As we approach the fifth month of the COVID-19 pandemic we are asking ourselves what we have learned?
Certainly, we have learned that when we are in trouble we are cared for by our governments not the markets. We have watched the pain caused as unregulated markets failed to get medical equipment to regions in need and allowed prices to skyrocket as companies exploited scarcity.
We have also learned the full extent of the failure of privatized health-care services such as long-term care. And we better understand the extent to which P.E.I. depends on essential workers who are poorly paid and suffer precarious employment.
After 40 years of governments whittling away our social programs and abrogating their responsibility to govern by deferring to the free market, we have seen governments take over, or intervene in, parts of the economy to ensure that it meets public needs. The P.E.I. government is providing childcare for front-line health-care workers. The federal government assures us that vaccines and surgical masks will be manufactured in Canada — a sharp turn from the free trade gospel that all things are made more efficiently through corporate global supply chains.
But perhaps the most important thing we have watched is the collapse of the narrative that running a deficit or accumulating debt is bad for us all. Instead we are appreciating the emergency income assistance programs. We remember Canada’s successful post-Second World War reconstruction project when our debt was 130 per cent of GDP and we invested in public infrastructure and created public programs such as employment insurance (EI). We even had a publicly owned, cutting edge, medical research laboratory which could have come in handy right now if it hadn’t been privatized and sold off in the 1980s.
It is no surprise, then, that there is a groundswell of opinion that we must once again use the need for recovery to build a different, better P.E.I. and create much needed green jobs and economic activity by investing in public services and public enterprises. There is a clamour for expanded public health programs (including long-term care), for community-controlled renewable energy projects and not-for-profit rental housing. There is new acceptance of the Bank of Canada’s role in creating money for governments to fund investment. This process known as quantitative easing has been used since the 2008 financial crisis in the United States, Japan, the European Union and the U.K.
We can hope that Premier Dennis King will lead boldly with a framework for recovery which promises change and resists the call to return to the harmful and impoverishing policies of lower taxes, deregulation and “cutbacks”.
But it will also mean backing away from “free trade” agreements. Rules of “free trade” are designed to keep services privatized. For example, they tell the P.E.I. government it shouldn’t provide a single service Island-wide, public transit system or a public internet service. And they attempt to outlaw progressive renewable energy policies which provide grants and incentives to local non-profit or municipal energy projects. In a nutshell, free trade rules are deeply out of sync with the times and the urgent need to address climate change.
Canadian economist and director of the Centre for Future Work, Jim Stanford, has put it well. “… free trade deals seem to spend more time telling countries what they can’t do than what they can.” A new way of doing trade would “reaffirm both the legitimacy and the capacity of governments to actively promote a more balanced, inclusive and equitable economy.”
Rosalind Waters, of Georgetown Royalty, is part of a member group of Trade Justice P.E.I. and the Trade Justice P.E.I. liaison with Trade Justice Network, a national trade justice organization.