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February 3, 2010

Social justice not on Harper's agenda

Reuel S. Amdur

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Everyone thought that Red Tories were an extinct species, but no. Senator Hugh Segal proves that they still exist, though precariously.

With Liberal Art Eggleton in the chair, Segal served as his deputy for a report of a Subcommittee on Cities.  In the report, published in December, they lay out a program that reads like something out of the old Waffle faction of the NDP.

The report calls for a goal of lifting everyone out of poverty, through programs at federal and provincial levels. 

Welfare rates everywhere should be at the least at the level of the Statistics Canada after-tax low income cut-offs (LICO). 

Using 2007 figures for single persons, the actual provisions were as low as 19% of LICO to less than half.  This LICO measure is proposed generally for income support programs.  Segal’s hobby-horse of a negative income tax is suggested for consideration and study. 

Sub-committee recommendations include liberalizing asset limitations on welfare, improving Employment Insurance, establishing a $10 an hour federal minimum wage, undertaking a federal-provincial initiative to promote early childhood education, and federal funding for stay-in-school programs targeting disadvantaged youth. 

So now, catch your breath.

Among other educational recommendations is a call for more federal tax support for students from disadvantaged groups such as Aboriginals and people with disabilities, to enable them to obtain post-secondary education.  Literacy training is also on the agenda.  In the field of health, they want a national pharmacare program. 

Housing comes in for a chapter all its own, with another for homelessness.  We need, according to the senators, “substantial and adequate funding. . . to insure the supply of affordable housing,” as well as “tax measures to support construction of rental housing in general and affordable rental housing in particular.” 

For the homeless, they are in agreement with the housing-first approach: house them first and supply the services to keep them housed, rather than providing services to them while homeless.  They demonstrate clearly that such an approach is far cheaper, providing savings in health and other services.

Eggleton, Segal and company call for special emphasis on programs for “over-represented groups in persistent poverty”—single parents, recent immigrants, singles from 45 to 60, the disabled, and off-reserve Aboriginals.  Of course, those on reserves are not rolling in wealth either, but the report addresses problems in cities. 

Well, what can we make of this optimistic agenda? 

To begin, there is no chance in Hell that the current government will enact it.  In fact, it is unlikely to implement any of it at all.  Those who took part in this exercise are not stupid.  They are well aware of what the reception will be.  They know Harper’s priorities: get tough on crime, hold the line on taxes, and increase military spending.  So why bother? 

The report sets out in specifics what a humane, decent, and potentially effective approach to some major social problems might look like. 

The experience with the NDP government strongly suggests that even a federal NDP government would back away.  Yet, if one throws enough darts at the board, maybe one or two will eventually hit the target.

Another possible explanation for production of the report may be the role that the Senate sees itself having, that of giving serious consideration to important societal and governmental concerns.  They not only do a report but they also activate others by providing hearing opportunities to concerned groups and organizations. 

Senators may also revel in the greater independence that they have in the Senate than in the House.  (Segal never served in the House, but Eggleton did.)  They can get away with saying things in the Senate that their leaders would not have permitted in the House, especially in the case of  Conservatives on the leash with control-freak Harper.  So now that they can kick over the traces a bit, why not?

As mayor of Toronto, Eggleton promoted a substantial increase in social housing, but as an MP he did not cut a particularly radical figure. 

Segal has always been an active Conservative, going back at least to the days of  Premier William Davis.  He was also an advisor to Harper during his campaign. 

It is difficult to square the Hugh Segal as a loyal Harper strategist with Segal the radical advocate of eliminating poverty, something that is total anathema to Harper. 

Now that they are less beholden to their respective leaders, are they making up for a guilty past, or in Segal’s case a guilty present?  After all, as well as a Red Tory staking out ground to the left of the NDP, he is also a Harper loyalist.  He is a supporter of a Prime Minister who is totally opposed to all the social programs he supports.  Will the real Hugh Segal please stand up?

Reuel S. Amdur is a freelance writer living near Ottawa.

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