Ex-PM urges Ottawa to beef up anti-poverty measures

Edmonton.ctv.ca – servlet/an/local/CTVNews
Thu Feb. 17 2011.  The Canadian Press

The federal government has been so preoccupied with fiscal restraint and the fallout from the financial crisis that it has let domestic poverty slide off the national agenda, says former prime minister Joe Clark.

But Clark says he’s not without hope that the agenda can change — especially with some prodding from the anti-poverty group he has just joined, Canada Without Poverty.

“This appears to be an issue, one might even say an unlikely issue, where there is some apparent consensus among parliamentarians, federal parliamentarians, to do something,” Clark said in an interview Wednesday.

After some arm-twisting by former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, Clark has accepted a new role as honorary director of national advocacy group.

The group used to be known as the National Anti-Poverty Organization, formed in 1971 and governed by people who have direct experience with poverty. Clark joins Broadbent, First Nations leader Ovide Mercredi, and former Trudeau-era minister Monique Begin as an honorary director.

He hopes to lend profile to the network, supporting its work to push for practical solutions for poverty — targeting its efforts both at government and at the private sector and communities.

Clark acknowledges poverty has received scant attention from the Harper administration, and has frequently been tossed by federal politicians to the provinces.

“I would be the last to dispute the importance of constitutional issues, but they should not get in the way of addressing issues that are pan-Canadian,” said Clark, who was minister responsible for constitutional affairs in the early 1990s.

“I think one of the roles the federal government has played at its best in the past is by drawing attention to issues that, whatever the jurisdiction is, have implications for the whole country. One of the things I find discouraging about the current situation in national politics is that there is very little conversation about these things.”

But he said he is encouraged by signs that parliamentarians of all stripes recognize there is a national problem that needs to be tackled.

For proof, he points to a recent report on poverty from the all-party House of Commons human resources committee.

The lengthy report was more than two years in the making, and includes far-reaching recommendations such as developing a national housing strategy and setting up a new poverty transfer payment.

But while all parties agree that reducing poverty is important, they have all appended notes to the report stating their disagreement about how.

Notably, the Conservatives complain that none of the recommendations were costed, and that they often interfere in provincial jurisdiction.

But Clark says the basic recognition from all parties that poverty is a national problem is enough to get started.

“I think it’s a good sign. It reflects more consensus that I would have thought exists on the issue, and that’s a good thing,” Clark said.

“I think that gives us room to move.”

Still, the initial response to the report from the office of Human Resources Minister Diane Finley was to point to the provinces, especially when it comes to forming a strategy for affordable housing and homelessness.

A formal response is expected by the middle of March.

Liberal Senator Art Eggleton, who has also produced a major report on eliminating poverty, says he’s glad to have another high-profile ally.

“If we can’t get a national strategy, then relentless incrementalism will have to be the next step.”

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