Social democracy at work

By Kevin Rothbauer

Former federal New Democratic Party Leader Ed Broadbent spoke on campus last week about the responsibilities of governments and individuals.

Broadbent, a seven-time Member of Parliament first elected in 1968, served as NDP leader from 1974-1989. After leaving the NDP, Broadbent helped found the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, the purpose of which was to “create a global community where the values we prize so well in Canada can become prevalent as well,” according to Alberta New Democratic Opposition leader Raj Pannu. Broadbent was invested as an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1993, and promoted to Companion of the Order of Canada in 2001.

“Citizenship and Barbarism,” the title of his talk, contrasted the value that the government puts on Canadians and the rights vested in them, with the lack of social standards and concern that recent governments seem to have had.

Broadbent began by comparing opportunities available when he finished university to those facing today’s graduates.

“When I graduated in 1959 from the University of Toronto, I believed the world was my oyster,” he said.

During Broadbent’s youth, North American political philosophy changed due to the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Second World War.

“By 1959, on both sides of the border, there had been a radical transformation in what it meant to be a citizen… The generation before us of political leaders… had no intention of letting happen what happened in the 1930s.”

The 1930s saw the beginning of intense divisions between classes, which post-Depression politicians sought to end. A new generation of Canadian political leaders brought about a rethinking of what politics should mean. Canadian William Lyon Mackenzie King launched the welfare state while the Roosevelt and Truman administrations did the same in the U.S.

Political and civil rights for citizens were no longer sufficient. The new generation of politicians felt that citizens should have social and economic rights as well.

“By 1959 several systems were in place, including student aid,” Broadbent recalled, noting the difference that student aid made for recent graduates. Broadbent was in debt $700 or $800 when he graduated, small figures even when inflation is factored in.

Statistically, the commitments made to education by both the Canadian and American governments were evident. In 1937, 18.6 per cent of Canada’s gross domestic product went toward education funding. By 1959, that total was up to 26.6 per cent. South of the border, 8.6 per cent of the U.S. GDP went towards education in 1937, but by 1959, that percentage was similar to Canada’s.

By the late 1970s, there were similar social democratic leanings among the leaders of Canada’s three main parties.

“Between Pierre Trudeau, myself and [Progressive Conservative Leader] Robert Stanfield, the differences were more on details than principles,” Broadbent remembered.

“[We all felt] Canada should move toward greater and greater degrees of equality.”

Broadbent thinks the major shift away from social democracy began in Great Britain with the election of Margaret Thatcher, followed shortly by the election of Ronald Reagan in the U.S.

“Thatcher and Reagan began the march toward barbarism,” said Broadbent.

“Barbarism” might strike one as a particularly strong word, but Broadbent pointed out one particular definition from the Oxford English Dictionary: “an absence of civilized standards.”

North Atlantic states were suffering financially in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Broadbent pointed out. Nations in continental Europe dealt with their respective deficits but not by undermining social programs. Canada, the U.S. and Great Britain, however, embraced the politics of the right, which mean that citizenship in those countries did “not entail social and economic rights.”

Long-term consequences of the reversal of the post-war social democratic pattern include growing inequality, featuring a significant increase in child poverty and homelessness.

A number of myths have surrounded the growth of socially conservative politics in the 1980s and 1990s. Broadbent pointed out five of them, and used statistics, mostly from Western Europe to debunk them.

Broadben’s first myth: In order to increase economic production, government interference must be kept to a minimum.

In response to this, he referred to Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. In the 1990s, they saw production increases higher than those in Canada and equal to those in the U.S. while keeping social programs intact.

The second myth: Where government interference is reduced, volunteerism increases.

In fact, said Broadbent, “the 1990s were the only decade where the number of volunteers in Canada went down” from the previous decade.

The third myth: Government programs do little to eliminate child poverty.

According to Broadbent, the massive cutbacks of the 1990s created the greatest growth of inequality in Canada, while “four or five European countries did virtually eliminate child poverty.”

The fourth myth: Universal social programs are too costly.

“Economists provide evidence that some social programs can provide economic advantages,” said Broadbent. He cited General Motors’ expansion in Oshawa, and how Canada’s socialized medicine (as well as its low-value dollar) helped keep the company north of the border.

The fifth myth: We can no longer afford health care.

In Broadbent’s view, the massive cuts to health care under Ralph Klein in Alberta, Mike Harris in Ontario and Jean Chrétien federally have undermined health care to the point where the cost of repairing the health care system, not the cost of health care itself, is makes it unaffordable.

“There should be a serious commitment by the federal government to pay 50 per cent of cost,” said Broadbent, noting that the federal government’s commitment could be phased in.

While social conservatives would argue that lowering taxes and eliminating social programs is the way to go, that attitude irks Broadbent.

“Let’s have zero taxes,” he joked. “We’ll have lots of money to spend on cars or computers or CDs but we’ll totally screw up.”

As a socialist, Broadbent is also against the argument that people are primarily self-interested.

“What they really do when they say this is they devalue what human beings are… The whole assumption that we are exclusively self-seeking people is wrong.” People take part in initiatives such as volunteerism and charity, he argued. “They get out and work for what they believe in… We are self-interested, but we are also co-operative.”

Broadbent emphasized the social democratic ideal of balancing economic prosperity with a welfare state that takes care of its citizens.

“We want the industrial sector to be competitive. We want efficiency. But we are also human beings who want an effective social sector.”

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