With fanfare (or as much as the finance ministry allows), Jim Flaherty recently announced his advisory team for the upcoming budget. It's a blue-ribbon group with some of the most powerful names in Canadian business, including Paul Desmarais Jr. from Power Corp., James D. Irving from the Irving family's forestry division and West Coast entrepreneur Jimmy Pattison. Among other panelists, former B.C. finance minister Carole Taylor has experience in government and University of Calgary professor Jack Minitz has been a tax advisor to Ottawa. All are successful people.
However, Flaherty did not chose a single representative from among 88 Canadians who sent an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Oct. 7 under the auspices of the Progressive Economics Forum. The letter warned Harper the deepening financial crisis and growing threat of global recession were exposing weaknesses in Canada's economy and urged him to take immediate action. The markets were not best left to their own devices, it said, advising the PM to adopt a wide program of stimulus spending that included money for infrastructure projects across the country. It was fine to support the financial industry with liquidity, it said, but the government should also explore ways to expand the availability of money to households and businesses.
It was a powerful letter, made more searing today by subsequent events proving the signatories were right. They sent it to the PM and his finance minister at a time when the latter were arguing Canadian economic fundamentals were strong. There wasn't even a hint of a deficit on the Conservative campaign trail. Signatories included progressive economists who have long supported measures to boost the real economy of jobs and services, labour representatives, sociologists, political scientists and health care specialists from across Canada.
So why are none of the signatories sitting on the team advising Flaherty on the budget? Choosing three or four wouldn't have been difficult; they tried to initiate a conversation with the government.
It's not just that they turned out to be better forecasters of Canadian economic conditions than the Conservative government - although one would think that's an important argument for inclusion. Rather, one would think the government would welcome their wisdom and experience. Back in October, they looked at things differently than the mainstream, and progessive thinking is exactly what Flaherty's upcoming budget requires, and desperately. At a time when working people in Canada (and North America) are losing their jobs in massive numbers (while increasingly being blamed for the crisis), it's disheartening the Harper/Flaherty team did not invite a single labour economist or union official from the ranks of the letter-writers. In times of jarring social pain, how can there not be a social worker or health care expert on the team? And when the progressive economists nailed it, how can they be excluded?
Instead, the Conservative government ignored a readily available cadre of experts who would have ensured a wider range of voices were being heard from Canadians.