Published On Wed Oct 12 2011 http://www.thestar.com
By Thomas WalkomNational Affairs Columnist
Stephen Harper is no laissez-faire conservative. As his ongoing battle with Air Canada flight attendants shows, the Prime Minister is happy to have his government intervene in the affairs of private business.
But it’s a curiously lopsided kind of intervention. If, as he insists, Harper wanted to protect the economic recovery, he wouldn’t waste his time on Air Canada.
Instead he’d use his government’s muscle to deal with far more pressing problems that threaten Canadian jobs.
Air Canada first. To argue that this particular carrier is essential to the Canadian economy is, frankly, nuts.
Privately owned Air Canada, while admittedly the country’s largest airline, is just one of several.
Obviously, WestJet and Porter Airlines aren’t affected by any labour dispute at Air Canada. That means their intercity flights are still available in the event of a strike.
But what is less well understood is that the huge array of Air Canada contract flights servicing smaller centres would also be unaffected.
These are flights operated for Air Canada by regional carriers, usually under the generic name Air Canada Express. They fly to smaller centres such as London, Timmins and Quebec City that, in the main, are not serviced by other airlines.
One of those carriers, Jazz, boasts that it flies to more destinations in Canada than any other airline.
International flights? There are, of course, foreign airlines such as British Airways that fly between Canada and the rest of the world.
But Air Canada’s so-called partner airlines that already operate some of the carrier’s international flights, like United Continental, wouldn’t be affected by a strike either.
Nor would a strike affect Air Canada Express flights to U.S. cities like Chicago, New York, Washington, Houston and Baltimore.
In short, a strike by flight attendants at Air Canada would be a major inconvenience for the travelling public (including me; I have tickets booked).
But in no way would it threaten the Canadian economy.
If Harper’s interventionists truly wanted to protect Canadian jobs and prosperity they could focus instead on the country’s real problems such as:
• The high dollar. Every time the loony inches up relative to the U.S. currency, export jobs here are threatened.
In normal times, the Bank of Canada could push our dollar down by lowering interest rates. But with rates already close to rock bottom, the Bank’s only option is to follow the U.S. example and engage in so called quantitative easing — that is, print more money.
A government anxious to protect the economy might suggest it do just that.
• Gas prices. High energy prices support the oil economies of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland. But when prices become outrageously excessive, they hinder Ontario’s manufacturing economy, raise inflation and put upward pressure on wages.
An interventionist government seriously interested in protecting the entire national economy would regulate domestic oil and gas prices downward to restore the balance.
• The housing bubble. Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney has warned that Canadians are becoming too indebted. In large part, this is the result of soaring housing prices that make many feel richer than they are.
An activist government could gradually deflate this bubble by insisting that home buyers put up considerably more cash and by restricting the exponential growth of housing-based lines of credit.
These are a few areas. There’s plenty more that an activist government committed to protecting the economy could do, from reforming pensions to limiting more exotic forms of executive compensation.
This activist government, however, only has one target in its sights — middle-class unionized workers.
Thomas Walkom’s column appears Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.