Hugh Segal is principal of Massey College and a former Conservative senator from Kingston. He prepared a basic-income pilot discussion paper as a volunteer for the previous, Liberal government of Ontario at their request.
Inclusive government seeking to be fair to the entire community is more easily promised than delivered. Especially when some on the far left or far right view “fairness” as a code word used by elites to camouflage pandering to various special interests.
The new Ontario government is obviously deeply challenged on the issue of fairness, especially in defining its core electoral slogan, “For the People.”
Announcements this week cancelling the basic-income pilot project that was up and running in several communities in Ontario, with thousands of volunteer participants, indicate that, for this particular brand of Progressive Conservatives, “fairness” or “the people” are terms that exclude the 10 per cent of Ontarians who live below the poverty line. These people believed the promise that they would not end up worse off for signing up for the pilot project. They have now been let down badly.
Governments change and new governments will make decisions based on the ideologies and commitments that drive their purpose. But when a party gives its word – as then-Official Opposition leader Patrick Brown gave me in 2016 and PC Party Leader Doug Ford echoed through his spokesperson during the 2018 election campaign – that it would let the pilot project go forward before judging the results (the NDP said the same), this assurance influenced those signing up.
Are the honest Ontarians in Hamilton, Thunder Bay and Lindsay now to become cannon fodder in this ideological snap back? Do ministers such as Caroline Mulroney, Laurie Scott and Christine Elliott concur with treating people this way? Or do we now have a definition of Progressive Conservative that excludes all but the well-off? Is that the meaning of what was once viewed as a populist and community-based Ford Nation? Has Lisa MacLeod defined Ford Nation conservatism as the ultimate in exclusionary “avoid the evidence” public policy? Premier Ford deserves better. And so do Ontarians.
This project, abruptly cut short, was being watched carefully around the world by business, governments, NGOs and the media. It is obvious that a failure to reduce the gap between rich and poor is a threat to a balanced economic model that accommodates growth, investment, profits and equality of opportunity. Pettifogging bureaucratic welfare systems such as Ontario Works actively discourage employment, entrap people in poverty and build no bridges out of poverty. The pilot project was testing an approach that treated those below the poverty line with respect, as human beings who can manage their own lives. It provided an automatic top-up from 45 per cent of the poverty line to 75 per cent with real incentive to work. This mirrors the Davis-era 1975 Guaranteed Annual Income Supplement for seniors (GAINS). It had bipartisan support and was then adopted nationwide. It slashed the poverty rate among seniors to less than 5 per cent from 35 per cent.
Looking at the cost of the pilot project is fair enough – but frankly, simplistic. We know that poverty is a perfect predictor of poor health and early hospitalization, bad educational outcomes, substance abuse and problems with the police – all of which cost Ontario billions. The vast majority of the guests of Her Majesty in our prisons come from the 10 per cent of our fellow Ontarians who live below the poverty line. So if the pilot had revealed that health-care usage was diminished, wellness improved, workplace participation increased, educational achievement enhanced and policing challenges diluted, how much would that have been worth? Do the Ford Nation conservatives even care to find out?
The Premier’s laudable goal to reduce “corridor medicine” would benefit from fewer people caught in the pathologies of poverty showing up at hospitals. This because they are eating better, living more balanced lives and making progress in work, education and family. We will now never know whether real reform of welfare, in favour of both humanity and efficiency, would have helped.
The non-partisan and multipartisan battle to reduce poverty, involving labour, business, banks, farmers, community volunteers, schools, the Conference Board of Canada, medical and nursing associations, public health authorities, churches, mosques, synagogues and temples, will continue despite this callous and mean-spirited setback articulated by the minister. One might have thought that Mr. Ford and his other ministers would have preferred to help. The party of Bennett, Diefenbaker, Mulroney, Harper, Robarts, Davis, Hatfield and Lougheed worked hard to make improvements that mattered for low-income Canadians. Jim Flaherty, a big-hearted Conservative finance minister, innovated the Working Income Tax Benefit (WITB) to help the working poor stay off welfare.
The new Ontario government has a choice to make: kindhearted, fiscally responsible, inclusive Progressive Conservatives or narrow-minded, deeply ideological, exclusionary conservatives?
It is an important and historic choice.