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Jagrup Brar, NDP MLA for Surrey-Panorama Ridge. (Globe files/Globe files)
Jagrup Brar, NDP MLA for Surrey-Panorama Ridge. (Globe files/Globe files)

Gary Mason

MLA's month of living frugally sounds like a poor joke Add to ...

Since the first of January, NDP MLA Jagrup Brar has been hosting near-daily news conferences to update the media on his pilgrimage to live a life of poverty – well, for a month anyway.

Late last year, Mr. Brar was the lone MLA to accept a challenge that the anti-poverty group Raise-the-Rates put to all provincial legislators: Spend a month living on the $610 that a single employable person living on welfare in B.C. gets 12 times a year.

Whether Mr. Brar volunteered or lost a massive game of rock-paper-scissors in the NDP caucus, we’ll never know. That said, it was certainly a shrewd decision to plan his much-hyped poverty reality show for January – a notoriously slow news month in which the carcass of anything that even resembles a potential story can be chewed over for days by reporters.

Consequently, the news media have joined Mr. Brar for virtually every step of his journey – from the emotional goodbye to his family as he headed out the door to begin it all to his cheerless account this week of trying to find accommodations that he didn’t have to share with an extended family of cockroaches.

Mr. Brar says he spilled tears imagining those who have to live their life in such spiritless and depressing surroundings. We’ll have to take his word for it – about the tears, that is. Only six days into his adventure, Mr. Brar seems to have the media hooked – or at least on the hook to cover the story every step of the way. So to that extent, the stunt has worked brilliantly.

I realize that may seem harsh, but, unfortunately, it is true. After a month “living on welfare,” Mr. Brar won’t have a true understanding of what it’s like to be poor and raising kids and having to go out and find a job in a jobless market. In a month’s time, he’ll go back to living in his beautiful home and the comfortable life that a salary in excess of $100,000 a year affords him.

To hear Mr. Brar say, before he started his challenge, that he worried for his health was almost laughable. He is a big, fit-looking man who once played international basketball for India. Sure, he may drop a few pounds, which for most people after the holidays isn’t a bad thing. There are people on January cleanses who will lose more weight than Mr. Brar does over the same period. He will never know what it’s like to get near the end of the month with no money left and have to forgo food for the sake of kids who need it more.

And there is no one who knows that better than New Democrats themselves.

Back in 2004, Liberal MLA Lorne Mayencourt decided to spend a week living on the streets of Vancouver. The move was derided by NDP MLAs at the time as a shameless stunt by someone deciding to play “tourist” in the Downtown Eastside. The New Democrats quoted community activists who said a person couldn’t appreciate a life of true poverty unless they’d experienced it for at least two years.

When B.C. Premier Christy Clark decided last spring to don a waitress’s apron and serve coffee for a couple of hours in a bid to “walk in the shoes” of those making minimum wage, the ploy was universally derided. New Democrats damaged their eyes from rolling them so furiously.

How is what Mr. Brar doing any different?

The problem with this entire exercise is that it’s solely political. It is intended to do one thing only: embarrass the government. And I suppose people are invited to imagine how it will all be better if and when the NDP gets into power.

I’d have more respect for Mr. Brar if he eschewed crass political theatre and offered concrete solutions to a real public-policy dilemma. It’s fine to say welfare rates are too low and the life they afford good, honest and decent people is immoral. But what will the New Democrats do? How will they change welfare policy in the province to make life easier for those on it? How much will they raise the rates? And where will the money come from?

Even if Mr. Brar pledged on behalf of his party to end the shameless policy introduced under the Liberals to claw back every dollar a welfare recipient makes while on the dole, it would be more valuable than pretending to be poor.

Mr. Brar should know that it’s tough to quit poverty. Tough to fake it too.

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Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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