Given what the Speech from the Throne was expected to contain, you’d think the federal government would have splurged for some theme music when it was delivered this week—a pulsing, Rocky-inspired set of horns, and maybe some chunky 1980s TV news graphics spelling “HARPER HELPS,” perhaps with a phone number for consumers to call.
As I write this, the speech has yet to be delivered, but I do have access to an early, super-secret draft that was leaked to everyone, everywhere, through the major newspapers months ago. And the thrust of the Conservative government’s emphasis on troubleshooting front-line customer-service complaints was clear from the early buzz: “Are you tired of being ripped off by big corporations? Cable packages driving you nuts? Bumped from an airline flight at the last minute? Credit-card fees and cellphone bills making you angry? Then Canada’s Economic Action Team is here to help. No complaint is too small! If you’re whining about it on Twitter, we’re ready to throw the full resources of the sovereign federal government of Canada at it. Vote now: we’re here to help.”
While this bold effort to tend the gardens of corporate Canada is new, the focus on those specific items that make Canadians grumbly has become a well-worn theme. In the past, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has given people a rebate for hockey fees and tax credits for textbooks and transit passes. He’s not alone in this, of course—in his last election campaign, the NDP’s Jack Layton took aim at high credit-card interest rates and home heating costs, while Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals aimed to send cheques to students and green-energy renovators.
What’s it all good for? If there’s a prediction I feel comfortable making, it’s that whatever happens with this government-mandated cable-package meddling, it will not result in cheaper cable bills. (And it definitely won’t result in the ability to subscribe only to HBO and sports and nothing else for $2 a month, which seems to be what people actually want.) Unfortunately, what most of these feel-good proposals share, other than a focus on the itemized frustrations of middle-class people, is their almost complete failure to actually solve the underlying problems making life harder for Canadians.
Let’s take one of Harper’s banner defences of regular folks: He eliminated the tyranny of the mandatory long-form census, which had forced people to spend up to 20 minutes filling out a form every few years. With families freed from that burden, our federal government now has a $600-million voluntary “household survey” that pretty much all public-policy analysts agree is complete garbage—unreliable and phenomenally inaccurate, and worse than useless in assessing the needs of citizens and the effectiveness of government programs.
We’ve grown accustomed to this seeing-the-trees-but-ignoring-the-forest problem in Toronto, where our mayor campaigned and governs loudly under a “Customer Service” banner, but fails to invest money or attention into delivering better services to customers. Instead, he is the complainer-in-chief, shouting about cockroaches in public apartments (while cutting funding to public housing), banging his fist on traffic and transit problems (while cutting the level of service on bus and streetcar lines), and raising his voice to decry nickel-and-dime tax increases while simultaneously hiking user fees for things like community centre programs.
These politicians make it clear that they hear our complaints, but they don’t seem willing to do anything that might actually solve them. The government does have access, after all, to the sort of large mechanisms that allow broad and fundamental changes to the way taxes are collected, industries are regulated, income is redistributed, and public services are delivered. At one point, using those mechanisms to deal with the causes of problems, rather than just nodding at a series of frustrating symptoms, might have been considered the main business of government.
Would people vote for systemic improvements over the platforms of the Cable Avenger or the Pothole Patroller? I don’t know. But they might have less to complain about if they did.