If Canada doesn’t tackle income disparity, the economy will suffer
NationalPost.com – FullComment
Jun 11, 2012. Scott Brison, National Post
A poll reported in the National Post recently found that more than three-quarters of Canadians believe income inequality is a problem in Canada. I recently introduced a private members motion (M-315) in parliament which asks the finance committee to undertake a study on income inequality in the country. I believe that income inequality and growing inequality of opportunity have become important economic issues for Canada that represent significant threats to the country’s economy and society.
Members of Parliament shouldn’t make this a right- or left-wing issue. Mark Cameron, a Conservative and former director of policy for Prime Minister Harper, said that income inequality should concern not only social democrats or liberals but also conservatives who are concerned about maintaining public support for free markets and limited government. American Nobel Prize winning economist Joe Stiglitz says “growing inequality is the flip side of something else: shrinking opportunity.”
Inequality is growing faster in Canada than in the United States. Several Canadian economic voices, including the Conference Board of Canada, Rotman School of Business Dean Roger Martin and Bank of Canada Governor Carney, have warned that inequality could limit our economic growth and threaten sustainable prosperity in Canada.
While inequality can be very bad for society, it can also be bad for business as it has a great economic cost. The real threat to the economy and to society is when income inequality becomes so great that it starts to threaten equality of opportunity.
All Canadians benefit from good public education and good public health care, and those essential foundation blocks of equality of opportunity are key to why we are doing better in Canada than in other countries. But there are several areas where public policy can help further.
We can reform Canada’s tax and transfer system to reduce the burden on low income Canadians and help boost people over the welfare wall. The federal government could work more closely with the provinces on a national learning agenda. Improved access to early learning and child care could help all children regardless of family income get a good start.
Canadians also need more support for life-long learning with an increased focus on trades to help them adapt and train to qualify for the jobs of today and tomorrow.
Finally, aboriginal and First Nations communities have the fastest growing and youngest population in Canada. They are also Canada’s most economically disadvantaged and socially disenfranchised. If that issue is not tackled today, then it will become a demographic and economic time bomb. We have a responsibility to narrow and eliminate the gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians — and a vested interest in doing so.
The motion I introduced simply asks that the house of commons direct the finance committee to study income inequality, an issue considered important by an overwhelming majority of Canadians. Then we can engage the business community, which is dealing with issues such as retirement security. We can engage the NGO community, and everyone from food banks to faith based groups that are helping low income Canadians. We can examine what the provinces are doing. We can look at what some governments in other countries may be doing better. The reality is that we can learn from that kind of observation.
I am not naive enough to believe that a study is going to fix the problem. But as a start we need to understand it and then move toward building public policy that will address income inequality.
A year ago we lost the great Canadian business leader and philanthropist, Wallace McCain.
I believe Mr. McCain would want parliament to address income inequality because he would want Canada to continue to be a place where you can grow up in Florenceville, N.B., get some education, work hard and go on to conquer the world.
And then — when you succeed — it’s about giving back. It’s about building a Canada where you have the hope of a better life for your family, your children, your grandchildren and your neighbours’ children and grandchildren.
Looking out for the other guy isn’t just good for the soul. It’s good for business. The long term social costs of inequality and loss of opportunity are far more expensive than the measures to address it.
Besides, business should be concerned that the public could lose faith in a market-based economy if they no longer have hope for economic and social success. When people lose faith in the system, they can be drawn to class warfare, and to politicians offering economically dangerous, anti-market policies. And that could be really bad for business.
Scott Brison is the Liberal party finance critic and member of parliament for Kings-Hants.
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