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Trevor Hancock: A lunatic mainstream, or a sensible fringe?

In his Oct. 13 column, Lawrie McFarlane suggested the Greens and the NDP have embraced “radical notions that place them far outside the mainstream” and that they “are in danger of becoming a lunatic fringe.

In his Oct. 13 column, Lawrie McFarlane suggested the Greens and the NDP have embraced “radical notions that place them far outside the mainstream” and that they “are in danger of becoming a lunatic fringe.” This is a quite commonplace representation of both parties from the right wing of the political spectrum.

But as I see it, it is the mainstream that has become lunatic, while the Greens and the NDP represent in some senses a conservative fringe. I recall someone noting many years ago that it is conservatives who are radical today, in that they want to radically alter the environment through economic development, growth and deregulation, while it is the environmentalists who are the true conservatives, the people who want to conserve the environment.

So let’s look at some of the ways that the mainstream is in fact radical, if not indeed lunatic. Given that the the natural environment is the source of all that matters for our life and health — oxygen, water, food, materials, fuels, waste decomposition, protection from UV radiation and so on — threatening the viability of the natural environment is insane, while protecting and conserving it is eminently sensible.

Then there is the very mainstream concept of economic growth. It is an issue I have addressed before, so I will not repeat myself at length. But Kenneth Boulding, a former president of both the American Economic Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, put it very simply: “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

So continuing to push for economic growth, where that means further harm to the Earth’s natural systems, further depletion of vital natural resources and further extinction of the species that make up the web of life — as it does in the current mainstream model of development — is mad.

Another example of mainstream lunacy is the commitment to fossil-fuel use and even expansion. The two mainstream parties — Liberals and Conservatives — are both guilty of this piece of folly. But it is the Conservatives who are the most lunatic: Look at the pro-fossil-fuel and thus pro-climate-change policies not only of the federal Conservatives but their provincial partners in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario.

So if the mainstream is lunatic, let’s look at some of the Green and NDP ideas that are considered fringe, radical or even lunatic, but that in fact seem entirely reasonable and sensible ways to improve health and well-being. Among them are free pharmacare and dental care for at least some if not all of the population, along with free or subsidized child care and university and college tuition.

Are these ideas really that radical, or even ‘lunatic’? Well, maybe, if your model is the U.S., but not if we look to Europe. A 2016 article in the Canadian Family Physician noted that “Canada is unique among highly developed countries in its curious exclusion of prescription drug coverage from its universal health insurance program.”

As to family-friendly policies, “Sweden, Norway and Iceland occupy the top three places in the league table of national, family-friendly policies” according to a 2019 report from Unicef, based on 2016 data, while all three, and many other European countries, have childcare enrolment between age 3 and school age of at least 90 per cent. Recent data for Canada is hard to come by, but is lower than that.

These and other programs would be paid for by a combination of redirected spending and increased taxes on high income earners and corporations. Here the NDP and Green Party plans are similar: Close tax loopholes and subsidies that favour the wealthy and large corporations and increase taxes on corporations and the highest income earners — hardly radical. In fact, the top personal income tax rate is higher in Austria, Denmark, France and Japan, while even after allowing for provincial corporate taxes, Canada’s corporate tax rate in 2018 was still lower than in Australia, Belgium, France, Germany and Japan.

So just who are the wild-eyed radicals, who are the lunatics here — and who are the sensible ones, the ones that seek to conserve the environment and maximise human and social development?

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.