Only one party ignoring poverty – Opinion/editorial/Federal Election – Only one party ignoring poverty
October 06, 2008

Poverty is no longer a low-priority issue. Canadians now rank it fourth on their list of election concerns.

The economy, health care and the environment occupy the top three spots. But poverty is well ahead of crime, energy prices, tax cuts, Afghanistan and terrorism.

This is a remarkable shift. It began about two years ago and continues, despite financial turbulence, job losses and sharp warnings about climate change.

Throughout this campaign, Canadians have repeatedly told pollsters they want their next government to tackle the conditions that hold back 800,000 children, weaken communities and diminish Canada’s reputation as an enlightened, compassionate country.

Four of the five political parties have responded to this message. One has not. The Liberals, New Democrats, Greens and Bloc Québécois have coherent anti-poverty strategies. The Conservatives do not consider it a key issue.

In most respects, the Liberal and NDP programs are comparable. Both parties have set specific targets and timetables. Both have pledged to enrich the child benefit, create a national child-care system, invest in affordable housing, extend employment insurance coverage to the millions of workers who are excluded and direct special attention – and resources – to aboriginal Canadians.

There are slight differences. The Liberals aim to cut child poverty by 50 per cent and overall poverty by 30 per cent within five years. The NDP’s targets are 35 per cent overall and “more than 50 per cent” for children. The New Democrats have a better developed national housing strategy. The Liberals have a stronger plan to help new Canadians.

Both blueprints come with a troubling caveat: If revenues fall short of expectations, some measures will be postponed or scaled back.

The Green party is taking a longer-term approach. Its goal is to combine all federal and provincial benefits into a Guaranteed Livable Income. In the meantime, Elizabeth May will fight for more affordable housing, better student aid, a national child-care program and a basic income for people with disabilities.

The Bloc’s program is progressive, but vague.

As for the Conservatives, they have barely mentioned poverty. Their candidates have avoided debates on the issue. There is no reference to hunger, homelessness or poverty on their website.

In Stephen Harper’s defence, his government did introduce a refundable tax credit for the working poor in its first budget and a tax-free savings account in its second budget. On the eve of the campaign, it renewed three Liberal housing programs that were set to expire.

For Canadians who care about poverty, it is disheartening that the party with the least concern about the issue is the one most likely to form Canada’s next government.

But Tim Olafson, executive vice-president of Angus Reid Strategies, says anti-poverty advocates are having an impact. He credits them with pushing the issue onto the public agenda.

“It’s not an issue that will tip the scales of an election,” Olafson says. “But it’s a growing concern.”

This kind of progress may not be apparent at the ballot box. But it is a powerful reason to keep fighting.

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