Former prime minister Stephen Harper has written an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal arguing for government austerity in the wake of the COVID pandemic. The argument goes that governments will have taken on high spending in reaction to the pandemic that will create a public debt crisis needing to be solved.
It is important to pay attention to what Mr. Harper is saying on this topic because he was recently appointed by Premier Jason Kenney to sit alongside a slew of bankers and CEOs on a council to advise on Alberta’s economic recovery.
Harper, as he writes in his op-ed, recognizes that conservative politicians will need to push back against growing popular support for public spending.
He’s correct on this point: people are gaining a greater appreciation for public services during this pandemic. And how. Places with strong public services have fared much better in the crisis. Public services have risen to the challenges and public services are saving lives.
Responding successfully to this pandemic required jurisdictions to have plans in place and the ability to quickly and effectively marshal resources. I believe that Alberta Health and Alberta Health Services were prepared for this and did a very good job responding. We have received good advice from the chief medical officer of health and her team, and AHS had good stocks of personal protective equipment and other supplies. Public health preparations were critical to set us up for success.
Similarly, our universal, free health-care system was set up to ensure that everyone had good access to health care, including free access to testing. The public health system was able to access testing supplies and people who needed to be tested were tested. Contrast this with the United States where there is a high degree of variance in levels of access to health care. Those with the best insurance plan get the best access to testing and treatment and those with less, get less. There is little doubt about the inequitable effects of this infection.
Responding successfully to this pandemic required jurisdictions to have plans in place and the ability to quickly and effectively marshal resources.
Consider also that countries like Italy and Spain have recently gone through significant government austerity that has affected their public health systems. I can’t help but think that this is a factor in their elevated numbers.
There is no doubt that we have seen public health care rise to the challenge of COVID, but let’s also reflect on how other public services are being called upon. The response and adaptability of teachers has been absolutely amazing. The dramatic shift we have seen in public education delivery is remarkable, and teachers just rose up and made it happen. It has required great work, but it happened. Teachers do what they always do — they see a problem that needs a solution and they just get it done.
We’ve seen similar responses in universities that quickly moved to online classes, but also in the research departments that are quickly working away at the long, complex process of developing the treatments and vaccines that will put this issue behind us. Public safety nets are responding to the social needs that have been created, and government income supports are helping keep people afloat. Similarly, public infrastructure investments and business supports will help spur the economy into recovery.
None of this is meant to take away from private sector heroics that have also helped immensely to keep essential services open and operating and to keep the food supply chain connected. Truck drivers, grocery store workers, retail outlets and delivery services have been amazing.
But, it is undeniable that public services matter.
From the public servants who are saving lives in our health-care system, to the teachers who are keeping kids learning, to the long-term and elder care institutions that are keeping the vulnerable safe — public institutions matter and deserve to be supported.
It would be a huge mistake to turn around and attack these services as we recover from this situation. Instead we must invest more to make sure that the programs and services stay healthy and ready for the next challenge that they will have to rise up and respond to.
Frankly, Harper’s op-ed is telling. He should be out there applauding public services. But instead he did not miss an opportunity to attack them. He is a smart man. He knows that those who recognize the value of public services will mount a defence that will spread as effectively as, well, a pandemic. I’m sure he saw a need to inoculate against it as early as possible. ❚
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