Taking It To The Street

Chief Theresa Spence, The Fiscal Cliff And The Art of The Possible


"Politics is the art of the possible.

- Otto Von Bismarck, Prime Minister of Prussia, 1867

by Susanna Kelley

While they don't say it publicly, in politics and public policy, there are some issues politicians privately acknowledge are so difficult they are seen as unsolvable.

They are called the "third rails of politics," issues that have become so divisive that that even broaching the subject is considered political suicide, like touching the third rail in a subway station.

You know them. The unmentionables:



Amending Canada's Constitution.

Most politicians believe the divisiveness they engender is not worth bringing them up right now, as there is no consensus on solving them.

In the U.S., up until the last year or so, any politician advocating for increasing taxes - of any sort - has been seen as having some kind of a death wish.

Americans, every one knows, don't like paying taxes.

But the rise of the Occupy Movement, its occupation of New York's Zuccotti Park and its spread globally did one key thing.

It helped publicize the fact that the top 1% of income earners actually owned 37% of the wealth in the U.S., while the bottom 90% owned 27%. The 9% in the middle owned 39%. (Source: US Survey of Consumer Finance)

Between 1979 and 2007, the top 1% of Americans with the highest incomes saw them increase by an average of 275% (Source: US Congressional Budgetary Office.)

(In Canada, meanwhile, only the top one per cent of earners prospered from 1976 to 2009.  The top 10 per cent of income earners in Canada earned 39.2 per cent of the country's total income in 2009.

The median income for the middle class had stagnated from 1976 to 2009, rising only 5.5 per cent in 33 years. (Source: Conference Board of Canada)

When that factual information became widely known, something changed.

Suddenly there was concrete, indisputable data released by impeccably credible sources to prove the feeling of the middle class of trying to get ahead and always failing was justified; of just being able to keep your family's head above water; of working and running harder just to stay in the same place.

It wasn't just in everyone's imagination after all, and it became very politically difficult to dispute.

Suddenly, one of those "third rail" issues became a hot factor in the U.S. Presidential campaign.

Barack Obama rode the tide to win the Presidency on a platform of tax increases on those with higher incomes.

And in the discussions earlier this week over the U.S. fiscal cliff, Obama had the moral high ground.

That allowed him to do touch the "untouchable."

He unplugged a "third rail" of American politics and negotiated significant tax hikes on the one per cent - families with an income of over $450,000 per year.

And whether you believe that is a good thing overall, or that it will drive the best and brightest, innovation and investment money from the U.S., the fact is the politically impossible has been made possible.

In Canada, aboriginal issues are often seen as a third rail of politics in Ontario and Canada. 

There is a popular view that no matter how much money is seemingly pumped into the system; how much time bureaucrats and politicians spend on them, that nothing permanent can be done.

No one disputes that the conditions some of our First Nations people live in remain deplorable.

And that is certainly true, especially in a number of Northern Ontario reserves. 

In truth, there are indeed many aboriginal success stories out there too.

The poster child is the agreement negotiated to allow the James Bay Hydroelectric Project to develop the massive hydroelectric project while Cree, Inuit and Naskapi First Nations have been compensated and become entrepreneurs in their own rights. 

The airline Air Creebec and the beautiful and environmentally sustainable Mocreebec-run Ecolodge in Moose Factory are proud FN accomplishments.  

Impact Benefit Agreements (IBA's) between First Nations and mining companies across the country have protected treaty rights while providing compensation and protecting aboriginal hunting and fishing rights.

Still, there are those communities that clearly lag almost disastrously behind: Attawapiskat; Kashechewan; North Spirit Lake and others.

Flooded homes, children living in squalid conditions with rashes and other poor health conditions; rampant addiction to drugs and alcohol mean babies born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder in Ontario's fastest-growing population; lack of treatment facilities.

There is no doubt Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence's hunger strike is meant to alleviate very serious conditions in her community that have afflicted some of the aboriginal population in Ontario for far too long.

It is tempting to throw up one's hands and say "This is just one of those things that can't be solved. The problems run too deep and all the money in the world isn't going to help."

And indeed the resistance of some First Nations Chiefs to providing a complete, proper public accounting of the money being transferred to their communities from the federal government certainly isn't helping.

That resistance, by the way, dates back to the days Jean Chretien and his former Minister of Indian Affairs, Métis Robert Nault tried to legislate this accountability but was opposed by the likes of former Assembly of First Nations President Phil Fontaine and the Chiefs that make up the organization.  

Paul Martin killed the legislation as soon as he became Prime Minister, which he won with the help of aboriginal delegates at the Liberal leadership convention. 

Mr. Fontaine just this weekend was given the Order of Canada.

Still, sometimes in politics and public policy, there is a sublime moment when those frustrated by the intransigence of a problem can be inspired when they see another equally intransigent problem solved elsewhere. 

In the U.S., the stars seemed to align for Obama to be able to negotiate a tax increase in the U.S.

He's won a second, last term. Republicans were weakened from their defeat. The public was with him, and it had just voted to increase taxes on the wealthy.

But stars don't align by themselves.

It took a lot of hard work, campaigning and winning the Presidency, and negotiating until the 11th hour with the Republicans to avoid the "fiscal cliff," in part by increasing taxes on wealthy Americans.

Such an outcome, whether you agree with it or not, is proof that, with enough hard work and persistence, politics can indeed surmount the toughest of obstacles.

Maybe that should inspire Ontario in its quest for a better life for First Nations.

Politics is indeed the art of the possible.

But in politics, for the artful, much is possible.

You can find Susanna here: @susannakelley

About Susanna Kelley

Susanna Kelley is Editor-in-Chief and Queen’s Park Bureau Chief for Ontario News Watch. A veteran political and investigative reporter, documentary-maker, host and media commentator, Susanna oversees and has final editorial control over all news production at Ontario News Watch. Susanna has reported for the CBC, the Canadian Press and served as Queen’s Park Bureau Chief for TVOntario for 13 years. She has also hosted a number of documentaries for CBC’s The Current, CBC Radio News and TVOntario’s Studio 2. Passionately dedicated to excellence in political journalism, and having covered both Parliament Hill and Queen’s Park, Susanna believes quality political reporting is essential to a healthy democracy. You can find Susanna here: @susannakelley
Posted date : January 02, 2013

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