Province can afford to take bolder path

Lana Payne
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Our province is at a crossroads.
As the American poet Robert Frost wrote: "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference."
Unfortunately, our provincial government could very well be about to travel that worn path of failed fiscal policies and wrong-headed priorities if it doesn't catch itself in time.
The most recent budget did not embark on a bold new path. It was rather conventional in its thinking - handing out tax cuts that mostly benefit the better-off; paying too much down on the debt in one year.
It is a path that, for Canada, has resulted in growing income disparity despite booming economic expansion. Low unemployment, higher-educated workers, unprecedented economic growth and plenty of wealth creation ought to have meant a reduction in income inequality. They have not.
Policymakers and politicians in Canada's most-talked about province should be concerned by what was revealed in the latest report from Statistics Canada on earnings and incomes and the factors that have contributed to growing income disparity. It was not a pretty picture. The rich are getting plenty rich, the middle-class are standing still and the lowest income earners are falling further behind.
We need to be more than worried about growing income disparity, persistent poverty and failed policies. We need to change paths. Income disparity is not good for our country and it is certainly not good for our province.
It could be the very thing that ravishes our soul, that attacks our culture of caring, sharing, fairness and justice, that leaves our province wealthy and far too many citizens poor.
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) recently published a series of essays by a number of leading academics on the topic of income inequality and why it matters.
One of those academics is Lars Osberg, the chairman of the economics department at Dalhousie University. He says by cutting transfer payments that offset inequality and backing away from the specific needs of the least fortunate, "federal and provincial governments have helped to make Canada a nastier place. It is time to both check and change that reality."
When, as the CCPA points out, 80 per cent of Canadian families are taking home a smaller share of the economic pie that they helped make than they did a generation ago and the richest 10 per cent are 82 times wealthier than the poorest 10 per cent, something is out of whack; something is not working.
It is time to revisit the tax-cut mentality that has driven public policy for more than a decade.
Our province will soon reach so-called "have" status, but if we are not careful we will join the likes of Alberta and Ontario, where income inequality reigns supreme. In other words, the wealth isn't being shared nearly well enough.
A better job of wealth sharing could have happened in our latest provincial budget - one per cent across-the-board tax cuts will not reduce income inequality. That tax cut, combined with those announced in the 2007 budget, means someone making more than $75,000 got a tax cut of 6.7 times more than a person making $20,000 a year - $2,348 versus $350.
When the premier went to bat for our province with former prime minister Paul Martin over the Atlantic Accord and recently with Prime Minister Stephen Harper over resource revenues and equalization, it was because he wanted our province to be better off. He wanted the rest of the country to respect us and he wanted to ensure we got our fair share.
These resources, he has said, should benefit the people of our province. The benefits should also be more fairly shared.
If, after all that effort, our collective response is a set of policies that worsen income disparity in our province, then we will have failed.
We will have failed to take the road less travelled. We will have failed to have made all the difference. And in the process we may, as a society, have lost our soul as we count the billions from oil while far too many citizens can't turn on the thermostat, buy adequate food or afford a home.
We may be off equalization, but we'll be no more equal within our shores.
It is not too late. The money from oil will keep flowing for a good while yet. The question is, what are we going to do with it? There have been glimpses that this government wants to take the bold path, but it must be consistent.
We can be bold. We can build a society that treats our most vulnerable with respect and dignity. We can ensure the middle class is not stuck in neutral. We can enhance the social wage for families by creating affordable child care and housing, by building a decent elder/home care system, by making this a great place to live and work, including for newcomers.
We have the cash. All we need is the will.

Lana Payne is a former journalist who is active in the labour movement. She can be reached by e-mail at column returns May 25.

Organizations: Statistics Canada, Canadian Centre, Dalhousie University

Geographic location: Canada, Alberta, Ontario

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