Right on schedule, Ontario’s churches, charities, social activists and anti-poverty advocates issued a statement in the second week of the provincial election campaign, reminding candidates that more than a million Ontarians can’t afford food, safe housing and other basic necessities.
As usual, it received scant attention from the party leaders, the candidates and the media.
But this time, there was something different. The New Democrats, to whom the disadvantaged have always looked for support, were the least responsive of the three parties. Their leader, Andrea Horwath, is so preoccupied with winning middle-class votes, assuring the business community she would be a responsible economic manager and saving tax dollars that she has scarcely said a word about poverty, homelessness, hunger, low wages or stingy social programs.
She triggered the election by rejecting the most progressive provincial budget in decades, one that would have raised the minimum wage, increased the Ontario Child Benefit, improved welfare rates, and provided more support to people with disabilities. She parted ways with the Ontario Federation of Labour and Unifor, the province’s largest private-sector union. And she left MPPs such Cheri DiNovo, a longtime advocate of the vulnerable and marginalized, without a social justice platform to stand on. (Publicly, the Parkdale-High Park MPP is echoing her leader, saying the Liberals cannot be trusted to deliver on their budgetary commitments.)
This reconfiguring of the political landscape has left groups such as the Social Assistance Reform Coalition disoriented. They had hoped to use the election campaign to seek improvements in the Liberal budget — a $14-per-hour minimum wage (rather than $11); a 5-per-cent increase in social assistance rates (rather than 1 per cent); preventative dental care (not just emergency care) for low-income adults; and sustainable help for the homeless. But they have no champion in this election.
They didn’t expect any help from Conservative leader Tim Hudak, who went into the campaign promising to slash public spending, weaken unions, cut corporate taxes and crack down on crime. His agenda was more draconian than they anticipated, but it did contain a few tidbits for the elderly, children with special needs and families grappling with mental health challenges.
But they thought they could count on Horwath to prod Premier Kathleen Wynne from the left — only to discover that there is no party to the left of the Liberals in this election.
“We challenge both opposition parties to tell us, the people of Ontario, what exactly they oppose in the 2014 budget and how they plan to reduce poverty,” said Rev. Susan Eagle, chair of the coalition.
Horwath is following a well-worn path as Star columnist Rick Salutin pointed out last week. Like Tony Blair’s “new” Labour Party, François Hollande’s Socialist Party and Thomas Mulcair’s centrist federal NDP, she is seeking to transform her party into a mainstream alternative. She is not interested in being the conscience of the legislature or the standard-bearer for the principles of J.S. Woodsworth, Tommy Douglas and Stephen Lewis.
So far, the NDP leader has promised to reduce government spending by $600 million a year; cut Ontario’s small business tax to 3 per cent (it is now 4.5 per cent); downsize the provincial cabinet by a third; remove the provincial portion of the HST from hydro bills and hand out $100 per household rebates; stabilize the child care system with a one-time infusion of $100 million; offer companies wage subsidies of up to $5,000 to hire a new worker; raise the minimum wage by 50 cents a year until 2016; increase Ontario’s corporate tax rate by an unspecified amount and balance the budget by 2017-18.
There are still three weeks left in the campaign. Horwath could still reach out to low-income Ontarians. But at this point, she appears to be auditioning for the role of waste-buster and austerity advocate.
Tactically, Horwath’s positioning makes sense. The poor, homeless and hungry don’t vote in large numbers. They won’t boost her party’s fortunes at the ballot box. But she has left those who want a more humane, equitable Ontario high and dry.