Shooting the Hippo

A Book Review

Shooting the Hippo, by Linda McQuaig, Toronto: Viking/Penguin Books Canada, 1995. $29.99

by Abby Pollonetsky

I find myself sitting on my comfortable porch, in old Ottawa South, on a warm summer day, lemonade at hand, with a brand new copy of Shooting the Hippo: Death by Deficit and Other Canadian Myths, the latest in a group of intriguingly titled books by veteran Toronto journalist Linda McQuaig (her other books include The Wealthy Banker's Wife and The Quick and the Dead).

I deliberately want to set the stage for this review of what I consider to be a singularly important book, not necessarily for you, the reader of this brief review, but maybe for your colleagues, relatives or in-laws. This is a book for those who might yet be moved to appreciate that our "corporate" fixation, bordering on hysteria, on the debt and the deficit, as reflected in the mass media and the apparent growth of neo-conservative politics across the country, might have an explanation other than that of economic determinism.

I'll begin with the title. A baby hippo, born in a zoo, is to be shot as a consequence of government cutbacks which leave no budget to feed and care for the hippo. This image jolts the reader into an unfolding series of other examples of what McQuaig calls "the popular mythology of the deficit". McQuaig sets out to debunk, one by one, a host of current myths about the state of the Canadian economy. In the process, she urges us to look at the social programs - ranging from Unemployment Insurance to health care -that have traditionally served Canadians and defined our identity.

She then asks if we are prepared to see these social programs sacrificed on the altar of deficit reduction. The prevailing political orthodoxy would have us believe that there is no option but to make this sacrifice, a dogma which McQuaig effectively demolishes in the 285 pages of this book. I am not an economist and neither is McQuaig, but I urge everyone to run, not walk, to borrow this book (available from Ottawa Friends Meeting House library and at your local booksellers). This book explains the history of this myth, and will enable you to counter more effectively the prevailing arguments of gloom and despair about our financial health - which are usually followed by the statement " we can't afford our current social programs in today's economy."

In the end, McQuaig asks us "to search our souls and see if we can't come up with some resolve as a nation". Her fear is that "we will fail to muster the needed determination", but I found her book an inspiration to tackle the enormous challenge ahead of all of us, to inform, educate ourselves and our friends, families and neighbours in the difficult days ahead.

Abby Pollonetsky, an attender at Ottawa Monthly Meeting, is a former staff member of the New Democratic Party, and ran as an NDP candidate in the previous election. She is currently the Ottawa campaign co-ordinator for Svend Robinson, the British Columbia M.P. who is running for leader of the New Democratic Party.