By Terrance Hunsley
The Government of Canada discussion paper, Towards a Poverty Reduction Strategy, asks for suggestions on how the federal government can align its poverty reduction efforts better with efforts of provinces, territories, municipalities and communities. It also solicits suggestions on how it can encourage ongoing dialogue with other governments, community organizations, businesses and academia about poverty reduction.
I have a suggestion:
The Government of Canada should invite other governments to agree on a national objective – a goal – to achieve a specified reduction in poverty levels over the next ten years. This could be an optimistic, but achievable objective – let’s say for example, a 50% reduction based on the LIM (Low Income Measure). As all governments including first nations governments have a role to play, they could all be asked to sign on to pursue this “Canadian Goal”. In doing so they would be agreeing to have their collective efforts evaluated each year, hopefully by Statistics Canada or by a special purpose agency or observatory to monitor social well-being and programs.
To make this a truly national effort, public institutions, civil society, community organizations, labour unions and businesses would also be invited to formally ratify the goal, thereby agreeing to help in its attainment and to review progress and their own role, in their annual general meetings.
Of course, income is not the only problem that vulnerable and marginalized people face, and other services and supports also need to be improved. However, income is currently our only consistent measure. Increasing incomes at the lower end of the scale would have a transformative effect on quality of Canadian life.
A common national goal would help to align efforts locally, provincially and nationally, while respecting organizational mandates and constitutional jurisdiction, and would promote a continuing national dialogue. Moreover, if the goal were to be achieved, there would be real and well-deserved national pride in the accomplishment. This would be a fitting goal to launch during Canada’s 150th year.
So why a national goal or objective?
Democratic governance seems to be moving, albeit inconsistently and with frequent setbacks, toward more involvement of evidence in policy making and more consistent and timely evaluation of policy performance and outcomes. Traditionally, governments have been more than willing to report on new initiatives and policy improvements. However, there tends to be reticence to having their performance evaluated. It puts an edge on accountability. And when multiple jurisdictions are involved, clear policy goals, performance measurement and accountability are a real challenge. Canadian policy history is replete with incidents where one or another government has tried to offload its financial liability for particular problems or programs onto another government, rather than concentrate on improving the situation which brings about the problems in the first place.
The European Union, in trying to coordinate efforts of multiple orders of government, has developed a system called the Open Method of Coordination. This involves developing broad consensus on EU level goals, and for member nations to define national objectives consistent with those goals. The discipline of doing this provides a common frame of reference which makes it easier to consistently measure progress and performance. It does not necessarily ease inter-jurisdictional competition, and it does not provide the EU with enforcement powers. But it does help to establish consistency in dialogue and continuity in measuring progress, and it provides an opening for civil society to play a role by insisting on accountability.
National goals can be useful in situations where different jurisdictions, or changing configurations of political leadership, are being encouraged to measure and guide their efforts consistently over time. They may be adopted by members of a military alliance such as NATO, establishing a common objective for proportion of GDP spent on military. They may serve as guides for nations signatory to international accords such as climate accords. The objectives may not be enforceable, but the important thing is that they take on public legitimacy and the measures, being consistent, are broadly understood.
The UN Millennium Development Goals established targets for poverty reduction and improvements in education, child and maternal health, gender equality, etc. Consistent measures were adopted, and when in 2010 it became clear that several goals would not be achieved by the 2015 target date, increased efforts were introduced. Canada played a role in that increase with efforts directed at maternal and child health. Clearly the adoption of these goals did not guarantee success. But they did contribute to broad measurement and knowledge of progress or lack of it, and that in itself is helpful.
In Canada, national objectives were part of the proposed and rejected Charlottetown Accord. National objectives were to be negotiated in conjunction with a reduction in conditionality of federal transfers to provinces, and of federal intervention in areas of provincial jurisdiction. The idea died with the Accord. Some basic principles of social policy, such as common quality of social programs, right of mobility, and the guiding principles of health care, were integrated into a follow-up effort – known (or perhaps better said, little known) as the Social Union Framework Agreement, signed by governments of Canada, the territories and all provinces but Quebec, in 1999. But national objectives per se were not included.
It could be said that our constitutional commitment to equalization is guided by a national objective that all provinces can provide reasonably comparable levels of public services at reasonably comparable levels of taxation. I would argue that that objective has served us quite well, and transfers for purposes of equalization enjoy broad public support throughout the country. In social policy we have had few if any, formal national objectives, with the possible exception of the standards adopted by the federal government and the provinces for CPP benefits. These standards are highly regarded in Canada and when in the early 1990’s it became apparent that CPP contributions should be increased to maintain the standard over time, that increase – a substantial increase – was accepted by Canadians with hardly a whisper of complaint.
On the other hand, a few years back, the ESDC department under an earlier name, made a presentation to a parliamentary committee looking at Canada’s commitment to reduce poverty. The report consisted of program description after program description – dozens of programs, policies and benefits – all intended to reduce or alleviate poverty. And all of them were, ostensibly, good things to do, and were probably doing good. But there was no indication whatsoever as to whether they were reducing poverty – in part because there was no agreed measure of poverty – and no assessment of the relative merits or effectiveness of all of these interventions. That remains in essence the situation today.
We do have an example of an attempt to establish a national objective to reduce poverty, which was Ed Broadbent’s motion to Parliament in 1989, adopted unanimously. I feel a particular pride in that, since I was the Director of the Canadian Council on Social Development at the time, and he began his motion by referring to CBC coverage of our recently-published Fact Book on Poverty. Well, as everyone knows, we did not eliminate child poverty by the year 2000. Nor did the motion make that into a national goal of the federation. A parliamentary motion does not have the authority to commit the government. Nor did the government undertake to provide regular progress reports. Nonetheless the goal did take on legitimacy with the public. It served as a focus for several organizations to coalesce under Campaign 2000, and it could be argued that we have nationally done more to move children out of poverty than other impoverished groups.
I was also pleased to notice that several presenters to the current HUMA Committee have called for the establishment of national objectives and consistent performance measurement.
Canadian federalism, operating through a complex federal-provincial-territorial interface with often competing fiscal priorities, can be a barrier to democratic involvement of civil society. The federal consultation paper on poverty reduction indirectly acknowledges this in seeking suggestions on how the efforts of the various stakeholders can be better aligned. A Canadian National Goal for Poverty Reduction, 2017 – 2027, could be a catalyst for doing this, and for creating great national pride in its accomplishment.
Terrance Hunsley is Editor of Politudes and a Senior Fellow with The Pearson Centre. He is a past Director General of the International Centre for Prevention of Crime, CEO of the Canadian Council on Social Development, and a teaching Fellow of Queen’s University School of Policy Studies