Conservatives and the Canadian precariat

A coupe of years ago I wrote about “Populism and the Canadian ‘Precariat’” and I suggested, quoting others, that “social chasms defined by the concentration of wealth at the top of society and, for everyone else, by economic pessimism and stagnation; by a comfortable feeling on one end of the societal teeter-totter, and a fear on the other end that a subscription to the middle-class dream might no longer be available” have formed, here in Canada, and I noted, too, that “Stephen Harper suggests that 21st century Conservatives need to broaden their appeal from their traditional small town, main street and suburban base and reach out to the larger, disenchanted, working class … which some analysts suggest is exactly what Donald Trump did.

I believe that the Canadian precariat those ~ generally defined as working class, the people Justin Trudeau says are working hard to try to join the middle class ~ perched, precariously, near the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder, always just one or two pay cheques away from poverty and even homelessness, is still growing, and I think there has to be a national effort to slow its growth and start to shrink it. I also, said, in another post, that Donald Trump persuaded the American precariat that he was wiling to wage a destructive trade war with China to try to redress the dignity deficit which is one of the worst effects of being stuck, trapped in the precariat.

Experts can tell us where the Canadian precariat lives ~ there is plentiful data based on income by postal-code that is readily available. They appear to live, mainly, in parts of urban centres and in some suburbs. They often live in what used to be solid, middle-class inner suburbs, originally built around steady, unionized jobs. But those jobs, for good economic reasons, went to Asia and, to a far lesser degree, Latin America. I don’t think they’re coming back, not in large numbers, anyway. It’s not just that South Koreans and Filipinos work for less than Australians, Brits, Canadians, Danes and the Dutch, French and Germans, it’s that they often work smarter, too. While I applaud Jerry Diaz for getting GM Canada to reopen the Oshawa plant, I suspect that he, like Robert Lighthizer (link in paragraph above) are trying to restore ‘old jobs’ when they should be looking to create new, better ones. In the best car plants in South Korea, workers don’t assemble cars, they tend and maintain and supervise the machines that assemble and then paint the cars …

… and no, they don’t have university degrees, but their public education system produces people who can work with technology, not be replaced by it.

While 2,000+ jobs in Oshawa are welcome, and again, BZ to Jerry Diaz and GM Canada, Canada needs tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of good new jobs. Right now the precariat is, too often, a family ~ and not often an immigrant family ~ who are working three jobs, all at or near minimum wage, scheduled, as well as they can be, to allow one parent to be home with a child, because child care is too expensive fo the Canadian precariat. None of those jobs has a pension or even one tiny iota of job security. A two parent precariat family working three minimum wage part time jobs and working for 50 hours a week, makes less than the low-income level for a three person family, in most urban and suburban centres. That’s why I say that they are trapped. They want to work; they want to make a better life for the children; they don’t want to accept, much less rely upon social assistance; but they need some help.

That is one of the reasons I encourage Conservatives to consider a near-universal basic income system built around a negative income tax. It would be hideously complex to negotiate because it would need to replace a plethora of national, provincial and even local social assistance programmes and it would require a total buy-in from all provinces ~ although some way could always be found to let Québec issue cheques with blue fleurdelis on them rather than red maple leaves. But, a properly run negative income tax system ~ and I acknowledge that the problems are many and varied ~ would always ensure that those who work are always better off than those who do not work and it would include the precariat who are often excluded from other, often overly generous, social programmes that are attempting to solve problems not related to income.

I don’t have any answers about how to really solve the crisis of the Canadian precariat, if I did I suppose I would be leading a political party, but:

  • First, I assert, on what I believe is very firm ground, that it is crisis ~ over 3 million Canadians (that’s 8.5% of us) live in poverty, and many of them are working, many more working Canadians are near that poverty line. That’s a crisis; and
  • Second, we have a hodgepodge of federal, provincial and even municipal social assistance programmes, some of which are designed to alleviate poverty and others of which use money to try to address other social and mental health issues. Some work, some don’t. Some are, arguably, too generous, some are niggardly. Some are efficient and effective, some are … well, you can see the results on city streets.

Therefore, it seems to me, we ought to take some action. We ought not to just look on, shaking our heads in sadness.

The 21st century Liberal Party, it seems to me, just looks away and goes, “tsk, tsk, so pitiful, someone should do something.” I believe that the Conservative Party can and should do better. I believe that it must be possible to craft a suite of polices that do more of what Jerry Diaz did and make Canada an attractive place to build the sorts of enterprises that create good new jobs for ordinary Canadians. I believe it must be possible to cooperate, federally-provincially, and develop national programmes that help those in need. I believe that the growth of the precariat must be and can be slowed and stopped and that while there will always be a “working poor” class, it should be less worrisome because:

  • Many of its current members will have climbed a notch up into the working and lower middle classes; and
  • Some of the non-working poor will have found jobs that do not mean that they make less than social-assistance pays.

I don’t believe my dream of a more prosperous Canada in which the effects of poverty are ameliorated by good, sound public policy choices is, somehow, “unConservative.” It seems to me that the Conservative Party of Canada needs to assemble a coalition of rural and small town Canadians and working and middle-class suburban Canadians who all want better lives for their children. Leave Big Money/Bay Street and Big Labour (including civil service unions) and so on to the Liberals. Main Street values and shopping-mall values and support for hard-working families is the key to victory.

Main Street values include better managed immigration, securing our border, balanced budgets, law and order, including not blaming urban gang violence on farmers and hunters, and doing something useful and productive about global climate change. And, to round out a Conservative platform, pollster Nik Nanos says that Canadians are concerned about international security and defence, too. He says that in a poll taken in August “the top international threats identified by Canadians included China (22 per cent), the United States/Trump administration (17 per cent), cyberattacks (10 per cent), terrorism (7 per cent), trade wars (7 per cent) and climate change (6 per cent).” When it comes to the defence budget he found that “only about one in six Canadians (15 per cent) want less or much less defence spending. Four in 10 Canadians want more (10 per cent) or much more (31 per cent), while another 39 per cent want spending to stay at current levels.” Those are, it seems, to me, all pretty good Conservative positions.

Some will suggest that I am arguing for a more populist message, something I have railed against since John Diefenbaker and Preston Manning and, more recently, Donald Tump, and to the degree that populism means having the people’s needs and wellbeing at heart rather than just appealing to their fears, then I suppose that I am. As I said the other day, this is not an old-fashioned “left” vs “right” issue. It is, mainly, a matter of seeing what ails Canada and making common-sense, Conservative proposals to fix things for the benefit of the mainstream: the working and middle class folks who can deliver a majority government.

Published by Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.

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