The announcement by the Alward Conservatives that they will be taking away a promised raise for the lowest paid workers in the province should be a sign to New Brunswickers that this will not be a government constrained by basic concepts of honesty, fair play or compassion.
With any new government, people rightly want to give them the benefit of the doubt. The first few times that campaign promises were broken, people frequently chose to believe that commitments would be delayed while government learned the ropes or evaluated its options. Even when the Alward Conservatives delayed a promised boost in health benefits for people working but stuck in poverty, and vision care for their children, folks like me who worked passionately for the poverty reduction plan were somewhat muted in our concern.
After all, David Alward sat right in the room, along side dozens of citizens, including people living in poverty who told all of us politicians how much they were counting on us to justify their faith in the process and keep our word. He looked those people in the eye, the moms and dads who put aside their fear and skepticism to sit next to political and business leaders and tell us what it was like to struggle to escape poverty, he told them that he would keep his word. He heard what I heard, that people living in poverty who came had told so many people that they weren't crazy to believe things could change, and he saw the tears that were shed by people who were desperate to believe that their stories had really led to change, to a little bit of a better deal for the families who live in poverty.
And he signed the covenant on poverty, and he told the media and the people who had worked on the plan that this was a plan beyond politics, and he would deliver.
Today, I'd ask all those who have downplayed the other broken promises, who have tried to describe them as politics as usual or the result of a tough job, what excuse can there be for Mr. Alward breaking this promise to some of the most vulnerable people who counted upon the most powerful politician in the province to have their back?
Can you really buy the excuse that canceling the minimum wage hike is to provide for consultation? Really?
If you buy that, you have to ignore a lot of facts. Like the fact that the minimum wage hike resulted from a poverty reduction plan that heard from 2000 New Brunswickers in over a dozen public meetings, and was negotiated among 60 citizens and both political parties in a two day final forum?
In fact, in voting for the act to implement the plan, Mr. Alward himself said in the Legislature "...unlike the secret deal to sell NB Power, the government actually listened to New Brunswickers in developing this plan. That is why the Opposition fully supports this bill...."
So, it isn't just that I say there was consultation. He said it, too.
Can you believe that there's a need for more study? I can tell you that Mr. Alward sat at that final roundtable, and there was a full debate over the pros and cons of raising the minimum wage to a level more like other provinces. The option of a two-tiered wage was debated. And the consensus, including the advice from business leaders, was that the level set was the right balance.
Having heard all this, Mr. Alward could have, of course, told people there and in the media that he didn't agree. He could have said he wanted to hear from others, and reserved the right to make a decision.
But he didn't do that. He signed the document. He got his picture next to Premier Graham's as supporting the deal. He sat and accepted the times I praised his party for having put these issues beyond debate.
He didn't once express even a doubt or desire to reflect then.
Can we believe that this is a tough choice brought on by deficits? Really? After all, attacking the government's decision to run deficits to keep services and jobs flowing during a recession was a centerpiece of Mr. Alward's campaign. In March 2010 his party web site placed a huge debt clock front and center, and Mr. Alward spoke of the need to "rein in runaway Liberal spending".
Five months AFTER condemning that spending and sounding the deficit alarm, he signed the deal and even called upon government to move MORE quickly on implementing the plan.
So, how can we believe he signed the deal without there were deficits, when he signed it five months after pledging to balance the books?
How can we believe that he did anything other than lie to the most vulnerable people in the province.
Liberals and progressives, and anyone who sees the fiscal sense in getting people off welfare and into the workforce, should be prepared to have a real debate. It isn't good enough just to point fingers and say "ha, ha, the Tories screwed up". We need to explain why the policy was important then, and why it matters now.
What we learned from people living in poverty was that the rotten deal we give our lowest wage workers keeps people trapped in welfare. After all, you can't get social assistance until you give up all your assets, sever your living arrangements and exhaust EI. Then you get a small amount on which to live.
Yet if you get a job, you often lose your help for health benefits, child care and housing, and you're worse off than you were on social assistance. Not because welfare is to generous (it was, when we started, the lowest in Canada). You're worse off because (when we started) we had the most miserly minimum wage in Canada.
That raise may seem small to a guy earning the Premier's salary, but to a single mom trying to raise kids on nine bucks an hour, another forty bucks a week matters a lot.
We pay more costs keeping people on welfare than the small increase will cost business. And having people outside the workforce hurts our ability to attract businesses here, and means more kids grow up in homes that don't model the value of work. The tax burden of poverty alone is a big cost to business than the minimum wage hike, which is why business leaders supported it.
If we want people to leave welfare for work, then entry level work can't be inhumane. And at a time when many blue collar jobs are shipped overseas, we shouldn't be denying service workers a chance to earn their way, with tips and hard work, into the middle class.
Minimum wage opponents never do find a North American correlation between minimum wage levels and employment (it doesn't exist -- some high minimum wage US states have low unemployment, and some states with no minimum wage still have high unemployment). They never do explain how we move people off welfare with the lowest minimum wage in the country.
They do offer some fake objections. They argue that it isn't alone a cure for poverty -- except no one is suggesting that it is, because it is part of an extensive plan. But surely this is a odd argument, that because something is only part of a solution we shouldn't do it. That's like arguing that a hockey team down 4-1 shouldn't score a goal, because one goal won't tie the game.
We need to make the argument, forcefully, that getting people into the workforce requires work that allows a certain level of dignity, and making that first step too fraught with poverty will cost us more in the long run with higher welfare costs and families trapped in a vicious cycle. And we need to demand that Premier Alward give us his plan, since he has rejected the advice of 2000 New Brunswickers, for lowering the number of people in poverty.
And we need to stop making excuses for this betrayal. Premier Alward has begun his deficit reduction by attacking school kids and the poor. If this is not meanness of spirit (and I still hope it isn't), then it is simply an act of weakness-- faced with tough choices, this premier defaults to attacking those least able to fight back.
If we Liberals can't rally enough to fight back on their behalf, then we can never call ourselves a party renewed. I still believe that the Liberal Party will have the courage to fight this fight.