|A policy plan to hide poverty, inequality|
Ottawa is shutting down public debate on issues it doesn’t care about
While the public bemoans raucous question periods in Parliament and hyperpartisan debate, a federal government plan for much more lasting damage to public debate is unfolding in Canada.
This plan is silencing the voices of those who speak against poverty, inequality and human rights violations and eliminating the information they use. It is steadily eroding our ability to even see these problems by eliminating the data sources that enable us to understand ourselves as a society.
The first piece of this plan is to abolish information that might inform the debate and document poverty and inequality. Weakening the long form census was only the most visible part of this plan; other key sources of data and research are also disappearing. For example, the Workplace and Employee Survey, which asks employers about the availability of health-related and pension-related benefits, has been discontinued.
The Survey of Financial Security, which tracks levels of assets and debts across income groups, age groups, family types and regions, has been discontinued. The National Council of Welfare that produces important reports on welfare incomes across Canada, and tracks the levels and depth of poverty by province, has just been eliminated in the budget.
Important information on pensions, health benefits, income and asset distribution, and levels and depth of poverty and inequality has been lost.
The second piece of the federal government plan is to cut funding to groups who might speak out and use such data to illuminate poverty and inequality among us or to speak to the human rights implications of government legislation. Cuts to the research arm of Status of Women Canada was a first step and this has been followed by a stream of cuts to NGOs which go beyond charity to inform and advocate on behalf of the poorest of this country and the wider world.
The growing list includes Kairos, a coalition of churches working to alleviate global poverty and protect human rights; Mennonite Central Committee; and the Catholic organization, Peace and Development. Candidates next on the list are likely to be groups advocating for immigrants and refugees. Funding cuts and increased surveillance by Canada Revenue Agency on the advocacy work of registered charities announced in the recent budget add to the atmosphere of fear and reprisal.
The third part of the plan is the cultivation of a political climate that is disdainful of public debate and of those who seek to stimulate it.
Canada has had governments previously that did not care about inequality but never one as intent on silencing all debate on the topic. In a 2007 speech, Prime Minister Stephen Harper signalled the thinking behind his government’s actions. He lumped public and private interests together under the term “lobbying” and decried them both.
He referred to corporations as vested interests, people with money to hire lobbyists. He described public interest groups as vocal interests, the defenders of fringe groups who have time to stage protests. The vested interests have money, the vocal interests have time. Contrast these two groups with the prime minister’s model citizens: “hard-working people who didn’t have the time to stage protests or the money to hire lobbyists.”
This third part of the plan portrays activists in the minds of Canadians as nothing more than idle children engaging in self-interested temper tantrums.
The antipoverty activists I know work tirelessly, for low pay and with insecure agency funding in the face of increased need. They keep at it because they believe we are all diminished when there are some among us who do not have access to an adequate standard of living.
Perversely, such advocacy and public interest groups, such as the Child Poverty Action Group, find themselves lumped together with private business groups, like Canada’s chemical producers. What gets deliberately lost in equating them is that public interest groups are advocating for the common good, not lobbying for private benefits. Lumping private lobbyists and public interest groups together suggests there are only private interests.
The Harper government needs to stop treating its relationship with Canadians as if public debate was an irritation to be ignored or snuffed out. It’s a sign of political maturity to share public space with people who speak out on the impact of public policy on the most disadvantaged in society and to enable those groups to participate in the conversation.
Canadians need to recognize these deliberate steps to silence debate for what they are and speak up to preserve the public space to speak to government about vital issues like poverty and inequality.
Stephanie Baker Collins is an associate professor at McMaster University School of Social Work and a member of McMaster Community Poverty Initiative