Democratic governments and looking out for others

Recently the Harper government decided to close the Kitsilano Coast Guard station which provided search and rescue services in waters bordering Vancouver. The numerous watercraft (representing 20 million human transits annually) crossing English Bay and False Creek now have to depend on a station over one-half hour from the centre of water traffic.

Though only one small instance of massive government cutbacks, it nevertheless affects the sense of well-being in the lower mainland of British Columbia.

Though the Conservatives deny it, the Kitsilano closure puts lives in danger. Providing security for citizens is what democratic governments are supposed to do.

Citizens elect governments to reduce uncertainties. Examples abound of essential services aimed at food and drug security, or assuring risks of sickness and accident, or assuming responsibilities for public well-being through income support.

Nonetheless, the Harper Conservatives are in year three of major reductions to front-line public services: income security; transportation safety; scientific research; environmental protection; health care; services to youth, seniors, athletes, artists; and parks and recreation facilities.

These cuts say to Canadian citizens: you are on your own. Your security and well-being is your responsibility. The Harper government is not looking out for you.

For the Harper Conservatives, security means physical security. It requires attention through "victims of crime week," prison construction, mandatory minimum sentencing even for first offenders, and massive military equipment purchases so that Canada can maintain pace with the American military, and be ready for imagined, or real integrated combat actions. The Harper reaction to the Boston Marathon bombing is just the latest example of how the word "security" is now supposed to mean safety from attack by terrorists, or others who pose threats.

Across the Atlantic, speaking in the session of the British House of Commons on the passing of Baroness Margaret Thatcher, Labour MP Glenda Jackson minced no words, declaring that what was branded neo-conservatism or Thatcherism had taken what had been taught in Jackson's youth were vices, and turned them into virtues: "greed, selfishness, no care for the weaker, sharp elbows, sharp knees," were now to be admired.

Canadian ideas of good and bad, what is right and wrong are part of an international slipstream. Anglo-American ideas generated in the era of Thatcher and Reagan define the Harper Conservative economic world. The world of work is reduced to mechanical transactions measured in prices. Human needs are absent from accounts of how lower labour costs will increase employment.

Conditions for work are designed by the Harper government to force workers to be "flexible," to pick up and seek work elsewhere. Income protection is withdrawn, temporary foreign workers are admitted to work at a 15 per cent lower wage, and recent graduates and new immigrants get to compete for sorely limited employment opportunities.

The state is busy creating market conditions favourable to employers. Corporate taxes have been reduced without anything being expected in return.

The financial sector in Canada has its risks fully socialized. Thanks to backing from the Bank of Canada (state credit), no bank will be allowed to fail. Meanwhile bank profits are fully privatized, though Canadian banks could not operate without legal tender issued by the Ottawa government.

In the world of sport or trade unions or education or social movements or voluntary agencies or public services, there is a word for those who look out for others ... leaders.

In the corporate world the CEO looks out for his (only rarely her) personal bonuses, salary, stock options, pension, benefits and perks.

Market ideology teaches people to look out for themselves only. Doing things otherwise is being played for a sucker. Despite these injunctions, individuals look out for others, not always, but often enough for it to be considered normal courtesy.

A society which values looking out for others is worth building. "Do unto to others as you would have them do unto you," known as the golden rule, is part of every major religion. It makes sense to strengthen each other through making our eyes, ears and talents available to others.

It is not premature to say the public mood has started to turn against the Conservatives. Media coverage is getting testy. A handful of Conservative backbenchers are resisting the Harper muzzle.

The real task that lies ahead is eradicating a phony philosophy of self to the exclusion and neglect of others. Vancouver needs the Kitsilano Coast Guard station re-opened, just as Canadians need a government that sees looking out for others as integral to the public purpose.

Duncan Cameron is the president of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: ajusticenetwork/Flickr

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