Another federal budget has hurricaned its way through the land. Like a windstorm ripping through a Florida trailer park, the budget easily upended other news stories like the still simmering crisis in the Gulf or the Clinton-Lewinsky follies.
Still, what a surprise it was to read the rather uncritical coverage that greeted Martin’s budget. Our debt is equal to more than 80% of our economy, and yet Martin made new spending a priority. He threw out a couple of tax cuts—no more than scraps really—as a sly way to win Reform Party supporters over to the Liberal side. Despite all the pious talk about frugality, the Finance Minister found small goodies for almost every interest group.
With great fanfare, Liberal-friendly media outlets trumpeted that our deficit is dead and buried. The budget shows, however, that our federal government’s urge to spend is still strong—stronger perhaps than its will to balance the budget long enough to bring down the debt. Martin’s modest spending programs seem about as well advised as offering liquor centered candies to a recovering alcoholic.
To me the truly appalling whoppers uttered about the budget dropped from the mouths of people about my own age. I’m 21. I read about how young people thought that it was great that the Grits had finally acknowledged student concerns in their budget, and that the Millenium Scholarship Fund is the beginning of a golden age for those mucking their way through post-secondary education. Plenty of nodding twenty-somethings seemed to go along with this version of events in the TV coverage of the budget.
I could hardly believe it. May I remind you that ours is supposed to be a generation mired in its own cynicism? Need I bring it to your attention that we are said to be immune to seduction by corporate advertising and that we are immune to deception by government or media?
Well, that’s all a big myth—a myth that was crushed on budget night the same way a single, powerful wave can suddenly break a large oil tanker in half. Unfortunately, we are already buying into the illusions that wormed their way into our parents’ political thinking. On budget night, a lot of us traded whatever government smarts we had for a mess of government pottage.
The sad truth is that we are being into integrated into the politics of the social welfare state.
One of the reasons we are having such difficulty with our debt and deficit situation is that almost everyone in Canada collects some kind of government benefit. Business get grants, students get upwards of 70% of their tuition subsidized, linguistic minority groups get cultural funding, etc.
That is how we amassed the $600 debt—everyone expects a little slice of government largesse. Since Canadian politicians are addicted to campaigning by promises of spending, they are pretty pleased with this system and they desperately want it to continue.
For this crooked bunco game to perpetuate itself, new groups must be brought in and shown the ropes. Thus, Paul Martin’s student initiatives are a mass exercise in political socialization. He is generously showing Generation X how it too can learn to feed at the government trough. If the Millenium Scholarship Fund were a child’s toy, it would be marketed under the label “My First Government Program.”
Yes, like our parents, we too will learn to look to the government for new programs to solve our problems. We will also remain blissfully ignorant of the fact that if we ever want to lower taxes in this country, we’re going to have to reduce our expectations of government.
We are also being drafted, several years early, into the next great federal political contest - the selection of who will lead the nation after Jean Chretien’s retirement. Paul Martin is a canny politician. Martin knows that some of his potential opponents for the Liberal Party leadership—like Allan Rock and Brian Tobin—will appeal more to youth than he can. If he’s going to get our votes, he needs to act now and pre-empt his rivals. What better way than a properly gift-wrapped government program?
The bottom line: the Millenium Scholarship Fund is a giant IOU. Paul Martin will be back to collect on that IOU as soon as Chretien has retired to Shawinigan.
Congratulations, Generation X! You’ve been party to your first political deal!