Op-Ed: Will Martin tackle 'social deficit' with as much gusto?

By Marcel Lauzière
President, Canadian Council on Social Development
(published by the Halifax Herald: January 24, 2004)

What's in a name? The answer to the Bard's question is: Plenty, if the name in question is the new spinoff ministry from the former monolithic catch-all, Human Resources Development Canada.

Although it was largely ignored in the initial buzz of the revamped government, potentially one of the most far-reaching initiatives is creation of the brand new Department of Social Development, with former Quebec culture minister Liza Frulla as its first minister.

Looking back, I'm sorry to say, it's clear that social development got lost both in the priorities of the previous Liberal government and in the maze of responsibilities that came under the HRDC Goliath. With few exceptions, such as the national child benefit, the social agenda of the last half of the Chretien years came to little more than more billions for health care.

No doubt, Canada's medicare system was in dire need of a major tune-up, but even the best, most generous health care system in the world isn't going to address all, or even a majority, of social deficits facing Canada. And it shouldn't be news that homelessness, poverty and want are major contributing factors to skyrocketing health care costs that keep swallowing ever greater portions of both federal and provincial budgets.

Despite one of the greatest, sustained economic growth spurts in Canadian history, the poverty indicators by which all great societies should be judged hardly budged in the past decade. Many will nitpick the numbers, but the latest census figures that came out in 2001 really end the arguments. They point to a society in which income disparity is growing, not falling; to stubbornly stagnant poverty rates; to an entrenching have-not new immigrant class that is faring far worse than previous generations of new Canadians; to continuing Third World living standards among First Nations people; to increasing homelessness; to still significantly lower income levels for women and ethnic minorities.

So, if Mr. Martin is looking for a vision to define his government, there is no better place to look. The problems are enormous, stubborn and longstanding. They will require not piecemeal solutions, but a broad, innovative approach because these challenges are interconnected.

I don't think I'm being naïve in saying I believe Mr. Martin is well aware of these realities and the enormous challenge they pose for his government. He has told us as much in meetings with social development advocates and he highlighted the need to strengthen social foundations in his acceptance speech at the Liberal leadership convention.

The early signals Mr. Martin is sending are encouraging. The new Social Development Department was a good early step, as was reaching out to the premiers to create a better federal-provincial working relationship. Many of these areas are under either exclusive or joint provincial jurisdiction, and nothing meaningful can occur without the participation of both Canada's major levels of government.

Another opportunity for the government is the new distinct social transfer for social services and higher education that takes effect in April, when health will be jettisoned from the Canada Health and Social Transfer to keep better track of where federal health dollars are going. What's left - the social transfer - amounts to almost $15 billion and, as with health spending, we have no clear accounting of where the money is being spent, or whether we're getting bang for our bucks.

It is true that splitting transfer to provinces could become just a meaningless bookkeeping arrangement. But it needn't be that. With political will and imagination, the federal and provincial governments could seize the opportunity to begin a much-needed policy debate around our pressing social deficits and work toward a new social policy architecture for the country. Just such a debate on health care resulted in the Romanow report, among others, and concrete responses that are still being worked through. There's no doubt the country needed to address inexcusably long emergency room lineups and waiting lists for needed surgery. Should we be any less scandalized about lineups at food banks or waiting lists for social housing?

We in the social development community are more than eager to help Mr. Martin tackle this crippling social deficit as vehemently as he tackled Canada's budgetary shortfall. That battle defines his legacy as finance minister.

Now if he demonstrates as much commitment to tackling Canada's social deficit, in effect proving that the Department of Social Development is more than just a new name in the government phone directory, he may indeed achieve an even better and more enduring legacy.


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