In pharmacare debate, look to T.C. Douglas, Emmett Hall

In pharmacare debate, look to T.C. Douglas and Emmett Hall, not Bill Morneau
Finance Minister Bill Morneau undercuts pharmacare debate. Art Babych photo.

The Liberals promised in the recent federal budget to look into pharmacare and they lured Ontario’s health minister Dr. Eric Hoskins away from provincial politics to lead consultations on how to proceed. This may be mostly a ploy to thwart the NDP which, along with the labour movement, has been trying to build support for a universal, publicly–financed pharmacare program.

The Liberals under Jean Chretien promised in 1997 to expand medicare to cover prescription drugs. Chretien blithely ignored that promise after being elected. Now Eric Hoskins will consult and then report in the spring of 2019, just in time for the Liberals to make another promise going into the October election.

“Plan” or “strategy?”

But let’s leave politics and talk rather about design. When I heard Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s speech, I assumed that he was talking about a national, universal and tax-financed program. But less than 24 hours later he undercut that idea. Speaking to the Economic Club of Canada, he said that he was looking for a national pharmacare “strategy” but not a national pharmacare “plan.” He said that his preferred arrangement would “fill the gaps” left by the existing patchwork of private and public plans.

What Morneau likely has in mind, even before Hoskins consults Canadians, is to have the government subsidize private insurers to arrange drug coverage for those without it, rather than devising a universal plan akin to medicare.

The medicare analogy

The medicare analogy is one relevant to pharmacare. The architects of medicare in Canada include Tommy Douglas, whose CCF created a universal, tax-financed plan for health insurance in Saskatchewan in 1962, and Judge Emmett Hall whose royal commission report on health care in 1964 recommended Saskatchewan-style medicare for all of Canada. Douglas said a public plan for doctor and hospital visits was a good start but that public health insurance should eventually include much more. Hall, in his royal commission report, actually proposed universal pharmacare, vision and dental care.

It is instructive to follow Hall’s reasoning.  By the 1960s, medical insurance plans, many of them owned by physicians’ groups, were providing private health insurance to millions of people, but only to those who could afford it. Hall found, however, that 40 per cent of Canadians either had no health insurance or had plans whose coverage he deemed inadequate.

When he sifted through the evidence, Hall decided it would be far better to have the federal government subsidize provincial health plans for single-payer, universal insurance than it would be to pay for a patchwork of private plans to include people without coverage. Both Hall and Douglas were also opposed to subjecting people to a belittling means test to decide who can and cannot afford to buy insurance.

Savings with pharmacare

In 2017, the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) found that there were about 26 million Canadians covered by various drug plans, largely through their employers.  About 700,000 people had no drug coverage at all, and another 3.6 million had inadequate coverage. A central question is how best to provide for these 4.3 million people. There are numerous private insurers who will want the government to pay them to do it, and they will therefore oppose a universal, single-payer plan.

Prescription drugs represent the most rapidly rising cost in the health care system. The PBO reports that Canadians spent $28.5 billion on pharmaceuticals in 2015. The PBO also says that on average Canadians pay 22 per cent more for patented drugs than do people in other countries belonging to the OECD. A universal, publicly-financed drug plan would allow for bulk purchasing by federal and provincial health plans, and the PBO estimates that could save  between $4 and $11 billion a year. But it would also mean shifting much of the expenditure from individuals and employer plans to the public sector in Ottawa and the provinces.

Mobilize for it

There are billions of dollars at stake in profits for the pharmaceutical companies, and we can expect that they are lobbying aggressively against any a single-payer and universal plan. One of the threats they often make is to move their production elsewhere if they don’t get their way.

We will get universal publicly-financed pharmacare only if Canadians mobilize for it as they did for medicare and more recently for improvements to the Canada Pension Plan.

Martin Luther King informs Gerald Stanley trial

The legacy of Rev. Martin Luther King informs the murder trial of Saskatchewan farmer Gerald Stanley
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Photo courtesy Library of Congress

I had just begun reading a biography of Martin Luther King when the not guilty verdict was rendered in the Gerald Stanley murder trial. As is now widely known, Stanley shot and killed an Indigenous youth named Colton Boushie at close range after a vehicle containing Boushie and four others entered Stanley’s farm yard near Biggar, Saskatchewan in August 2016. An all-white jury acquitted him of any offence, buying the argument that Stanley’s handgun must have fired by accident. Continue reading Martin Luther King informs Gerald Stanley trial

Business lobby alarmist on Ontario minimum wage

The business lobby is being alarmist about Ontairo's minimum wage hike
Many retail food sector jobs pay only minimum wage. Dennis Gruending photo

The minimum wage in Ontario was increased from $11.40 to $14 an hour on January 1 and will rise to $15 a year from now, and that means that the sky is falling according to a coalition of business groups called Keep Ontario Working (KOW). The name implies everything — by raising the minimum wage Premier Kathleen Wynn will kill jobs. Alberta will increase its wage to $15 in October 2018 and there have been similar predictions of doom there.

Flawed analysis

In Ontario, KOW released a flawed analysis which claimed that the increases would lead to $23 billion in new business costs, place 185,000 jobs “at risk” and cost each Ontario household $1300 a year. The latter figure turned out to be a basic calculating error which would have been caught by most high school students.  Beyond that the study used a proprietary economic model which lacked transparency and could not be peer reviewed. In other words, they threw out numbers but did not back them up.

The KOW document focused almost entirely on the costs to business while ignoring the beneficial effects of raising the incomes of 1.5 million Ontario workers, a number equivalent to 25-30 per cent of the workforce. The vast majority of these workers are not, as the business lobby implies, teenagers living at home but rather a variety of adults and a demographic skewed toward women and new immigrants.

Enormous importance

Even at the newly-minted rate of $15 an hour, a full time worker will in 2019 make only $600 a week, or $31,000 a year. However, this amounts to a raise of about $5,000 a year and is of enormous importance to the individuals and families involved.  It will have beneficial effects beyond that as well, because almost everything low income earners make is spent almost immediately in the local economy.

Fast and furious

Still, the response to wage increase has been fast and furious. The business lobby has used its privileged access to newspapers and the media to peddle its message that the increased wage will mean layoffs and other cutbacks that will actually hurt the employees it is supposed to help. The chief economist for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CBIF) wrote sarcastically about Premier Katherine Wynn in The Globe and Mail. Essentially, he accused her of being a liar who created “unfulfillable expectations” with the minimum wage hike.

Time is never right

We have heard all of this before. In 20 years of journalism, communications work and in politics, I do not recall even once when the CFIB, the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation or the Fraser Institute supported a hike in the minimum wage in any province.  For them, the time is never right. Nor is it ever right for improvements to the Canada Pension Plan, in which employers and their workers would contribute jointly toward retirement security.

The business lobby insists on each occasion that improved wages or pensions are “job killers” and they predict ruin and woe as they did when Finance Minister Paul Martin improved the Canada Pension Plan in the 1990s. The lobby was proven completely wrong when the economy took off soon after. They were wrong again in B.C. in 2011, when the provincial government raised the minimum wage by an amount equivalent to Ontario’s current increase.  Despite the foreboding of lobbyists, in the following year B.C. added 50,000 jobs.

Will they confess?

Jobs and economic growth depend on many factors, and wages are just one of them. But don’t expect the business lobby to confess to alarmism and self-interest if in the case of Ontario they are proven wrong once again.

Canada back-pedals on nuclear weapons ban

The UN has adopted a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons. Canada claims to support the elimination of nuclear weapons but opposed the treaty.
Nuclear test in Nevada in 1953. Courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration/Wikimedia

It is fitting near year’s end, although worrisome, to learn that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has set its Doomsday Clock to two-and-a-half minutes before midnight, closer to potential nuclear calamity than at any time since the 1980s. They point, for example, to North Korea’s continuing efforts to develop nuclear weapons, as well as bellicose counter threats being made by the US government. They point as well to the escalation of tensions between the US and Russia. “Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink,” the atomic scientists say. “If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way.”

Peace prize for ICAN

One group of citizens has stepped forward and for their efforts they were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2017, which was presented in Stockholm, Sweden on December 10th.  The International Committee to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is a coalition of civil society organizations from more than 100 countries. ICAN’s fifteen Canadian partners include the Anglican Church of Canada, Physicians for Global Survival, the Rideau Institute and the Canadian Quakers. Since its founding in 2007, the group has worked to convince United Nations member states to create a legally binding treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons.

ICAN says the effort was urgent because there had been two decades of “paralysis” in multilateral efforts toward nuclear disarmament. There are an estimated 15,000 nuclear weapons in the arsenals of states that possess them. All of those countries continue to modernize their  weapons and intend to keep, rather than eliminate, them.

Prohibition treaty adopted

Despite this opposition, the civil society campaign was successful at the UN and in July 2017 the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was adopted by 122 member nations. The treaty would prohibit nations from developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, transferring, possessing, stockpiling, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons, or allowing nuclear weapons to be stationed on their territory. A nation that possesses nuclear weapons may join the treaty, so long as it agrees to destroy them in accordance with a legally binding, time-bound plan. Similarly, a nation that hosts another nation’s nuclear weapons on its territory may join, so long as it agrees to remove them by a specified deadline. Once the treaty has been ratified by 50 states, the ban on nuclear weapons would enter into force and become binding under international law for all the countries that are party to the treaty.

Nuclear states oppose

However, the so-called “big five” states on the UN Security Council – the US, Russia, China, France and Great Britain – have shown no interest in co-operating or in adopting such a treaty. They all possess nuclear weapons and want to keep them and they want to control the agenda. The US, for example, placed pressure on its NATO allies to boycott the UN’s entire treaty-making enterprise. Unfortunately, the Canadian government allowed itself to be bullied. In 2016, then-Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion claimed that a ban on nuclear weapons without the support of nuclear weapons states was a foolish and utopian dream.

But ICAN and other campaigners, including the Canadian civil society partners, point to earlier initiatives whose success appeared unlikely but which were ultimately accepted even by the big powers. These include treaties to ban biological weapons (1972), chemical weapons (1993), landmines (1997), and cluster bombs (2008).

Canada back-pedals

The Canadian government continues to claim that it supports the abolition of nuclear weapons, but that is belied by its opposing the UN’s historic treaty in July. Canada continues to insist, along with its nuclear-armed allies, on an incrementalist approach to abolition that has failed for nearly 50 years. Our government also ignores a House of Commons resolution, passed unanimously in 2010, calling for Canadian leadership on nuclear disarmament. The Trudeau administration claims to “be back” at the UN but is back-pedalling on the pressing nuclear question as the clock threatens to tick down to midnight.

A somewhat briefer version of this piece was published on the website of the  United Church Observer on December 8, 2017.

Canada and the NAFTA negotiations, irony among stakeholders

The US-Canada-Mexico NAFTA renegotiations are creating some odd bed fellows
The US is demanding new NAFTA concessions regarding auto production. Dennis Gruending photo.

Those old enough to recall it will remember that the 1988 federal election in Canada turned into an epic battle over a proposed Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States. The ruling Conservatives and corporate Canada campaigned for it, saying that it would provide untrammeled access to the vast American market and provide a new era of jobs and prosperity for Canadians. Without the deal, they said, this country would become a stagnant economic backwater. Continue reading Canada and the NAFTA negotiations, irony among stakeholders

Bill C-262: Canada must implement UN declaration on Indigenous rights

MP Romeo Saganash says his Bill C-262 would ensure UN Indigenous Peoples declaration
MP Romeo Saganash, author of Bill C-262. Art Babych photo.

When they were campaigning for election in 2015 Justin Trudeau’s Liberals promised that they would adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but it appears that they are now less eager to do so.  Continue reading Bill C-262: Canada must implement UN declaration on Indigenous rights

Hostages Joshua Boyle, Amanda Lindhout were reckless

Former Canadian hostages Amanda Lindhout, Joshua Boyle exhibited a self-absorbed and reckless naiveté.
Amanda Lindhout, former Canadian hostage in Somalia. Photo courtesy Art Babych.

Canadians are witnessing two post-hostage dramas and there are lessons to be learned from each.  In October, after five years in captivity, Canadian Joshua Boyle, his American wife Caitlin Coleman and their three young children were rescued from their captors by Pakistani troops after a shootout in Pakistan’s rugged border area with Afghanistan.

On the same day, Canadian Amanda Lindhout was in an Ottawa courtroom facing a Somali man who she says was one of her hostage-takers during 460 days of captivity in the east African country in 2008-09. Continue reading Hostages Joshua Boyle, Amanda Lindhout were reckless

Business lobby hysterical on Bill Morneau’s tax reforms

Business lobby responds hysterically to Finance Minister Bill Morneau's tax proposals
Finance Minister Bill Morneau. Art Babych photo.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau wants to close loopholes that allow highly paid professionals to reduce their taxes by incorporating and then using various small business tax breaks to shelter their income.  These loopholes are legal but unfair.  They amount to potentially more than $1 billion annually in lost revenues to the government. That money could be used toward pharmacare, affordable housing or building green infrastructure.  Morneau argues that he wants to create an improved tax system but some of the reaction has been hysterical. Continue reading Business lobby hysterical on Bill Morneau’s tax reforms