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How big ideas become government policy

By Murray Dobbin      

Canada should have national pharmaceutical strategy, nationalize the oil industry and establish a public, commercial bank to compete directly with the big six private banks.

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POWELL RIVER, B.C.—Thirty-five years ago, the policies in Canada that now define democratic governance—or rather anti-democratic governance —were literally unthinkable. Voluntarily giving up, through reckless tax cuts, hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue needed for running the country (and provinces); the fire sale disposal of some of the country’s most valuable, efficient and productive Crown corporations; the signing of corporate rights’ agreements like NAFTA that severely constrain elected governments from legislating on behalf of their citizens; the ruthless slashing of social spending; and the deliberate driving down of salaries and wages by government policy—all now commonplace and once unthinkable.

 In the late 1960s and early ’70s, at the height of the so-called golden age of capitalism, the ideas behind these policies were not discussed. They didn’t appear even in the mainstream media. They were, in effect, caged up somewhere, almost invisible.

 Then the leaders of North America’s largest corporations took a simple action that would initiate the eventual destruction of what was built in the post-war era. They established think tanks which started introducing the unthinkable. The ideas were still not up for broad discussion. But they were uncaged, released into the public domain—a first, necessary step.

 One of the agencies involved in this release was the Fraser Institute. Its founding director, Michael Walker, stated: “If you want to change society you have to change the ideological fabric of society.”

He and his funders understood it would take time. I can remember, as a young social activist at the time, joining with others getting a good laugh at the sheer looniness of the economic and social prescriptions emanating from the Vancouver think tank, and we paid them no attention. We should have. 

Thirty-five years later, not only are these ideas not “unthinkable” they have gone beyond commonplace and acceptable and have, for many governments and too many citizens, gained the status of necessary policies for the future of the country.

As the left and progressive forces in this country struggle desperately to figure out how to stop the right-wing juggernaut they could do worse than learn the lessons of their adversaries. It’s not rocket science. Indeed it even has a carefully developed theory behind it. It is called the Overton window, named after Joseph P. Overton, a former vice-president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. The window refers to the existing set of policies that are deemed acceptable to the broad public.

If you want to successfully promote a policy that doesn’t currently exist in that window you have to move the window to the left or right until it falls within it—accepted as reasonable. Overton described the evolution to acceptance by degrees: Unthinkable; Radical; Acceptable; Sensible; Popular; Policy.

If we think about how the left has defended the activist state over the past quarter century we can see that it has been almost exclusively defensive—trying to keep our formerly big ideas (like medicare) inside the current window. As right-wing governments chipped away at the old social contract it seemed over the top to actually push for better and more social programs (child care being the most obvious exception) or more state intervention in the economy.

Yet push is exactly what we have to do to “defend” what we have had—because if we push for our actual vision of an equal and just society, the stuff being dismantled will appear as it really is: the bare minimum of what we need.

I had a direct experience of the Overton window theory 10 years ago when I was doing a tour for my book on Paul Martin. (Martin, of course, was responsible for taking a big idea—deep spending cuts—from radical to acceptable on Overton’s scale.) After my first talk the Q&A turned to medicare and how to “defend” it. I gently admonished the questioner and suggested that we never use that term because it immediately frames us as losing and frames medicare as being on a downward spiral. Instead, I said (stating the unthinkable) we should nationalize the pharmaceutical industry.

 To my surprise, the audience burst into spontaneous applause. I decided to test this out at all my other talks on a 22-city tour over six months. In every city or town but one the response was the same—an immediate, spontaneous and almost universal applause. It wasn’t that all those people expected such a thing would happen soon, or even at all. It was as if they were cheering the liberation of the Big Idea from its confines in the defensive strategy we had been deploying for so many years. It just felt a lot better than the idea of defending medicare—something we shouldn’t have to do anyway.

A couple of other examples come to mind—nationalizing the oil industry and establishing a public, commercial bank to compete directly with the big six private banks. Outrageous? Impossible?  Any time soon, of course. But even a cursory examination of the crises that face Canada suggests that these ideas are not unthinkable. They actually will be necessary to save the country from further rapid decline to a de-industrialized and corrupt petro state.

If we don’t nationalize the oil industry (it is already nationalized in almost every other oil-producing nation) it will continue to wreak havoc with our economy and our democracy. The longer we keep the idea tied up in the back room, the longer it will take to get it “accepted.” The same applies to the banks. In addition to strict regulation (well within the window even though not fully implemented) we must have a national, publicly-owned consumer bank that competes directly with the big six private banks—forcing them through vigorous competition and progressive policies to change their anti-social behaviour. Besides dealing with consumers and home buyers in a fair manner such a bank could challenge the private banks’ notorious refusal to finance small-and medium-sized businesses and innovation.

Until the left begins to unleash some truly big ideas it will be on the sidelines watching the right continue to push the envelope with ever more dangerous ones. The current push? Weaken unions, for example, by promoting the idea that employees in a unionized shop who choose not be union members should also be given the right not to pay union dues—even though they benefit from the union’s collective bargaining. Currently the Rand Formula—established by a court ruling in 1946—makes paying dues mandatory. Being allowed not to pay would be tantamount to making taxes voluntary even though everyone benefits from government services. The Conservative Party of Ontario is proposing to repeal the Rand Formula and the Saskatchewan government is conducting a review of labour legislation that is expected to attack union rights. The Harper government has already eroded the right to strike in the federal jurisdiction by declaring most strikes a threat to the economy and ending them through legislation.

These radical departures from the public policy window would suggest that the group which most urgently needs to look for some big ideas of its own is the Canadian union movement.

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