By Dave McKee
“Beer and popcorn money.”
That’s how the Liberals described the childcare plan introduced by Stephen Harper’s newly elected Conservatives in 2006. Right after their swearing in, the Tories scrapped the $5 billion in early learning and childcare agreements that the Paul Martin Liberals had announced just prior to the election, and which were seen as the first concrete steps toward building a Canada-wide public childcare program. In their place, Harper introduced a taxable monthly allowance of $100 for children under six years of age.
The Liberals were rightfully (if opportunistically) indignant and, more importantly, childcare advocates and workers across the country quickly mobilized a broadly-based coalition (Code Blue for Child Care) that engaged more than 100,000 people in just two months.
Of course, $100 a month is better than nothing for families needing childcare but depending on the age of the child and the type of care this allowance generally only covered around 10 percent of costs. The plan was completely inadequate to address the need and reflected Harper’s cynical style of politics.
Fast forward 16 years and it’s difficult to not see the recently announced inflation relief measures in a very similar light.
The Trudeau Liberals are promising to double the GST credit for six months, which roughly amounts to an extra $230 for eligible individuals and $460 for eligible families. Based on StatsCan figures for the median annual income for GST credit recipients, this part of the Liberals’ plan will increase income by about one percent. At best, that’s one-tenth the amount that food prices are increasing, and it’s only available for six months.
The plan also promises a one-time payment of $500 to low-income renters to help with housing costs. Data from August shows that rental costs have increased by an average of 11.1 percent, or $196 per month. So, the government’s largesse will help for a grand total of 2.5 months. Furthermore, this benefit is only paid to people who rent their housing, so people struggling to pay for homes they own – seniors on fixed incomes, for example – get nothing.
The third promise from Trudeau and Co. is for a dental benefit of $650 per year for children under 12 who have no other coverage. Dental service fees vary from province to province, but in general $650 will cover three fillings or extractions. This benefit is only promised for two years, after which time it is completely unclear what will happen. The government and the NDP suggest that it will be expanded to include more sectors of the population, but that is far from certain. After all, the NDP-Liberal confidence-and-supply agreement only continues until mid-2025 at the outside, so this program can just as easily be taken away as expanded.
Furthermore, by virtue of being only available to people with no private coverage, this dental plan represents a two-tier system in which private for-profit providers establish the parameters with the public paying them to provide minimal care to the most desperate. Rather than provide a basis for expanding public dental care, the Liberal plan is far more likely to be the vehicle for expanding privatization and multiple-payer schemes in other areas of healthcare. Presented as a progressive breakthrough, this plan undermines the key principle of universality – which is precisely why it is acceptable to the private sector, insurance corporations and the Poilievre Conservatives.
Without a doubt, all of these measures will be welcome news for the many people who desperately need them. As with Harper’s childcare credit, something is better than nothing, but why are we asked to celebrate such minimums? At a time when the economic crisis is so deep and so broadly felt, when the need for progressive change is so great, is “better than nothing” really the benchmark we want to use?
The fact is these measures are inadequate. They provide minimal relief to a very modest number of people. They do nothing to address the root causes of inflation – there is not even discussion of price controls, action against price gouging and price fixing, or increased taxation on corporations who are raking in profits at a rate far higher than inflation. They do nothing to provide social housing with rent geared to income, or to roll back rents and control them. They avoid the issue of a livable minimum wage or a guaranteed livable annual income.
Moreover, they are all designed to be temporary. As with CERB and other pandemic income supports, there is no effort to introduce permanent changes to EI that will benefit all working people – increased payments for the duration of unemployment, coverage for all workers, elimination of workers’ contributions and restoration of government contributions.
At the end of the day, this is a business-friendly plan that the Tories themselves would introduce. In fact, it greases the rails for Poilievre to push for even broader privatization, even deeper tax reductions and even less universality.
Key programs like Medicare and employment insurance were won through years of dedicated struggle by the working class and its allies in government. The first motion for public healthcare was introduced in the Manitoba legislature in 1936 by Communist Party MLA James Litterick. It was voted down but elected communists in Ontario and in Ottawa kept pushing it while working people mobilized on the ground. This long continuing fight paved the way for the big breakthrough by the CCF/NDP in Saskatchewan in the 1960s. It’s the kind of struggle we’re facing now.
Working people in Canada need real action against inflation. To get it, they need the labour movement to lead a real fight for housing, jobs and incomes, price controls and expanded universal social programs. If the government can pony up $19 billion to purchase 88 new fighter jets and another $77 billion to maintain them, it can pay for people’s needs.
What is takes is for working people to set the bar much higher than beer and popcorn.
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