“Protecting Canada's Future” Needs more than Security
To open the new session of Parliament, the Conservative government offered a Speech from the Throne entitled “Protecting Canada’s Future.” Protecting the country and its citizens was clearly very important to the government, as the speech mentioned security – or some variation of the word – no less than 15 times! In fact, the speech states that “National security is the most fundamental duty of any national government to its citizens.”
Security is an important word in these times of fear. The world seems uncertain, the global economy unstable, terrorism a threat abroad and violent crime a menace at home. Who wouldn’t like to feel secure in this context?
But is the primary responsibility of the government really security?
There is a sense in which this is true. Western-style liberal democracy has elevated the need for comfortable self-preservation of the individual as the highest priority, so we count on our government to deliver security. The problem with this vision of government, though, is that it eliminates any sense of seeking the common good and justice for all citizens.
Among the engravings on our Parliament buildings is Psalm 72:1: “Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son.” Psalm 72 is a prayer for the ruler – in ancient times, the king. In 21st century Canada, king could be read as “government and citizens,” as together we take responsibility for our governance.
Psalm 72 continues, “May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.”
According to Psalm 72, the Biblical understanding of the fundamental duty of government is justice – both acting justly and promoting justice, defending the poor and the oppressed. At CPJ, we believe the task of government can best be understood as public justice. The role of the government is to promote just relations between people within God’s creation, correct injustice in a way that restores relationships, protect the environment and foster conditions that enhance the common good.
Through this lens of public justice, CPJ found both things we appreciate and directions we are concerned about within the government’s Speech from the Throne:
• Cooperation and Partnership
As we noted before the speech, Parliament should be a place of respectful, inclusive debate. We hoped that the government would use the throne speech to set the tone for a more conciliatory, democratic debate. So we are very pleased to see the tone of cooperation and partnership throughout the speech, as well as the commitment to representing and working with all Canadians. We hope the government will maintain its dedication to working in partnership with others throughout this session of Parliament.
• Ensuring Sound Budgeting
The federal government has a huge role to play in providing financial security during an economic downturn. Canada was no exception among the G-20 nations meeting in Washington this month as the government agreed to increase spending and make more capital available. This is why the speech noted “it would be misguided” to commit to a balanced budget in 2009, and why the government has promised “further support” to the automotive and aerospace industries. But spending to “prime the pump” of the national economy should be targeted to promoting activities that boost local, greener economies which protect the most vulnerable. That’s why a commitment to a poverty reduction strategy would have been brilliant policy at this time. Canadians will have to wait for next week’s release of the government’s Economic and Fiscal Statement for details on how Ottawa will proceed.
• Securing Jobs for Families & Helping all Canadians Participate
We appreciate the government’s recognition that “Canada’s economy will only remain as strong as its workers and families.” In that respect, however, it is disappointing that the government does not recognize that not all jobs are equal. Canadians need more than jobs – they need good jobs that pay living wages, provide decent working conditions, offer a sustainable livelihood, and permit a balanced, healthy lifestyle. As long as there are jobs that don’t pay a living wage, there will always be Canadian families unable to meet all their basic needs, experience well-being, and participate in the full life of their community. In short, they live lives of insecurity.
The Speech does mention a commitment to ensuring that “existing programs and services are as effective as possible in meeting the needs of Canadians.” We hope that as part of this commitment the government will reform Employment Insurance, which currently meets the needs of only 38% of unemployed Canadians. EI will become even more important during a time of economic downturn.
We are surprised that while the government mentioned its commitment to “break down barriers that prevent Canadians from reaching their potential,” there was no mention of poverty in the speech. A poverty reduction strategy would help the millions of Canadians who are prevented by poverty from reaching their full potential. The speech did include the government’s campaign commitment to renew the Homelessness Partnering Strategy and affordable housing programs, which CPJ is pleased to see. We hope the government will extend their commitment to long-term strategic planning with appropriate funding for affordable housing. We also hope that in addition to improving the Universal Child Care Benefit, the government will also create a plan for early childhood development, including sufficient, affordable high-quality child care.
• Securing our Energy Future &Tackling Climate Change
The government must be applauded for recognizing that “Canada’s economic prosperity cannot be sustained without a healthy environment.” As well, by placing a ban on bulk water transfers or exports from Canada, our government is ensuring greater protection for Canada’s natural resources.
However, the approach taken by the government with regards to “Securing our Energy Future” offers a vision that is far less than sustainable for the environment. The proposition to extract natural gas from the Arctic and “extend the pipeline network into the North” reflects a continued desire to place short-term energy consumption ahead of ecological well-being. Our Arctic ecosystem is already fragile as a result of global warming and the wealth of our Northern natural environment should not be placed at greater risk. As well, any pipeline development by the government must respect aboriginal sovereignty.
A climate change pact between the United States and Canada was proposed by Prime Minister Harper the day after Barack Obama was elected. While this may appear to be a positive initiative, the government aims to use this pact to protect the Alberta tar sands from possible U.S. climate change legislation restricting American imports of “dirty oil.” By advocating rapid development of the tar sands within the context of a climate-change pact, our government is promoting the status quo: an economy based on fossil fuel consumption that will only further damage our environment. By encouraging the use of environmentally unsustainable energy, our government is failing to create a society in which environmental justice is upheld. In order to foster public justice with respect for creation, our government must commit to widespread investment in alternative energy sources that do not harm our natural world.
• Keeping Canadians Safe
CPJ appreciates the government’s aspiration for a “secure world.” Security does depend, in part, on each individual’s respect for civil structures. However, security cannot be solely achieved through the military and criminal justice system. Governments must reciprocate this respect for “freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.” Laws and policies should look after the rights and freedoms of every person, including the poor and non-citizens. People need access to basic needs, education and a clean environment in order to be secure as well. Adopting a poverty reduction strategy would demonstrate respect and concern on the part of the government towards the security of every citizen in Canada.
“Protecting Canada’s Future” can be accomplished with more than a commitment to our own security. Some of Canada’s proudest historical moments came about when we built Medicare and education systems for all, even in tough economic times. A Speech from the Throne calling upon Canadians’ vision and generosity to work for public justice by eradicating poverty was what we were hoping to hear. With your help, CPJ will continue to engage our government and other politicians to rise to this challenge.
Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ) and our work of faith, justice and politics: