We’re in unprecedented times and everyone is trying to figure out how to operate properly during them. For some that’s much easier than others, and certain groups positions are easier to adjust than others. One group in the political sphere that finds themselves in an interesting position are opposition parties at all levels. Let’s face it, these aren’t times when the public want to hear from opposition politicians and the usual things from them.
Opposition politicians do perform an important function in any parliament, but it’s not always the easiest thing to see. In normal times, we tend to see their worst work highlighted in the media, with either embarrassing examples raised, or untimely things being brought into the public debate. In the best of times, the good work they do doesn’t get the attention that it deserves. So in the worst of times like these, when everyone’s focus is rightfully closer to how and worried more about directly tangible things in their lives, there is even less patience for the usual box that opposition parties find themselves in. That all means that Opposition parties are trying to find their best way forward, to operate in this environment without blowing themselves up, something that they have not all been successful in during this current crisis.
Striking the right balance has been key, not just in words but in tone. On the federal scene, one of the best examples I’ve seen has come from the New Democrats. They have taken a very propositional approach, putting ideas out there for consideration but also not being so demanding about them as to hold up needed progress with timely responses to the issues before us. An early example of this was their call for a 75% wage subsidy and $2,000 a month for those who qualify. While the Liberals didn’t follow their proposal 100% of the way, in approach and delivery, they did take those key goals and marry it with their original wage subsidy proposal, getting people to the same end result. And where an Opposition party might have normally whined publicly about the lack of their details being followed, the NDP stayed away from that, happy they made a difference and helped to improve things. That’s what Opposition parties should be striving for right now.
In a continuance of that approach, the NDP has now come forward with another proposal, one that I have to admit speaks to the moment while also addressing some real concerns about the current set up of things. It’s an idea that likely wouldn’t have been possibly just a month ago, but in this moment, it’s one that seems to be common sense. What is it? Check this out:
“A courage bonus”, what an interesting idea and one that’s on the mark in this moment. These days we’re seeing that some of the biggest heroes in our society, taking some of the biggest risks to help keep society going and keeping us all safe are earning minimum wage. People working in grocery stores, cleaners in hospitals, delivery drivers, truckers and transit drivers, people who are continuing to work in the face of Covid-19, allowing the rest of us to stay inside and do our part to flatten the curve. In this moment, government should be doing more to help them keep doing what they’re doing.
But being a minimum wage worker means that you face all kinds of other problems. As the Huffington Post piece on this points out, “some essential workers who earn $12.50 an hour are making less each month than the $2,000 Ottawa is giving employees who’ve just lost their jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic.” To put some of that into perspective, “hourly minimum wage across Canada varies from $11.65 in Newfoundland and Labrador to $15 in Alberta.” Here in Ontario, it’s $14 but if you’re earning that in high cost communities like Toronto, that money doesn’t go very far at all. There is a lot of stress making ends meet for those workers at the best of times, and that only increases in these.
Some employers have stepped up in this moment, with some retailers like Sobeys, Safeway, Metro and Loblaws, announcing wage increases to reflect their importance. Part of that has been in response to the United Food and Commercial Workers Union’s campaign calling for “Hero pay”, a great initiative on their part.
In response to all of that movement, NDP Finance Critic Peter Julian has put the idea of a “Courage Bonus” forward. The idea is simply: giving every essential worker in the country making less than $15 per hour a top-up on their salary of 20 % during this crisis. Doing this would alleviate a few issues. First off, doing this would remedy the odd situation where we have essential workers risking their lives for minimum wage making less than those who are receiving federal wage subsidies or the Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB). That’s not to say that government shouldn’t be doing those other measures, but it does create an inequality that’s impossible to ignore and is easy enough to address.
Also doing this would help to address the concerns and fears that so many of these important workers are facing everyday they go to work. Many of them were struggling to get by before this crisis, and that hasn’t changed. Some in their homes may have been laid off, and then there are the worries about not just their health, but the health of their families and children. Or as one retail worker quoted in the Huff Po piece stated, “Everybody is stressed out, but most of us cannot afford to quit.” That’s a terrible dilemma to find yourself in during this important moment, so this is one way that government can help.
Finally, we are in a place where government is very open to different ways and approaches to help during this pandemic. With the introduction of the updated wage subsidy, it’s no longer anywhere near as controversial for the government to give money to directly support private sector jobs. So if the government is willing to give employers who are struggling 75% wage subsidies to keep their workers hired, it also makes sense for government to give an extra 20% subsidy to workers who they have already deemed to be essential to the country. That logic may not have washed over a month ago, but now it seems like common sense.
During a House of Commons Finance Committee meeting yesterday, Julian did raise this idea and while the response wasn’t an open embrace of a yes, it was far from a “hard no” either. It seems that maybe there might be an openness to this idea, and I’d hope that this government seriously consider this reasonable proposal. In the meantime, we’re seeing a good example of how an opposition party can operate in these hard times, addressing concerns as they arise and bringing forward constructive potential approaches to solve them.