When Is A Conservative Not A Conservative?

Today we learned that Rights and Democracy — an agency established by Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1988 to monitor human rights and democratic development internationally —  has been terminated. The closure follows similar shutdowns by the Harper Conservatives of organizations that bear witness to these trends internationally, such as KAIROS and the Canadian Council for International Cooperation. The $11 million in “savings” was not part of the identified list of cuts announced in last week’s federal budget.

But another organization, whose elimination will save the federal government a whopping $1 million, was identified in the list of organizations getting cut. It, too, effectively monitored human rights, democracy and development, but closer to home. Established by Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in 1962, the National Council on Welfare will cease operations after half a century of gathering information and providing recommendations about income security for Canada’s most economically vulnerable citizens, across the land and province by province.

Yesterday an unusual exchange took place in Canada’s Senate Chamber between two Conservative Senators, triggered by this development.

Senator Hugh Segal asks the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Marjory LeBreton, what was the rationale for the cut. The answer, in its essence: we don’t need that information anymore; we have all the information we need about poverty from other sources.

Senator Segal then asks an eyebrow-raising supplementary question (my paraphrase): are you controlling sources of information about poverty because you don’t intend to do anything about it? The answer is almost as Orwellian as the suggestion behind the question.

It’s worth a careful read.  Here’s the full exchange, verbatim:

Hon. Hugh Segal: Honourable senators, my question is to the Leader of the Government in the Senate.
Could I ask the minister if she could reflect on what might have been the rationale for the decision to collapse the National Council of Welfare as announced in our budget, the National Council of Welfare that was started originally by the Right Honourable John George Diefenbaker in 1962, a council of experts and community volunteers that offered arm’s-length advice, research, analysis and recommendations on income security issues to federal and provincial governments for over half a century?

Hon. Marjory LeBreton (Leader of the Government): Honourable senators, I am sure our government and all governments face decisions with regard to agencies and boards that have been in existence for quite some time. Obviously, many of them were set up at a time when circumstances, technologies and information were such that there was a great necessity.
With regard to the National Council of Welfare, we are putting our policy resources to best use and trying very hard to reduce duplication. There are now many non-governmental organizations that provide quality, independent advice and research on poverty-related issues, and we continue to take poverty seriously, as the honourable senator knows from the actions of the government. We take it seriously by investing in skills, training and support for families to ensure every Canadian has the opportunity to participate in the economy.
This particular agency, as the honourable senator pointed out, had been in existence for quite some time, but there are many organizations and groups that the government now relies on for information. It was determined that the work of this particular group is no longer needed because of the fact that we have so many other people giving us this information.

Senator Segal: Honourable senators, may I ask the minister whether the decision that the government would rely on other organizations that do not have an arm’s-length relationship with the Crown means that the government, in particular that department, is getting out of the business of researching and analyzing the various causes of poverty, some of the best practices that exist in various jurisdictions, to look for ways to improve the circumstance? If so, is it because that department has decided there is no more constructive agenda on poverty — we are doing all we can — and there is no reason to invest in any arm’s-length body that gives further advice?

Senator LeBreton: The department has made no such decision. Obviously, the issue of poverty is of great concern to the government. This government has taken many actions to address individuals and families who live below or close to the poverty line, and I will take the opportunity to outline some of them. We increased the amount that families in the two lowest personal income tax brackets can earn before paying taxes. Due to our action on taxes, a typical family now has $3,000 more in their pockets. We enhanced the National Child Benefit and the Canada Child Tax Benefit. We brought in the Universal Child Care Benefit, $100 per month to children under the age of 6, helping two million children. Budget 2010 allowed single-parent families to keep more of this benefit after tax. The Child Tax Credit is available for every child under the age of 18, which provides more money to over three million children and removes 180,000 low-income Canadians from paying income tax.
Senator Segal mentioned in a speech last week that WITB, or the Working Income Tax Benefit, helps low-income Canadians over the welfare wall. WITB appeared in Budget 2007 and in its first year helped 900,000 Canadians. I do not have the recent tabulation, but if it helped more than 900,000 Canadians in its first year, one can imagine it is well into the millions now.
While the National Council of Welfare had done incredibly good work for the government, it was one of those agencies whose time had passed, and there are now resources the government can rely on, including many of the studies done in places like this very chamber, to assist the government in addressing the issue of poverty.

Senator Segal is a life-long Progressive Conservative. There are many more like him who are becoming outsiders within their own political home.  Shutting down input and voice, including from within Conservative ranks, may end up dividing the right anew.

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