Saturday, August 30, 2008

Sponsorship vs Listeria

Every government has its scandals. When the Liberals first came to power (federally), they came in on a promise to scrap the GST. They promptly dropped this promise and things were quiet on the scandal front for some time.

Just before we switched to a Conservative government, there came the Sponsorship scandal. Of $250M that was supposed to be spent to improve the nation's image among Quebecers who might consider independence, some $100M is supposed to have been spent on "Liberal friendly ad firms" for doing very little work.

It was embezzlement or fraud, call it what you like.

Whatever it was, it was not an innate part of the Liberal platform. There is nothing implied by a liberal mentality that says, "We will support a culture of unaccountability that will allow embezzlement". This was a matter of corruption, not philosophy. Corruption is simply something that happens when people are in power for too long. Chretien was a master manipulator of elections and election timing. His party became corrupt when they began to feel invulnerable and entitled to their positions.

The point is that it wasn't a problem with the philosophy of the party. Most Canadians agree with the general philosophy of the party: balanced budgets; social services; social progress.

On the other hand we have the Listeria outbreak. If it turns out, as most of us suspect, that the outbreak was caused by the recently relaxed testing procedures for Listeria monocytogenes (which seems like a pretty reasonable assumption from which to start), then we have a problem of a completely different order.

The reason that the Conservative government cut inspections was because it is an innate part of the party's philosophy. What do the Conservatives believe in? Less government. More private enterprise. Private is better than public. Lower taxes. Less services. More military. Less social service.

While the Sponsorship scandal was a large embezzlement fiasco brought on by long developed corruption, the Listeria outbreak - if it is indeed the result of a lax inspection regime and not, say, terrorism or sabotage - is evidence that the core philosophy of the Conservative party is flawed. It would mean that the free market does not solve all ills and that low taxation is not in everyone's best interest.

Whenever I discuss this issue with free market favouring coworkers, they like to use the example of a gas station. If a gas station owner were to water down his gas he would lose business because people would find out and stop buying gas from him. This example fails miserably in real life. Yes, the free market works fine for restaurants and gas stations because a) we are all experts on whether our cars break down ten feet from a gas station or when restaurants skimp on portions and b) the time from cheating to being caught is very small. If I drive up to a gas station and see five cars broken down two car lengths from the pumps, I know something is wrong here.

Listeria doesn't work that way, though, does it? Neither does education or health care. You might not realize that your child has been given a bad education for twenty years. You might not realize that your private health care system is deeply flawed until you're dying of cancer and your insurance company uses every trick in the book to deny you coverage and let you die.

And Listeria? It has a 70 to 90 day incubation period. You're not going to see people dying from it for at least two months after it's been in the food system. Then you're going to see them dying for three months after that.

And after people have been dying for three months? Then the free market will kick in and punish the corporation and inspection regime that caused the problem.

Well. Hallelujah for the free market. It told us afterward what we needed to know in advance.

There will be people who tell us not to make political hay out of death. But this is a political issue. This is a political issue that cuts to the heart of each party's philosophy. Can we trust the free market to protect our health or not?

If the lax inspection regime allowed Listeria to kill these people, then we know the answer: it can't.

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