As government and our society responds to the crises created by Covid-19, we’ve seen governments at all levels take actions that would have seemed completely unthinkable just a couple short months ago. 75% wage subsidies, commercial rent subsidies, billions for medical equipment, companies shifting from production car windshields and hockey helmets to protective gear for health care workers and more. We’ve seen a massive response that could easily induce feelings of whiplash for some out there. It’s what’s been necessary in the moment, and almost everyone agrees on that point.
But this movement in policy has been harder for some on the political spectrum to wrap their heads around. Just as witnessing Doug Ford’s response to this crisis has been hard for many progressives to figure out, many conservatives out there are having just as hard a time getting their heads around the policies that have been necessary at this moment. It’s a moment when people have been reminded of the value of government and social safety nets, so I can see why some conservative politicians are struggling with seeing a resurgence in these feelings.
It was with that in mind that I read a piece out today by John Ivison of the National Post, one that’s had many progressives out there upset. That piece speaks to a view out there, one that I’d like to rebut here, but before we do that let’s start with the press conference that Mr. Ivison quoted in his story, the words that launched the ship of this debate:
Oh yes, how unsurprising it is that a debate such as this would start with the words of one Pierre Poilievre. As much as I respect MPs for the work that they do, I have to admit it’s a little hard to stomach hearing this particular MP go on about the moral hazards of government benefits when he’s spent his entire adult life benefitting from a generous MPs salary and had already earned a gold-plated pension long before he turned 40. The fact that he and I are the same age drives that point home more to me, as I see my own RRSP’s take a beating during this hard period while his pension is protect and growing, completely shielded from the rumbles of the markets.
His point comes back to one that Conservatives have been making for generations, a claim that has been dubious for just as long; government assistance stops people from working. Or, as Ivison put it in his column, “some workers might prefer to sit on their duffs for the next three months, pocketing $2,000 a month, rather than going back to work when called by their employers.” That’s a trope as old as they come and it’s not shocking to see it come from the pages of the National Post. And under normal circumstances, those words probably wouldn’t bother me as much. Yeah it’s an ugly stereotype to paint, but when it comes to conservative rhetoric, it’s par for the course. And it’s not like these programs are perfect. There are issues with them and they should be more flexible, I believe that most would agree with Ivison on that, myself included.
But here is where my issue comes in; it’s the timing of those words and the reality that’s being exposed here that’s being pushed aside. We’ve seen millions of Canadians lose their jobs in the past month, with more surely to come in the near future. This is a hard time for many and frankly most don’t have an option to have a job to go back to. So to paint people receiving these benefits with such a broad brush isn’t fair to the vast majority of those receiving them. I don’t think that was Ivison’s intent here, but invariably that’s what tends to happen when people make broad, sweeping statements about these kinds of things.
Also the comments about people “choosing to stay home instead of work” does fall rather tone deaf in this moment, which is part of the reason why the Conservatives are struggling to be seen as serious right now. If we do the math, if someone were able to have the CERB for a full year (which isn’t the case now, but bear with me) that would make for an annual salary of $24,000. What Ivison is pointing to here is part of the problem. How about the problem isn’t that people could get a benefit that pays $2,000 a month, but instead is that the job that they would normally work doesn’t even pay that much? You’re talking about hectoring people for choosing to live in poverty over really bad poverty, if that what was actually happening.
And when it comes to the other parts of the equation in this decision, there is more to consider here than just salary. Think how many of these workers, earning minimum wage, are the same people we are now calling our heroes. They are working as cleaners in hospitals, nursing home attendants, in grocery stores and other front facing retail positions. So you’re not only expecting these fine people to work for less money than the government benefit is, you’re asking them to put themselves at a greater health risk. Oh, and not to forget the increased risks that get put on their families too after the come home after a long day of working those jobs. There’s a lot more to this than money, which again points to the problem not being someone wanting to “sit on their duffs” and moral hazards. It’s a matter of crap pay and high risk to one’s health.
In this crisis we’ve seen a greater recognition of just how wrong that situation is and the value in paying our new heroes more. That’s why we’ve even seen fiscal conservatives like Doug Ford move to raise the pay of some of these low-paid front-line workers by $4.00 an hour. So where Doug Ford has gotten the moment and where the people are at on this, his federal Conservative cousins in Ottawa are missing the boat again, which has come a theme of the past month or so.
So in closing, I get why some people read Ivison’s piece and got upset. There are some phrases there that could easily trigger some, but I took his piece as echoing the voices of Conservatives in this moment. The fact is that we have Conservative MPs in Ottawa who still can’t get their heads around the fact that what the people need right now, what the country needs right now, is exactly the kind of thing that have fought against for four decades. Or in the case of Pierre Poilievre, the things his party has fought for since both he and I were in our first diapers. This is not a case of moral hazard or the recipients being the problem. This is a case of people realizing that front line workers making minimum wage is the real problem, and the federal Conservatives not catching onto the fact. That’s a problem for sure, but it’s not the one identified in this piece from a fine columnist today.