4. The Regulatory Agencies: Imperatives of Renewal
By a combination of legal skill, political clout, and economic power, few have anything to fear from the agencies created to control private power in the public interest. Regulation is looked upon as a fix, and the public usually gets stuck with the bill for the fixer. Always with its pocketbook, often with its convenience, safety and health.
Regulatory agencies cloak profound issues in esoteric language, secrecy, and often dilatory, always expensive, almost invisible proceedings. It may legitimately be asked whether some regulators truly understand whom they are supposed to serve. Bureaucratic inertia, political preference and economic interest have too often resulted in decisions that help industry and hurt the public.
As long as the procedures of our agencies remain secretive, technical and of concern primarily to private interests, even good men can make only a marginal difference. The reforms needed do not entail new laws or new institutions. They do entail the acceptance of the radical notion that agencies created to protect the public interest should protect the public interest.
1. Break the industry-agency-industry cycle. We need to appoint commissioners whose concern for fairness is paramount, even at the expense of technical expertise. Technical support comes mostly from the staff in any case. Independence should be the primary consideration.
2. The Public Interest should be a required part of any hearing. Each agency should have a consumer, or citizen, advocate. The advocate would have their own staff and autonomy. The advocate would represent the public interest in any agency decision affecting either a specific case or the development of general rules. The advocate would be admitted to all agency proceedings as a matter of law and any decisions taken without the advocate’s participation would be illegal. The advocates would have the right to issue their own comments and these would be published as part of the proceedings.
3. Appointments should be a public issue before elections. The invisibility of this issue has compromised the effectiveness of our regulatory commissions and agencies for far too long.
5. The Crimes of Punishment: Criminal Justice Reform
The loudest advocates of law and order frequently promote policies that increase the crime rate. Few issues have proven a more fertile breeding ground for hysteria, cheap political shots and outright lies.
Liberals have too often conceded the premises of the right. They are too eager, too often, to state “I’m as tough on crime as you are.” Unfortunately, liberals have rarely challenged conservatives on the critical essential point: the solutions of the right are not only repressive, but also ineffective.
Academicians and theoreticians have been equally unconstructive equally often. They have more concerns for Albanians and East Timorese and have ignored crime as a burden carried by the Canadian poor. After hundreds of marches for hundreds of causes, no one has marched for them.
Despite decades of experimentation and analyses, the fact remains that the fundamental source of crime is rooted in the pathology of poverty. Joblessness, purposeless men and women, broken families, a school system that does not educate and the accompanying epidemics of alcohol and drug abuse. Anatole France wrote many years ago that “…the slums of the great cities are the breeding grounds of crime…” That is still true today.
A start to solutions can begin with the following six proposals:
1. The recognition that the justice system itself is one of the great festering swamps of crime. From the beginning suspects are stripped of any connection with the community whose law they have allegedly broken. They are isolated, turned into an object to be processed, driven further and further from any sense that they are human beings who matter. This kind of treatment is a catalyst of crime. We need more investment in professionals in the criminal justice system acting as facilitators and interveners between the accused and the community he needs to remain connected to. It is always easy to economize when it suits us, but the irony is that as long as we keep economizing this way, many will return as criminals and as the creators of other victims.
2. Participation of the criminal’s community in breaking the crime cycle. Incarceration is by definition an alienating experience. But when a convict is sent hundreds of miles from his community the effects are much worse and produce an anger that is uncontrollable. The current policy of centralization into mass prisons should be reversed and experiments must be made to keep felons under custody closer to their own communities. One possibility to study are halfway houses staffed by personnel who understand the culture and content of the communities of the convicts. However well intentioned correctional officers may be, the ambience of a fortress has been proven for decades to cripple the possibility of rehabilitation.
3. Penal Reform. Between 70-75% of all crimes are committed by recidivists—men and women who have been in jail before. The reason is simple. Most inmates come out of jail more bitter, more turned against the straight world, than they were when they were first imprisoned. The term “corrections” is wrong. In Ramsey Clark’s famous phrase, prisons are “factories of crime”. We must make our system truly correctional by focusing on rehabilitation rather than punishment. For every Federal dollar spent on corrections, 90 cents goes for purely custodial purposes: guards, walls and bars. Only the small balance goes to job training and placement, education and work-release programs. This ratio must be dramatically improved. We must begin to reform the basic impulses of the correctional system. Large prisons should be replaced by smaller jails of minimum and moderate security. Prisoners should be separated on the basis of age, seriousness of offense and sexual predilection. The idea of homosexual wings or prisons is far less offensive than the reality of young men subject to rape and assault. Prison rehabilitation programs should include job training for jobs that actually exist on the outside. Home furloughs for selected inmates as a deterrent to aggressive homosexuality and as a means of restoring an inmate’s bond with his community should also be looked at.
4. Law Reform. Penologists and judicial experts agree that prison and court overcrowding would be alleviated dramatically by a more flexible attitude toward victimless crimes—gambling, prostitution, drunkenness, drug possession and many so-called “white collar crimes. These make up about half the non-traffic arrests in Canada. If the laws under which these arrests are made were reformed, not only would it lessen over-crowding, but it would also permit police to focus on more serious crimes. Laws prohibiting employment of ex-convicts should be made Charter violations. Some thirty-five different professions bar ex-convicts. A system of rewarding productive behavior should be included directly in the criminal justice system. New York’s Court Employment Project is a great success and a great example. It provides jobs, group therapy and a structured program for people awaiting trial. If participants get and hold a job and remain crime-free for three months, the court dismisses charges
5. Parole Board Reform. More professional parole boards that include psychiatrists and reformers who have direct contact with prisoners on a non-custodial bias are necessary components of any overall reform program. In too many instances board appointees have been patronage picks with knee-jerk prejudices in place of knowledgeable process.
6. The Untouchable Universal: Health Care
For all the complaints about our health-care system, each month sees dozens of foreign medical teams in Canada copying various aspects of what we have done right. The great national consensus on the five principles of our Medicare system is one of the proudest elements of the Canadians social contract and must be defended, and expanded, using all available resources. It is our noblest effort.
Critics of a single-tier public system continually point out that the U.S. spends more of its GDP on health than Canada. They do, but only slightly. And it is no great thing when fully one-third of Americans have no medical insurance. In America health care is a luxury. In Canada it is a right. There is reason for great pride in that, we should make no mistake about that. Naturally the system needs more money, not only for equipment and facilities, but also for salaries to insure that we keep our best and brightest here. But a two-tier system is not the answer. Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, every two-tier system in the west evidences massive discrepancies in care. There is one level of service for the rich, another for the rest. We must not sacrifice our great experiment in national compassion at the altar of mammon.
Abandonment of our system will result in tragedies of the American experience. Working poor who cannot afford doctors or hospitals, and middle-class families living in the fear that one serious illness can wipe out a lifetime’s savings since even private insurance only covers 80% of inflated hospital costs and procedures. It is not generally known but in the U.S. only about 80% of hospital beds are filled, since so many Americans have no insurance, and of those some 75% are Medicaid or Medicare patients. On the remaining 25% American hospitals create bill charges of up to 1,000% on everything from Saline solutions to Tylenol tablets.
Abandonment of our system for a two-tier one will inevitably create a segregated two-class hospital system. Private hospitals with modern technology and personalized care for the rich and insured, and understaffed public hospitals with beds in the halls and crowded benches in the clinics for everyone else. We will be at the mercy of institutions motivated by greed creating ever growing outrageous costs for the best care. Health care will be reduced to a scarce commodity to be sold at a profit rather than a basic societal right like education.
Abandonment of our system will lead to Canada being at the mercy of insurance and drug companies who are most responsible for health-care cost inflation in the United States. The drug companies, who now specialize in the development of the $1billion “first pill”, 75% subsidized by government tax and R&D credits, have over the past thirty years ranked ahead of tobacco, mining and oil companies in return on total capital. That is the true face of the menace that drains our health resources. The drug companies have exaggerated prices, negotiated cartels on patents and manipulated fears created and heightened by slick advertising. They can get away with this because for all the thousands of drug and biotech companies in the world, the top 2% sell more than half the drugs.
7. The Democratic Deficit: Equity and the Electoral Process
As it stands now, the political process forms a kind of closed circle with economic power. Because wealth—or access to it—is critical to gaining political power, those who make the basic decisions are often beholden to the people and institutions that already hold economic power. The citizens who are the victims of economic power are too often shut out of the process by which real decisions are made.
Clearly our political process is not a fraud. Too many fights have been won to believe that our system of Parliamentary democracy is unworkable. But what is true is that we must lessen the impact of money on political decision-making and level the playing field of access for the benefit of all Canadians. The link between cash and conscience is too direct to be ignored on any agenda of the new populism.
Put plainly, it costs so much money to run a campaign for any office that either personal wealth or access to it, becomes one of the most important qualifications for office. The inherent absurdity of this needs no overstatement.
Reforms should be made along the following lines:
1. Lower absolute limits on total campaign spending for every level of office including leadership races. These ceilings, calculated on a dollars per voter basis, would cover total campaign spending from staff to advertising to canvassers and infrastructure. Provisions in the Federal Election Legislation should include automatic nullification of results for any violation. Hopefully, this would bring to an end certain “gentlemen’s agreements” now prevailing.
2. Free radio and television advertising. These industries are federally regulated and as such would be required to give free equal time to all candidates. This would eliminate one of the costliest elements in campaigning. One candidate could still have better image-makers and speechwriters than another, but he could not outspend opponents 10-1.
3. All “in kind” contributions should be included in calculation of total costs. Whether it is a corporation lending a company plane, or a union absorbing printing costs.
4. Require all elected members to disclose all of their financial interests. This is perhaps the most central reform to ensuring that “one person, one vote” does not become “one dollar, one vote”.
A bad process produces good candidates only by accident. We ought to reverse that.
8. A New Majority for Justice
This paper is based on one over-riding belief---that a political coalition fighting for equity and equality, fairness and fraternity as its goal, exists, and can be championed to victory now. That a new populism is both morally and intellectually imperative at this time in our history is clear to us, but more to the point, we also think a new populist thrust is politically appropriate, and that such a strategy has a strong practical chance of success.
The severe pocketbook issues afflicting all, underscore the imperative of a political campaign based on economic justice. From the assembly line worker who hates his job but has no alternative, to the ethnic small business owner whose taxes have soared out of all proportion to the services received, to the elderly eking out lives on social security, to the newly poor who have lost a lifetime of savings in a catastrophe, to the working poor fed up with the rich getting richer while they work longer, to women and the visible minorities tired of being the last hired and first fired, to the newly enfranchised young voters fed up with the calcified hypocrisy around them.
We must always remember that the “Just Society” which men of goodwill seek to build is predicated on a recognition of an equal claim on the stock of welfare of the land by all, and that this recognition has not yet found full expression in the social contract between the government and the people.
In our land today there are too many of shrivelled spirit and hostile heart that fear the future, mistrust the present and invoke the security of a comfortable past, which, in fact, never existed. These we should always oppose.
We must have leadership that has faith in the people’s ability, tempered through the experiences of reason and judgment, to increase for all the amount of justice and freedom and opportunity, which all human life deserves.
We must have leaders who believe that our progress as a people is predicated on the notion that we have a sovereignty over our democratically elected government unencumbered by any conditions of special considerations to property or power, privilege or preference.
We must lead all Canadians, no matter how unempowered, to the belief that through the exercise of their suffrage, they can exact their full share from the bounty of society’s wealth to which their labour has so much contributed, so that they will have a flow of well being from the state to allow for their fullest expression as human beings.
These are the people of the new populism whom we must champion. Faces of anger at the excesses of banks, conglomerates and self-aggrandizing professions. Fresh political leadership must speak for them and against the forces of preference, privilege and greed. All these groups are national symptoms of a stirring. A movement that is a complex mix of engagement and economics. This is the effective political coalition for the 21st Century. A new political majority sure in the knowledge that justice is not in heaven nor beyond the sea, but in our hearts to dream and in our hands to forge.
Beryl P. Wajsman
Institute for Public Affairs of Montreal