives and investors, they can confine government activities to those that are needed or approved by the corporate hierarchy: basic infrastructure, communications, transportation, police protection, international relations, along with monetary and fiscal policies that favour lenders over borrowers, business over labour, sellers over buyers, polluters over environmentalists.

There was a time when most politicians could not be bought, bribed, or intimidated. Now, all but a few of them--some reluctantly, most willingly--have been corrupted. They have become servants of the corporate overlords. The corporations are the source of their campaign funds, their legislative agenda, their media and academic apologists, their lucrative consulting and directorial posts when they leave politics.

To get elected, of course, the politicians have to pretend to be concerned about the other 90% of the population. They have to convince the voters that, even when they chop services and facilitate more layoffs, even when they further widen the gap between rich and poor, they are somehow still trying to help all of us.

You might think this would be a hard sell, but in fact it has been remarkably easy to persuade voters to elect governments who will spend the next four or five years pummeling them. The more they are hurt or abused, the more likely they are to re-elect their political assailants. Ralph Klein is a good example, and Mike Harris will no doubt also be rewarded with a second term by his victims.

The power of the corporate propaganda machine is truly awesome. The CEOs of the biggest transnationals own or control the media, and when they use their media to spread lies, the lies become the conventional wisdom--or the "common sense." Recall how they trumpeted the alleged benefits of free trade during the 1988 election. Free trade, they and their political mouthpieces earnestly assured us, would create more jobs, and wouldn't harm our social programs. These lies deceived enough voters to give the Mulroney government a second chance to put the boots to us--and we're still licking our wounds.

Of course it doesn't really matter any more which political party forms a government. The Liberals are as slavishly devoted to their corporate masters as the Tories are. So is the Reform party. NDP politicians may not be such dutiful servants of big business, but basically they do as they're told by Bay Street, too, if not as speedily or with the same ideological zeal. They haven't been bought or bribed, but they have been intimidated. They also feel--to be fair to them--that they have to follow the bulk of the brainwashed electorate into the right of the political spectrum, where the right-wing propaganda has dragged them.

What are the prospects of ever again getting a government that would truly govern on behalf of all Canadians? Of ever again getting politicians we can trust and respect?

It won't happen as long as we keep losing the propaganda war. As long as most people are deluded into believing that free market forces must prevail, that the best government is the least government, that we are helpless pawns in the game of global competition, then we will continue to get the kind of disastrous governance that now prevails--no matter which bunch of corporate flunkeys we choose to favour with our ballots.

To get serious about fighting the propaganda war, we have to create our own left-of-centre-oriented media. It's not enough to develop strong critiques and workable alternatives to the corporate agenda if our message is not seen or heard except by the already converted minority who read The Canadian Forum, The CCPA Monitor, Canadian Dimension, This Magazine, and other out-of-the-mainstream publications.

Right now, we're in a war in which we have lots of good ammunition, but only slingshots to deliver it. So we are reduced to asking our enemies to let us borrow their guns to shoot our shells back at them. Little wonder we are not scoring many hits.

I don't have enough space left to discuss how the left could acquire its own mass media. That will be the subject of a future column. I'll just reiterate here, in closing, that any hope of restoring true democracy in Canada, and with it a better breed of politicians, depends largely on creating a better informed electorate.

Taken from The CCPA Monitor, May 1997.

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