By Ann Pappert
So we start 2018 with an increase in the minimum wage in Ontario. Many believe that it is the right thing to do and I agree. It’s long overdue. We recognize that the price of goods and services has escalated at rates well above average wage increases and many have fallen behind. Those working at minimum wage are hardest hit. The decision to raise the minimum wage is part of a labour plan called “Fair Workplaces and Better Jobs.” The plan strives to modernize labour laws and help families whose primary income is from part-time and temporary jobs (http://news.ontario.ca/m/47693). It is not, however, a coordinated, multi-pronged strategy to eliminate poverty. Since it’s assumed that most Canadians share a belief in ‘raising all boats’ we don’t want to leave anyone behind in poverty, even though it clearly exists.
Rethink Your Assumptions
One might assume that implementing this increase in the minimum wage would be fairly supported and executed. Well, it’s early days but the conversations aren’t going easy.
For some, the decision is a ‘good start’; a practical political compromise (or capitulation) ‘to do something’ in the absence of a guaranteed annual income for all Canadians. For others, it’s government failing to listen (again) to those affected by a change and again failing to include resolutions that would minimize negative impacts, in this case on small businesses. Yet for others, it’s simply not enough and never will be until they see a blueprint to reduce poverty in Canada. Until they see this strategy, their distrust of government continues. For some, there is an advantage in inertia.
Will This Eliminate Poverty?
Poverty is a big one. Eliminating poverty requires a fundamental change in housing, income, taxation, healthcare, childcare, education, food security, infrastructure and how we reconcile our relationship with Indigenous communities. Crafting a strategic action plan requires critically honest public conversations about capitalism, commerce, economics, corporate responsibility, fairness, equity and the involvement of very diverse voices and interests. These conversations would ultimately redefine how democracy is practised in Canada as no action could occur without our elected leadership openly declaring how they’ll re-prioritize goals and realign policy, accountabilities and budgets across all levels of governments.
Until a political party secures a unified majority government and decides early in its term to risk political capital (aka power) to tackle the big one (aka poverty), its best to make small gains (aka incremental policy changes) and only when the timing points to success. You can almost hear a chorus mumbling “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time” ad nausea.
The Big Elephant Is Still In The Room!
Here’s the irony. Instead of tackling the big elephants, governments are plugged up with decades of small bite-sized policies that pile up, one on top of another. Over time, these stacks become an elephant of a different problem (aka inefficiency and redundancy.) This elephant shows itself when incremental changes are rolled out in isolation of the big issue. The policy looks to have been created without the full picture, the context gained by working collaboratively across other levels of government, with stakeholders and other ministries. This is incrementalism and when used in excess, it constipates the system. If not cleared, it makes writing legislation like the new minimum wage either exceedingly complex and overbearing, or insufficient and weak. We all know this blockage exists but who wants to administer the necessary cure?
And so we instead witness the immediate effect of incremental policy changes play out in our communities. In the absence of a poverty plan, the recipients of an increase to wages are the sitting ducks for the policy, taking its’ criticisms and claims that they have a negative impact on commerce and on job security. We see workers facing off directly with their employers, pitted in an uncomfortable and avoidable conflict, demanding the fairness that the legislation was meant to provide. Many small businesses are stuck as their existing business models can’t absorb the % change in expenses. Yet we’re hearing of some who received taxpayer support via grant programs outside the Ministry of Labour.
We’re waiting to hear stories of closure; losses of local “mom and pop” businesses that were up to now, just getting by. It also appears that we may have failed our lowest income workers by not guaranteeing that their new income won’t be hit by an increase in combined federal and provincial taxes. And neither party – the workers nor the majority of their employers is Canada’s 1%.
Having openly called for the government to address the causes of poverty, many agree that we simply couldn’t tolerate a ‘do anything’ position. In the absence of the conditions for tackling ‘the big one’ with a comprehensive, wholistic approach, we got incrementalism (again.)
We all know things must change; that the context has to be made safe for individuals to step into public life to undertake issues like poverty – the big and bold challenges. We need to see our community demonstrate their willingness to evolve how democracy is practiced in order to allow for greater participation and broader ideas and views to be heard. Our public service is calling for a reboot; an overhaul of the systems of governance that weigh them down. They also look for a re-commitment by those we elect, to ensuring that their decisions are about taking care of people first, in both the short and long term.
I am optimistic that this change is occurring. For instance, Canada’s public service (aka the bureaucrats) is working to make public information more open and transparent via the #OpenData movement. The public has voiced its’ distrust and dislike for how negative politics impacts our nation and movements like Democracy Guelph are advocating for fundamental changes in how we elect our next leaders. Private business, the public sector and local communities are slowing working together to test and scale new ways of engaging more diverse voices in policy creation via #OpenGovernment. So I believe we’ll see better progress on these and many more initiatives to change how government works throughout 2018 and will continue to comment on these examples throughout the year.