Conservatism and Social Entitlements

As you may have read on my “About Me” page, I had a grandmother who was staunchly anti-conservative.  In her words, “They’re only for the rich.” She truly believed this, and although she would never tell me where she put the “x” at election time, I am confident the words “Progressive Conservative” were never on the same line.

However, my grandmother was an incredibly compassionate woman, and lived her life as such.  Someone needed money?  She could always find a few dollars in her pensioner’s income to help.  Need a meal?  She’d be happy to cook for you.  Although she lived a modest life, there was always “enough” for others.

Interestingly though, she never had much patience for those who refused to help themselves.  She took great pride in that although she had not lived an extravagant life, she had never needed to live off of the state.  To her, if you didn’t have what you needed, you made do.  Born in 1908, she had lived through two World Wars and a Great Depression.  She understood what “making do” was.  And if you were able to make do, then you didn’t expect others to give their hard-earned labor to support you.

Ironically, she enunciated one of the core beliefs we have lost in Canadian Conservatism.  Somewhere in the last twenty-to-thirty years, Conservatives have begun (like Liberals) to believe that forms of social assistance are now “entitlements” as if people are “entitled” to social benefits.

When I was a young man, I was brought up to believe that going on any form of social assistance was tantamount to freeloading off of others.  Although I had the ill-fitting clothes and permanent second-hand smoke smell of the working-class, at least I didn’t have to live with this stigma like a number of my classmates.

So I look back to the 70’s, and I look at today’s society, and I wonder when it all changed?

Social assistance was always meant to be a temporary means when a family needed help getting back on its feet.  In fact, if one looks at the Employment and Income Assistance program in Manitoba, its specified goal is to:

∙ assist Manitobans in regaining their financial independence by helping them to make the transition from income assistance to work

∙ provide income assistance to Manitobans in need.

That sounds pretty good, in theory.  Help people become financially independent, and help those who have no viable source of income.  Unfortunately, government makes it very attractive for people to not become financially independent.

Earning a living on assistance:

Based on 2015 rates, a family with two children in Manitoba will receive between $1,117 and $1,261/month tax free (based on the ages of the children). With the enhancements to the CCTB announced by the Trudeau government, this family would also receive an additional $1,137/month tax free including their GST credits.  So for a family with no income, and two children under 6, they would receive $2,398/month tax free, or $28,776 annually.

Plus being on assistance entitles the recipient to other assistance that would not be available to people not on assistance.  Some examples include:

  • Ambulance
  • Chiropractic
  • Basic dental
  • Eye exam every two years, new glasses every three
  • Foot care
  • Hearing aids
  • A number of medical expenses, including prescriptions
  • Prosthetics
  • Transportation to medical appointments
  • School supplies
  • Child care (whole working or at school)
  • New beds every seven years

Of course there will be dollar maximums attached to these benefits, but I believe the point is evident.  For a family not on assistance, they get to source and pay for child care, cover off all work expenses including transportation, and get no help on these expenses of daily life.

If we said these benefits are worth even $1,224/year, this moves this family of four to a tax-free income of $30,000; this is the equivalent of the family earning approximately $38,000/year.  Granted, this is not an extravagant standard of living, but is liveable.

Just for reference, my 1999 income indexed to 2016 is approximately the same gross and net amount as stated above.  However, I paid taxes, purchased a first home (a very modest one) and also went to school full-time while working full-time so that my family’s standard of living could improve.  We lived a modest life, we worked hard, and as we were “making do”, we expected no one else to take care of us.

The trouble with these “entitlements”:

So where is the incentive for a family to regain its financial independence?  Paying benefits at these levels means that even the most financially challenged of our families can easily become ensnared in a cycle of dependency.  One parent wants to work?  Once their work income is factored out, and they pay all the additional expenses associated with working, their in-pocket cash could be lower.  No to mention any issues this could have on subsidized housing, or other benefits.

Fundamentally, the system is designed incorrectly.  On assistance, a person’s basic needs can be met.  So unless they have educational or career prospects to increase earnings substantially above the levels stated above, then where is the incentive to get off of assistance?

Futhermore, well-meaning liberal policies end up compounding this issue.  One day I heard an anti-poverty activist on the CBC discussing the quality of public housing in Manitoba.  His contention was that housing needed to be improved as it wasn’t a “very uplifting” environment.

Excuse me?

As a young man, I had lived in a variety of average to below-average apartment buildings around Winnipeg.  I hated it.  I never seemed to have enough money for anything, only bought my first $500 car in 1991, and rented until I was 29 years old.  To even be able to afford our home, while paying for me to go to school required extreme saving, the type of saving where eating dinner out is a major financial decision.  We did not have cable, satellite, or Internet.   We drove a 1986 Dodge Omni.  You could not say our lifestyle was very “uplifting”.  But we knew if I got educated and worked hard, we could make our lives better, for us and our kids.

If we had been comfortable instead; if the state had provided us with a nice place to live, and adequate funds to meet our needs, plus a bit more, would this motivation had been there?  I would venture that the day-to-day existence of someone under the current entitlements is less desparate than our was.

But from that desperation comes motivation.

So what’s a Conservative solution?

Well, paying people to stay at home doesn’t do anyone any good.  Unless someone is unable to work, providing financial disincentive for people to work is wrong.  Worst of all, it normalizes living on assistance, and sows the seeds of intergenerational poverty.  Increasing entitlements paid to low-income families to continue to have more children simply locks the family into a difficult to escape cycle of dependency.

However, the Conservative doesn’t believe in the social engineering that the Liberals typically espouse.  Don’t pay people more to stay on assistance, “pay” them more to get off of it, through review of the tax act, and revisiting income splitting for families.  Work on private and public partnerships so that businesses receive financial or tax incentives for providing on-the-job training and skills upgrading.  Expecting government to create jobs is folly; by creating the proper conditions for business, it is business who will eventually help raise the standard of living by creating good paying jobs.

Oh yes, and remove the payroll tax where applicable.  What government in its right mind taxes a company for increasing the number of people it hires.

This being stated, a Progressive also understands a modern and wealthy society has an obligation to take care of its most vulnerable.  Seniors should be able to retire with dignity, and have adequate income to ensure the necessities of life.  For those who are unable to work, we take care of them.  And most importantly, we ensure our schools both feed and train our children to be as successful as their talents can make them, regardless of their economic background.

We need to get back to what I consider the true party of the working class, the Progressive Conservatives.  Progressive Conservatism is different than Liberalism, in that we truly want people to be successful and productive members of society.  The best way to do this is through training for people and incentive for business, all to help people achieve what they can.

Although Liberals have equally positive goals for those in poverty, they instead believe in the ability of a munificent nanny state in caring for people.  So although they may temporarily improve the lives of people on assistance (like with the CCTB increase), this improvement creates complacency and dependency.  To pay for these expensive entitlements, those working pay more, and business pays more.    This stunts consumer spending, and stunts job creation.  In short, we create dependency.

So as Conservatives, we need to quit subscribing to the Liberals’ practice of paying voters to vote Liberal  with the voters’ own money.  I believe plenty of families would like a road map to escape their entitlement paradox and to improve the lives of them and their families.

Welcome to the New Canadian Conservative

Welcome fellow Conservative Canadians, or at least Conservative-curious Canadians.

For many of us in Generation X, we grew up under a Canadian political duality.  For working-class families such as mine, there were the Liberals, led by the charismatic and all-around good guy, Pierre Trudeau.  For the rich and barons of business, there were the Progressive Conservatives, led by the dry as mummy bones Joe Clark.  Of course, there were other parties, such as the NDP, Social Credit, and Marxist-Leninist, but much like today, the Liberals and Conservatives were the only two credible options.  Certainly the other parties could influence policy, but it was near impossible to conceive any of them forming a government.

Certainly Trudeau the first was an ambitious man.  He introduced the National Energy Policy.  He brought in official bilingualism, and the metric system.  He repatriated the Canadian Constitution (forcing the Charter of Rights and Freedoms through in the process, though whoops!  Forgot to get Rene’s signature there….).  He centralized the powers of the Canadian Government, and made deficit spending a credible economic strategy.  Oh, and he alienated voters in Quebec and Western Canada with his centralist federalist policies.

Voters did rebuke him once, when he was exiled to nine months of Joe Clark minority government purgatory.  However, this was forgiven in 1980, when he was given another mandate by the Canadian people (and no seats West of Manitoba).  And when he finally took his “walk in the snow” and handed the reigns over to the as-exciting-as-dry-toast John Turner, the Liberals were primed for defeat.

However, to paraphrase the immortal words of Bob Dylan (Nobel Prize Winner Bob Dylan!), the Tories, they were a changin’.  After the 1980 defeat to Trudeau, and in a bout of hubris, Clark decided having 67% of his party’s support was inadequate for him to continue, so he resigned and called for a leadership review.  The party thanked him for his party-first loyalty by electing Brian Mulroney.

As Canada became more diverse, and as baby boomers grew up, the Progressive Conservatives needed to broaden their appeal to have a hope of being elected.So we ended up with a coast-to-coast coalition of East Coast conservatives, disaffected Quebec Separatists, Ontario purples (blue and red, depending on the political climate), and disaffected Westerners.

And for a time it worked.

This coalition held together for two full elections, delivering an historical majority to the PCs in 1984, and a strong majority in 1988 (my first federal election I voted in).  There were wins and losses for the PC governments (FTA = win!  Cod = loss!  GST = win, yes it was a win!  scandals = loss!  Meech=loss!  Charlottetown=loss!), but the party’s utter decimation in 1993 ended the Progressive Conservative party as we knew it.

We were now left with three parties as direct descendants of the PC amalgam – the Bloc Quebecois, the PCs, and Reform, each a fractured remnant of the coalition that spawned them.  And despite all of the opposition, the PC party survived, though it never held more than 20 seats in parliament.  Not to state they did not still get a good chunk of the popular vote (18% in 1997) but vote splitting between them and Reform/Canadian Alliance allowed the Liberals to walk to victory in 1997 and 2000.

So as one would naturally expect (and after some major promises broken to David Orchard), the PCs merged with Reform/Canadian Alliance to form the Conservative Party of Canada.  After increasing its seat total, and helping cause a Liberal minority in 2003, the Conservatives were elected to their own minority in 2006, an additional minority in 2008, and finally, a majority in 2011.

And with every electoral step forward, the Conservatives became more socially conservative.  With every electoral step forward, the Conservatives began engaging in very un-Canadian activities, such as robo-calling in contentious ridings, omnibus legislation (which included removing health care for refugees), crippling the state-funded broadcaster, muzzling state-funded research scientists, generally abusing the civil service, and experimenting with race and religion-based politics.

After witnessing this, it became clear to me that the the Conservative Party was no longer Progressive.  The words and actions of the current crop of leadership contenders has only reinforced this (google Kellie Leitch or Brad Trost).

So as someone who grew up in an era where being Conservative did not mean one could not be Progressive, what is one to do?

Because I believe in fiscal accountability, it does not mean that I wish our most vulnerable citizens to be at risk.  Because I disagree with paying people to not work, it does not mean that government should not invest in eliminating the causes of poverty.  And although I believe government should have less a role in our lives, business alone should not be expected to provide the social safety net to Canadians.

Although the eventual fate of my blog may just be to allow me to publicly ruminate about the state of Conservatism in Canada, I want to encourage a discussion about its future.  I’d like to explore what alternatives us old progressives still have while staying true to fiscal conservatism.  And I’d love to encourage all of us progressive conservatives out there to take action for our country’s future.

Our current government spends like a sailor on shore leave, funding its public image on the backs of people fortunate enough to have made it to the middle class.  The Conservatives continue the politics of division and scientific denial.  And as it was forty years ago, there are no real other alternatives.

So I hope to update this blog weekly with my discussions, and I hope you all join in too.  At least we have three years to try and figure this out.