A lesson in hardball for altruists
For a man who’d just won an eight-month standoff with the Ontario government, Frank Addario didn’t sound particularly triumphant this week.
The former president of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association was satisfied with the agreement his successor, Paul Burstein, reached with Attorney General Chris Bentley Sunday afternoon. He was relieved that the legal aid boycott he launched last spring had ended. He was glad lawyers who accepted legal aid cases would be paid fairly.
But he knew an $80 million cash infusion wouldn’t fix the fundamental problem.
“The government created a social program 40 years ago and progressively underfunded it through a series of acts of benign neglect,” he told CBC Radio listeners after the settlement was announced. “It became a program that was run through the donated services of the service providers. People (lawyers) just got fed up.”
Defence lawyers aren’t the only service providers who have fallen into this trap.
In schools across the province, teachers reach into their own pockets to feed students whose welfare payments don’t cover basic necessities.
At non-profit agencies, workers buy transit tickets, winter boots and over-the-counter medications for needy clients.
At food banks, homeless shelters and drop-in centres, staff members work overtime for no pay to cope with the demand.
At churches and charities, volunteers burn themselves out trying to help.
Most of these altruists have neither the will nor the clout to stare down the government the way the criminal lawyers did.
They try reason, rallies, press releases and letter-writing campaigns. They lobby MPPs. They request meetings with cabinet ministers. Some ask their clients to speak out on their behalf.
“We tried every other way,” Addario said. “We were reluctant warriors.”
But once the lawyers decided to fight, they were shrewd and unflinching.
Where does this leave all the other Ontarians who are using their money, time and energy to plug gaps in the province’s threadbare social safety nets?
They can try to convince the government it is wrong to exploit caregivers, service providers, front-line workers and public-spirited citizens.
They can try to enlist the support of Ontarians.
They can walk away, hoping someone else will be there.
Or they can take their cue from the lawyers (and doctors) and become tenacious fighters.
Appealing to politicians’ sense of fairness isn’t likely to get them far. They either respond with derision, as former premier Mike Harris did; or listen and do little, like the current premier, Dalton McGuinty.
Seeking support from a tax-averse public is a long shot. Ontarians are wary of any change that comes with a price tag, these days.
Giving up may provide relief to the person who does it. But it makes life harder for those left behind.
And taking the confrontational route, as Addario learned, requires strong nerves, resolute allies, a willingness to impose pain and an ability to withstand pressure.
At one point, he recounted, officials in the attorney general’s office pointed out that defence lawyers and violent offenders are a “toxic combination.” Spending more on legal aid to help two of the most unpopular groups in society would be repugnant to many Ontarians, he said.
That’s your problem, Addario said coolly.
Next the government tried honey. Four months into the boycott, Bentley announced he was boosting the legal aid budget by $15 million immediately, with larger increments to come in the next three years, calling it a “transformation plan.”
The defence lawyers examined the details, called it a good first step and continued their boycott.
Finally the government came through with an offer the lawyers could accept. They laid down their arms.
It was a fine lesson in political hardball. But most exploited altruists will be reluctant to apply it.
< http://www.thestar.com/opinion/article/757397–a-lesson-in-hardball-for-altruists >