What is our vision for a better Canada? Do we even have one? As the leaders of our major political parties enter these last few days of the race to become prime minister, wouldn't it be wonderful if we were inspired by a vision offered by one of them? We could vote for the leader who captures our imagination of a Canada in which we can see our collective selves thriving now and in the future. But a vision for Canada is missing from the national debates. And in the absence of one, many Canadians are looking to see "what's in it for me?"
Higher income, married Canadians are attracted to an income splitting proposal that will reduce their personal tax burden. Businesses and high net wealth individuals actively resist paying any greater share of taxes. Businesses lobby for unrestricted access to someone else's market. The middle class thinks someone else should pay the taxes. Younger voters don't see anything in it for them so apparently they aren't bothering much at all with the election. In response to the calls for national childcare, social housing, more spending on students, commentators demand to know why taxpayers should have to pay anything at all for someone else's kid, someone else's home, or someone else's education.
Somewhere along the way we lost "us" and replaced it with "me." Somewhere along the way our incentives to cooperate got overshadowed by our individual interest in self-reward. But are we really better off in a country where everyone is out for themselves? Does getting ahead mean we have to leave someone behind? What if we heard a message of cooperation from our national parties and their leaders? Who better to model the benefits of cooperation than sister Canadians hoping to be elected by us to represent us? Who better than a national party to lead a collective interest in a better future that returns level playing fields, consumer protection, and equal opportunity for all Canadians?
Instead, the rather disheartening "me" narrative seems to be echoed in government rhetoric and behaviour. Instead, governments at all levels are battling with each other. If the Feds won't do it, the province might. If the province won't do it, the municipality could and if the municipality won't do it, well, "buyer beware" and all that. The result is a hodgepodge of policies and platforms that leaves Canadian consumers and businesses the losers for it.
There are so many examples. Pensions, income supports, health services, education, physical infrastructure, the list goes on. The example of consumer finance is a particularly good example for all its messiness. With the recent rise in the number and variety of so many financing options, consumers in the market for small loans and fast payments services can now choose between mainstream bank or credit union services and those services from the newer fringe providers of deferred deposit ("payday") loans, loans against the title of your automobile, cheque-cashing and remittance services. Pseudo-credit contracts such as the rent-to-own contract offered by suppliers of furniture and electronics are also there if you want them. The cost conscious consumer will choose the bank and credit union options, no question. The privacy conscious consumer may, though, prefer alternative financing. And often cash strapped consumers lacking credit are left with little choice but to use these higher cost fringe financing options.
Where banks are heavily regulated federally, credit unions with much smaller portfolios and a local mandate may be federally or provincially regulated, but they are definitely regulated as if they are big banks. Alternative credit providers, if they are regulated at all, are regulated provincially, or, when the municipal government is frustrated with the inadequacies of the provincial legislation, regulated locally through the use of bylaws imposing storefront restrictions to protect the consumer. Really? Can our governments not find a cooperative, more coherent solution for ensuring that all Canadians have access to safe credit and payments services at affordable prices? And who else other than the federal government to provide the leadership required to develop that shared vision of legislative coherence for consumer financial protection? And if we can do that then perhaps we can start to think about a shared vision for Canada.
Some say if you want to go fast, go alone but if you want to go far, go together. The maxim underscores the benefits of "us" over "me" and just might hold a lesson for a successful federal government governing Canada with all Canadians in mind. It doesn't give us the missing national vision, but at least it points in a direction that might help us come up with one.
Marva Burnett, President, ACORN Canada
Brenda Spotton Visano, Professor of Economics and Public Policy, York University
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