Beyond Partisanship, the Wynne-ing way?

In Today’s edition of the Toronto Star, Leilani Farha, Executive Director of Canada Without Poverty, commented on Kathleen Wynne’s commitments to poverty in her Speech from the Throne. Here’s a look at the piece:

These are tough times in Ontario. Once an economic giant, Ontario now has one of the largest debt-loads of any sub-national government in the world. And on a day-to-day basis for many, Ontario is a province in crisis: 40% of those who suffer food insecurity in Canada live in Ontario; a job in Ontario no longer protects against poverty where 10% of those using food banks are gainfully employed; immigrants, newcomers and other vulnerable groups are over-represented in precarious employment, often working multiple part-time jobs and still not earning enough to make ends meet; social assistance recipients are living at least 40% below any accepted poverty line, and thousands of people, including many youth, are homeless, living in shelters, on the streets or doubled up with friends, and family.

These are not the living conditions we expect in one of the most advanced democracies and one of the richest countries in the world. What, exactly, is a Premier to do?

Last week Premier Wynne provided us with her road map for the future of Ontario in the form of a Throne Speech. While a number of commentators have focused on the fact that she intends to spend money – and lots of it – I was struck by something else: three concise sentences expressing Premier Wynne’s unequivocal belief in the role of government. And more precisely, her belief that government has an important and legitimate role to play in improving living conditions. In her own words: “government should be a force for good in people’s lives and it should be active where it is appropriate … The things that people can’t do themselves are where government has to be active and take a critical role”. And with this philosophical position propelling her, Wynne included in her Throne Speech road map government action to assist vulnerable groups including: youth, workers without pensions and people living in poverty.”

Canada Without Poverty welcomes the Premier’s philosophical position. We have worked to address poverty nationally for over 40 years, through difficult fiscal periods and with governments of different political stripes. Our long-standing experience tells us that poverty is created and solved by government decisions and government inaction and action. When a country the size of Canada has approximately 4 million people living in poverty (by any poverty measure), we know the cause is not that people are refusing to pull up their socks; and like Premier Wynne, we also know it cannot be solved by individuals themselves. No, we know it’s a structural problem requiring substantive government involvement, resources, vision and leadership.

Premier Wynne’s philosophical position, which she calls “activist centre”, has been derided as an oxymoron by some and labelled “left leaning” by others. But maybe it’s neither left, right nor centre; perhaps what Wynne offers us is something more neutral and principled. Wynne seems to embrace the idea that her government has an obligation to not just steward a strong economy, but also to address socio-economic disadvantage. And she’s right. Her position doesn’t have to be about political leanings or philosophical preference; whether Wynne knows it or not, her approach might be understood as simply one that lives up to what Canada and the provinces committed to in 1975 when they joined the international community and ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a piece of international human rights law which commits national and sub-national governments to take reasonable steps to address socio-economic disadvantage. By positioning hers as a government with obligations Wynne has – whether on purpose or by accident – moved us towards a human rights approach to governance, an approach that puts her on solid moral footing that transcends politics.

Wynne’s approach could change the social policy conversation. A belief that government has an obligation to take reasonable steps to address socio-economic disadvantage such as poverty, suggests that those who are poor may in fact be entitled to a higher standard of living.   In this way Wynne has stuck her neck out in a way that is rare for provincial or federal politicians these days. But as bold as this might be, it’s still just a first step in satisfying the province’s human rights obligations.

To truly use human rights to govern, Premier Wynne must present her road map as one that will lead to the fulfilment of human rights for Ontarians. To make good on this, she must articulate that socio-economic deprivation can undermine the province’s international human rights obligations and she must use the recommendations from the United Nations human rights system in her new policies. These recommendations provide concrete guidance. With respect to the ‘poverty reduction strategy’ specifically mentioned in the Throne Speech, this would mean striving to eliminate poverty by developing and implementing a plan in consultation with poor people, and including measureable goals and timelines, accountability mechanisms and a means by which poor people can claim their rights (eg: courts, tribunals, Parliamentary proceedings, local councils, the Ombudsman).

This may seem too bold, too radical or too new. But as our newly elected Premier, Kathleen Wynne has already claimed a number of firsts. We’re only asking her to claim one more: First Canadian Premier to improve the lives of all Ontarians and the economic welfare of the province by promoting and fulfilling the socio-economic rights of those living in poverty.

To read the piece in the Toronto Star, Click here.

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