Memo to Jean Chretien: Don't go there, just don't

By Walter Robinson
web posted December 18, 2000

With word from Ottawa that the Prime Minister in his continuing search for a "legacy" is considering the idea of a cradle-to-grave income security program (read: guaranteed annual income - GAI) one is left to pose the obvious question: Who has the hidden agenda now?

Prime Minister Jean Chretien
Prime Minister Jean Chretien

Throughout the recent election it seems that most Liberal candidates and strategists were mandated to publicly mutter the words "hidden agenda" at least 30 times a day when assessing (read: criticizing) the Canadian Alliance's proposed legislative agenda for government. This is what Psychology 101 students would call projection: projecting your faults or foibles on others to mask your own failings.

Hopefully, all this talk of a non-sensical GAI program is nothing more than a trial balloon that deserves to be dutifully shot out of the sky, and quickly. There a multitude of reasons, even before the obvious massive financial costs (read: $80 billion or more annually) that this silly idea will not work.

To start, somebody should spray the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) with a generous dose of "common sense pesticide" to eradicate this wonky idea of a massive expansion of the welfare state to the detriment of taxpayers, not to mention our international standing.

Multilateral bodies like the OECD and the IMF to every bond rater on Wall Street continue to bemoan our mammoth $565 national debt and the fact that Canada lacks a legislated plan to pay it down over the next 40 or 50 years. Opening up the spending faucet for a GAI program would diminish our standing in the eyes of the international community and result in a serious downgrade of our international credit worthiness standing … oh yeah, our debt would not be reduced either.

Closer to home, the Prime Minister has no mandate to even consider such a program. After scouring Liberal Red Book Number Three five times (it was quite easy, it's a mere 31 pages), no mention of any GAI initiative could be found. And this author can not find any mention of such a program in the hundreds of media clippings that litter the CTF--Ottawa office.

The complexity of such a program in terms of its intrusion into areas of sole provincial constitutional jurisdiction is unfathomable. Some provinces believe in workfare; some don't. Some provinces have subsidized daycare; some don't. Some have unique income support training programs; others don't. Such programs are concrete expressions of provincial will and to ask the Premiers to harmonize or abandon such schemes in the interests of the PM's thirst for a legacy is simply not on. Even the mere mention of such a scheme without consulting the provinces first is a bad omen for future federal-provincial relations over the coming years as they continue to struggle to cobble together a plan for health care, not to mention a forthcoming review of the CPP.

In addition, we must consider Ottawa's track record on other shared cost initiatives. Medicare started out as a shared cost 50/50 endeavour with the provinces and we all know that the 21st century federal definition of shared responsibilities is one where the provinces raise the money and Ottawa tells them how and how not to spend it ... how equitable of them. Ditto for infrastructure initiatives: after the electoral advantage of dropping billions into roads, parks, museums and other public buildings has evaporated, so to do federal funds.

Finally, the issue of the economic plan must come into play. Even if the provinces were to come on board and HRDC could devise a comprehensive GAI program, where would the money come from? In the absence of double digit annual economic growth and $40 billion annual surpluses, it would appear that something would have to give (read: Paul Martin's $100 billion tax cut plan).

And we haven't even delved into the policy merits of whether or not a GAI type program would even work to alleviate poverty (which it won't). So Mr. Prime Minister, this is one Chirstmas gift Canadians do not need and do not want. It is as unwelcome as the winter blizzard outside my window. It's time to quickly bottom file this idea. Don't go there, just don't!

Walter Robinson is the Federal Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

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