Dion-omics Redux

I would like to initiate some discussion about Stephane Dion. I do not see much reason for optimism about his economic policies, but am interested in reading alternative views.

After observing that many progressive Canadians seem supportive of Dion, Murray Dobbin convincingly argues that a Liberal majority government would not be more progressive than the current government.

However, even Dobbin seems relatively positive about the new Liberal leader, suggesting that “Dion is genuinely to the left of recent Liberal leaders and he has no ties to Bay Street.” He characterizes Dion’s platform as “a strong (government guided) economy, sustainable development and social justice.” I am not sure on what basis Dobbin inserts “government guided” into Dion’s ‘three pillars’.

Jim Stanford wrote a column on what “Dion economics” might look like. Jim articulated a very progressive economic agenda, but is there any reason to believe that Dion would implement such an agenda?

The only grounds for optimism seem to be that Dion has said very little about economics and some good things about the environment. However, unless Dion says something different about economics, we have to assume that he accepts the right-wing orthodoxy of the governments in which he was a cabinet minister. Dion’s legacy as environment minister was a bunch of bogus voluntary programs.

There are significant grounds for pessimism. In the last three parliamentary votes on anti-scab legislation, Dion opposed it twice and did not vote once. During the Liberal leadership race, he sneered that “the NDP do not understand the market economy” and defended the “compassion” of Paul Martin’s 1995 budget cuts.


  • Hello Erin,

    You make a good point about Dion praising the compassion of the Martin cuts, which was part of an attack on Bob Rae’s record in Ontario during the recession.
    He’s further gone on to say that he’s “proud” to have been part of the government that made those “tough” decisions: such comments, as well as the McKenna-arranged ‘coming out’ party on Bay Street don’t fill me with optimism.

    I agree with Stanford that most of what we’ve seen from Dion so far is limited to increased R&D linked to research commercialization, as well as the economic benefits of environmental responsibility. That’s not much to go on.

    You mention his dubious record on labour rights. Do we know what stands, if any, he’s taken on trade?

    Also, given your own recent work on income splitting for pensioners, I wonder what you think of Dion’s proposals for changes to the pension system?

    Best wishes from Regina.

  • I suppose we will have to wait and see. I want to believe that Dion will be a credible and progressive alternative, but perhaps this is just the bad taste in my mouth from the Harper administration talking. We would probably get the most, as progressives, out of a Dion minority government in coalition with the NDP.

    That said, to sell the environmental plan there will need to be some kind of industrial policy behind it. Otherwise it could be a risky political strategy as Harper would attack it as bad for the economy.

    It will also depend on how the economy is doing at the time of an election campaign. If bears like me are right, we are sliding towards a recession. An uptick in unemployment would be of benefit to Dion as Harper would have to wear the deterioration. But a delayed election to the Fall combined with a really bad downturn could push the economy over the environment in terms of voters’ concerns, and this might blunt any edge Dion has.

  • Stephen, thanks for the good word. My own work on income splitting focuses on the implications of extending it beyond pensioners. I have not analyzed Dion’s pension proposals.

  • Erin raises an important question. Despite comments by Murray Dobbin, and James Laxer, both astute political observers, I see no evidence that Stephan Dion is on the left, has ever embraced left ideas, or is even sympathetic to or knowledgeable about left politics.
    He has taken it upon himself to make the Liberals green. But there is a difference between the carbon trading greens and the regulate corporations, and use planning and taxation greens. He is in the first camp.
    When Dion first came to Ottawa, he called up Tom Flanagan, the Ucalgary Reform guru to talk about plan B, he did not call the CCPA to to consult about plan A, putting social Canada back together so Quebeckers would have a reason to want to be Canadian.
    From my limited contacts with him in academia, I would have placed him on the right side of the liberal individualist scale. His year at Brookings was quite influential on his thinking; and the game theory, rational choice school of public policy would be of interest to him, while the Monique Begin, Pierre Trudeau, Jean Marchand social liberalism, is not something he has associated himself with, as far as I can see.
    Of the three leading candidates, he was the most right wing on social issues, though that was not clear to most observers who are unfamiliar with Iganatieff, and assumed he was right wing, through and through, though he is not.
    As was pointed out above, Dion played along with the Martin line on the deficit though he came into politics after the 1995 budget, the create more homeless budget.
    Though he is far off on another continent, Jim Stanford got an important part of the story right. Dion thinks tax breaks will create a domestic R&D base. That Canadian industry is foreign owned explains why we are 15th in the OECD in R&D does not register with Dion. He has no understanding of the Walter Gordon/ Eric Kierans school of what makes a financial economy work under conditions of foreign ownership.
    Finally, the sad passing of Tommy Shoyama should remind us that left politics depends on the balance of political forces. The Dept. of Finance under Bob Bryce, seconded by al Johnson, and later with Shoy,or Ian Stewart as Deputy Minister was light years from what it has become since Dodge did his lobotomy on it.
    The public service under Mulroney and then Chretien has become right wing, the CC Howe Institute has access, the CCPA does not. Dion understands public administration. Will he shift deputies around, seek out new blood, bring in talented outsiders, or just left Kevin Lynch promote more right wingers? I would guess the second.
    Public opinion is turning against the right, social movements matter, the only way to get the Liberals to pay attention is for the NDP to be seen as a threat. Anyone who thinks Dion will move the party to the left of where Trudeau took it in the 1980s, and from where it has moved steadily even more right since then, is either wishful thinking or has access to an analysis of the political forces that are making this happen that I have yet to see.
    The left social Liberals are mostly either dead or far removed from power, though Warren Allemand and Doug Peters were both with Dion, and could influence him. They are the only points of contact I can indentify.

  • Hi Duncan,

    You’re right, there is a difference between greens and their approachs to the economy. The most progressive greens that I know of are Paul Hawken, Amory and Hunter Lovins, and William Mcdonough… all of whom would fall into the “market-friendly” category of greens (you can also count Elizabeth May in there too).

    But you’re wrong about Dion or any other of these people being against taxation. Green taxes are a central tenet of market-friendly greens. Carbon emissions aside, there are several other taxes that can be put in place and Dion has said that he would be interested in using them (not the carbon tax though). Dion has indicated that he would be interested in tax shifting of tar sands subsidies, for example.

    Dion has also acknowledged the overwhelming foreign ownership of Canadian industry and sees this as a problem to increasing R&D in Canada. He has specifically tailored his R&D initiative with this in mind and you can see this in his paper presented to the Economic Club of Canada in Toronto.

    Here’s some more interesting things: Dion wants to implement Child Care, go beyond the Kelowna accord, Green Health Care (by working to eliminate toxins from the environment), bring more women into office, and most of all, green the economy which as he has said, “will be good for the planet and good for your wallet”.

    And what are some ways to go about greening the economy? Greening development and buildings for one (please look up the Green Buildings Council of Canada to see further information on the huge economic, social and environmental benefits of green buildings/development). Implementing a carbon trading system, improving the economics of farming by moving towards sustainable systems, implementing producer responsibility, etc… All of which Dion has talked about.

    Dion is left of centre on many issues including Afghanistan, women in office, child care, Indigenous peoples, and a green economy.

    I know you were blinded by your love for Bob Rae during the leadership race (friendly jab), but please recognize that Dion’s supporters have been very much from the grassroots, youthful, active and optimistic.

    There ARE huge challenges ahead in the world, but we can do something about many of the issues that face us.

  • I am posting my rabble column up today since it responds in part to issues raised by Jeremy Kirouac above.

    Democracy: The missing Dion pillar

    Canada is no more than a quasi-democracy at best. The majority does not rule, and this is not just because of the faulty electoral system, or the dominance of the Prime Minister over his party and Parliament.

    >by Duncan Cameron
    January 3, 2007

    If you want pillars to hold something up, four will do the job better than three. In his leadership campaign, Stéphane Dion relied on just three: economic prosperity, environmental sustainability and social justice. The missing pillar is surely democracy. None of Dion’s goals can be pursued without it; prosperity, sustainability and justice require democratic planning.

    Planning is not supposed to be mentioned alongside democratic government. But planning is being done all the time; that is what large corporations do everyday. The economic story is that by acting for themselves, companies act on our behalf, protecting the prosperity pillar. Conversely, when governments act to control corporations, they act against us, denying our access to wealth.

    Even if this were true, and growing gaps in wealth and income distribution suggest that it is not, there is no way to produce sustainability without regulating corporations directly. The invisible hand does not make green decisions.

    As for social justice, the big banks and their corporate clients routinely tell us what is acceptable in our society. How should we tax? The corporate cabal has a list of do’s and don’ts. What constitutes the public interest? Well, listen up, corporations know best, and governments just need to stay out of the way.

    The new Liberal leader has asked Bob Rae, Scott Brison and Martha Hall Findlay to draw up a party platform for the next election. Do not expect it to call for limits on corporate power. But there is no way to produce a sustainable economy, prosperity for the majority, or social justice without engineering a democratic takeover of the corporate economy. The problem is that our democratic institutions produce outcomes that sustain the corporation, not the environment.

    Canada is no more than a quasi-democracy at best. The majority does not rule, and this is not just because of the faulty electoral system, or the dominance of the Prime Minister over his party and Parliament.

    The basic rule of politics in Canada is that property rights prevail over civil and political rights, such as the right to organize, to speak out, vote, demonstrate or otherwise exercise individual freedom. Who owns what matters more than citizenship rights, freedom of expression, or the right to elect an MP or MLA by voting, and participating in the democratic process.

    Property does not refer to personal property, though defenders of property rights want people to think they are standing up for your right to own your own toothbrush. Private property rights means ownership rights conferred on employers of all kinds, by virtue of incorporation as private, public or partnership companies under the laws of the land, as established by Parliament and Legislatures.

    These property rights holders include, obviously, the natural resources exploiters, and the manufacturing companies that comprise the non-sustainable part of the economy.

    In order to bring about a sustainable economy, the rights of owners would have to be severely curtailed, in the public interest. Except the public interest has been defined to promote those rights, in the name of prosperity. The British Columbia Utilities Commission has just revealed a scandalous deal whereby Alcan Aluminum would sell power produced for $5 a megawatt hour to BC Hydro for $71 a megawatt hour. Alcan was given access to cheap energy to create jobs. Instead, with the support of the BC Liberal government, it was exercising its property rights to line its own pockets at public expense.

    In order to redefine prosperity we need to assert economic and social rights and place them above the rights of owners of private property. Common economic security and social justice require a sustainable economy, one where clean air and water, and the reduction of greenhouse gases and toxic wastes take priority over the exercise of property rights.

    There can be no social justice when ownership rights override political and civic rights. In a political regime dominated by property rights we get top CEOs earning the average Canadian salary in less than two days on the job, as the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) reported January 2, and child poverty rates failing to drop, despite GDP growth, as campaign 2000 has just shown.

    Putting a democracy pillar in place is the only way to curb the abuse of power by corporations, allowing Canadians to redefine prosperity, and build a sustainable society. Democratic rights can be used to further economic and social justice, but only if they are used to limit ownership rights as well.

    Somebody should ask the new Liberal leader if he is prepared to make Canada a country where economic and social rights prevail over private property rights. Those who want to build a just, prosperous and sustainable Canada, have to use democratic methods to take economic decisions out of the hands of the corporate oligarchy.

    Democracy entails openly discussing and debating who makes what, and who gets what, even if private property holders assert these are not matters to which public office holders need to pay attention.

    Duncan Cameron is associate publisher of rabble.ca.

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