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Will the public good be part of the equation in post-COVID recovery?

Short-term thinkers as a rule, most of us are firmly ensconced in a reality shaped by COVID-19. Understandably, the current crisis and the resultant government response is shaping our view of a post-coronavirus world.

With much of the economy here and in much of the West dependent on government supports, from enhanced unemployment insurance to payment for companies to maintain payrolls, the social safety net is top of mind.

A Broadbent Institute poll released this week shows Canadians want governments to continue spending to help us through the crisis and into the rebuilding to come.

When it comes to Canada’s social safety net, 97 per cent think that the long-term care system for ageing Canadians needs improvement. we also want more paid sick days and livable wages, as well as greater access to income supports and employment insurance also received broad support, 90 per cent and 88 per cent respectively, according to the poll.

Canadians also widely support an economic recovery model that includes the likes of building Canada’s ability to produce key products like food and medical supplies domestically instead of relying on global markets – 79 per cent rated that extremely or very important;  helping people who need it the most (71 per cent); and focusing on helping people and preventing corporations from using funds for excessive executive pay, stock buy-backs, or increased dividends (70 per cent).

“Canadians want a recovery that is fair, focused on people, and builds up our resilience for future challenges,” said Rick Smith, executive director of the Broadbent Institute, in a statement.

The Broadbent Institute position is in line with the “just recovery” ideal endorsed by more than 150 Canadian organizations, including the Canadian Labour Congress, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Canadian Health Coalition.

The groups endorsed six principles for a recovery that supports average Canadians rather than corporate interests: put people’s health and wellbeing first, no exceptions; strengthen the social safety net and provide relief directly to people; prioritize the needs of workers and communities’ build resilience to prevent future crises; build solidarity and equity across communities, generations, and borders; and uphold Indigenous rights and work in partnership with Indigenous peoples.

“We recognize the enormous challenge and responsibility facing governments. We also see a critical opportunity for leaders to seize the courage required to lead us through this moment to a better world. We’ll be doing our part to ensure the people are behind them,” said Claire Gallagher of the independent citizens’ advocacy group Leadnow, one of the signatories.

As with other progressive attempts to build a people-centric economy – from globalization protests and the Occupy movement to climate-action groups, to name just some recent examples – those invested in the status quo will attempt to dismiss this agenda as the work of a bunch of misguided young people, union members and troublemaking activists. That’s certainly the response you’d expect from those within the targeted establishment group, but it extends to others who don’t see what unfettered capitalism, deregulation and concentration of wealth have done to undermine the fabric of society.

The public, however, should be focused on an increasing frustration with the inequities, as the political and economic system is skewed in favour of the few at the expense of the many. More and more of us see the intertwined political and financial systems working against the common good.

Simply put, there is a growing dissatisfaction with that most pervasive ism: corporate capitalism, which threatens our quality of life, our democracy and our very freedoms.

Given that the economic fallout of COVID-19 evokes numerous comparisons to the Great Depression, we should be mindful that the salvation of many people and the foundation of the recovery that followed was a progressive agenda.

The burgeoning middle class, equitable society and philosophy of the common good that developed in the postwar years were a testament to the values of those who came through war, financial excess, Depression and another great war: they were eager to do away with the scourges of the past and to create a better society for themselves and, more pressingly for their children. The next three decades saw that happen. The last four have seen that steadily eroded by the rise of corporatism, including its wholesale purchase of the political system, relentless propaganda and assault on democracy.

Democracy is indeed at risk under the massive inequities we see today. We need both the economic and democratic progressives advocate to turn the ship around into fairer waters. The coronavirus crisis is an ideal time to set off in that direction rather than allowing corporate interests to take us farther down the rabbit hole.

Those who argue that public-oriented policies such as regulation only hinders capitalism – often the same people who wrongly equate capitalism with democracy – miss the point of a so-called free market. The idea of a free-market economy is to let the market decide what will be made and in what quantity, rather than the central planning of the communist system, for instance. It doesn’t, however, mean free from regulation. How many people would argue that business should be “free” to use slaves or child labour? That was once the case in the West, but has been regulated out of the mix.

“For many years to come, Canada’s economy will rely on public service, public investment and public entrepreneurship as the main drivers of growth. They will lead us in recovering from the immediate downturn, preparing for future health and environmental crises and addressing the desperate conditions in our communities,” writes economist Jim Stanford, director of the Centre for Future Work. “The chronic weakness of private business capital spending in recent years was already indicating a growing need for public investment to lead the way. After COVID-19, it is impossible to imagine that private capital spending could somehow lead the reconstruction of a shattered national economy.”

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