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A positive role for government

Today the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released a primer I wrote about the quiet erosion of regulations in Canada.

I had never anticipated wanting to write about such an innocuous topic but a series of focus group sessions made me look at regulation — and the role government has to play — in a whole new light.
The focus group research taught me that when it comes to regulation, Canadians trust their government is on the job.

Canadians generally list ‘regulations’ as one of the positive things they see their governments do. They believe, first and foremost, that government’s role is to protect the people. It’s about health and safety, and it’s about setting standards so that profit-seeking corporations do the right thing.

They don’t even bother to delineate between federal, provincial or municipal government. They’re all expected to put the public interest first.

When people read the labels on food at the grocery store, they assume government knows what’s on the label, checked it out and proved that it’s true.

When they buy hamburger at the store or in a butcher shop, they assume it’s top quality meat that has been inspected by government officials who have weeded out unclean or unsafe practices.

When they eat in a restaurant, buy produce, or drink water (bottled or tapped) they assume government checked it out first and it’s safe.

They know making these things safe is a big job and they worry, if anything, that government cuts too many corners and isn’t enforcing the standards as much as it should.

“The rules are there but who’s making them stick?” asked one focus group participant.

There are concerns that regulations may exist on paper, but that the staff is not there to enforce the rules that are on the books.

They worry that many safety issues are discovered after the fact, such as with toxins in baby bottles. They want preventative actions, not just a watchdog that reacts after the fact. Here, they argue for a greater role of government, not a smaller one.

When they bring up examples of when government didn’t control enough for safety, they mention SARS, Walkerton and overpass collapses – major catastrophes with disastrous outcomes. Regulation is very real to Canadians. They get the implications of a deregulated society.

There is no discernible take-up for neoliberal arguments such as more competition, less red tape, and smart regulation (they think it’s just code for letting corporations get away with things).

Rather, progressive values shine through: values such as fairness, equality, social responsibility, collective well-being, and deep-seated pride in being Canadian.

Canadians understand they’re situated within a global marketplace, and they know corporations need to be in a position to compete, but there are limits. This can best be summarized as: Safety before profits, not above profits.

Canadians believe corporations’ primary goal is to make money (“the almighty dollar”) and think putting corporations in charge of public safety is like “putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.”

“You’re always going to get the companies that try to cut the corners just to increase their profits.

They’re only too willing to pay fines,” said one.

Most people take the view that Canada becomes more competitive in the world as a result of having high quality products that adhere to high standards. People see less regulation as leading to lower standards and losing our competitive edge.

“Any industry you have needs to be regulated. Its one and only goal is to make a profit. If you do not regulate it, it’ll do whatever he can.”

“There is no corporate social responsibility. That’s like saying there’s reasonable profit. No such animal.”
“We need government to set standards for industry. They’re businesses; they’re looking out for the dollar. They’re there to make money. If nobody’s checking and inspecting that, who’s to say they do? It’s the government’s role to protect us from industry and their motivation and role is to just make money.”

“Government has to be involved with health, safety and labour laws because those are basic human rights. I’m not going to be treated like a slave.”

Canadians have a sense that government bureaucracy sometimes bogs things down, but they see their government as better placed to regulate than corporations.

Canadians understand the pressure to compete for products and services with lower-wage nations such as India and China – but they don’t want Canada to engage in a ‘race to the bottom.'

They assume Canadian products are superior, Canadian services are superior, and Canadian standards and regulations for health and safety are superior. They say this in every focus group about regulation. For them, Canadian regulations ensure quality, and that comes first. Regulations also put all companies on a level playing field, which Canadians view as fair.

Finally, Canadians have little direct personal awareness or experience of most regulations. Yet they assume their government is at work, behind the scenes, protecting them in work and in play. They have faith in that.

Butcher shops, water filtration plants, freeways, elevators, rides at the fair, food labels, prescription and natural drug approvals, air travel, toy safety … Canadians trust their government is ensuring their health and safety.

In an era where it would seem Canadians’ sense of their government has been greatly diminished, it was refreshing to discover they still believe in the power of good governance.

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