NDP Leader Jack Layton traces rising levels of inequality in Canada to the 1995 federal Liberal budget. That’s when then–finance minister Paul Martin abolished national standards for welfare and sharply reduced transfer payments to the provinces.
During an October 12 interview at the Georgia Straight office, Layton said that the Liberals realized in the 1990s that they could cut programs, take surpluses out of the employment-insurance fund—“about $54 billion worth”—and give huge corporate tax cuts to large, successful companies. “The result was that income inequality began to grow,” Layton claimed.
As he prepares to lead his party into his fourth federal election, Layton declared that the NDP has a “matrix of initiatives” to address the problem. He cited Vancouver East NDP MP Libby Davies’s private member’s bill calling for a national housing strategy. Then Layton mentioned a private member’s bill by his wife Olivia Chow, NDP MP for Trinity-Spadina, for a national childcare program. The NDP has another goal to increase the child tax benefit to $5,000 per child per year for the country’s lowest-income residents.
According to Layton, this will mean that “kids aren’t being raised in a situation where the food from the family has to be from a food bank”. As well, he brought up the NDP’s desire for legislation to strengthen the federal government’s role in postsecondary education.
At that point, Chow piped up that the average level of student debt in Canada is $38,000. This elicited a comment from Layton that this is “absolutely outrageous”.
“Of course,” he added, “it means a lot of people then don’t go to school in the first place, don’t go out and get that extra education, and thus, that exacerbates the inequality situation that we’re facing.”
The NDP’s plan is to require the federal government to have a role in postsecondary education, just as the Canada Health Act ensures that Ottawa plays a role in shaping the delivery of health care. “There is nothing like that for postsecondary education,” Layton said. “We believe that is the first step.”
Then the question becomes: what form will this assistance take? “We think you’ve got to move away from these loan programs and put money into grants,” the NDP leader said. “Because when you look at how much money a student pays back—taking into [account] the interest and the number of years they’re paying it back—they’re paying more in interest for the original up-front money. That’s ridiculous. So, you know, it’s a program that’s producing revenue from students rather than a program making it possible for students to get an affordable education.”
One of the NDP’s most ambitious plans to tackle inequality is to double payments under the Canada Pension Plan. This will occur over a “period of time”, according to Layton. He pointed out that more than 250,000 seniors in Canada live in poverty.
“They raised us all,” Layton said. “They fed us all. They built our communities. They shouldn’t be living below the poverty line and going to food banks when they’re in their 70s or 80s.”
He acknowledged that this would require gradual increases in premiums for workers and for employers, who must match the contributions. He joked that these increases would be fairly modest compared to the management fees that some people pay for their registered retirement savings plans.
“It would be better putting it in a common pot where the administrative costs are much less—and it’s also less vulnerable to the cut-and-thrust of the gambling game that’s known as the stock market.”
When asked how he would pay for all of these measures, Layton replied that nobody is expecting an overnight miracle, and his party will pursue a step-by-step approach.
Then it was Chow’s turn to speak about some of the government expenditures that she disapproves of, including $16 billion on fighter jets, $9 billion on new prisons, $1 billion to host the G20 summit, and $130 million on government advertising. “There’s a lot of money out there,” she suggested.
What do you think of NDP Leader Jack Layton’s plan to double payments under the Canada Pension Plan?
“I think that the government needs to significantly increase its payments, in order to meet the needs of the increasing number of seniors who live below the minimal threshold amount of $17,000 a year. We are facing a crisis of an aging population without the ability to support themselves.”
“We 100-percent support this. We’ve met at least four or five times with the provincial government to talk about this. It’s a national campaign. It’s got the support of a number of provinces across the country.”¦I think this [provincial] government is leaning toward supporting it too, because it just makes perfect sense. People are falling off from their pensions.”
“CFIB has taken a position opposed to an increase in payroll taxes at this time. The main reason is that many small businesses are just now starting to come out of the recession.”¦They’re using their homes and their retirement savings to hang on to their businesses and to keep people employed.”
“I’m not sure why Jack would propose that. I think that’s a very poor idea. It would constitute an additional burden for each employer for carrying employees. If I understand correctly, what he’s put forward would actually have a negative impact on employment overall because that would create an additional burden for small business and it would reduce the paycheque of every employee.”
“I can see the pros and the cons to doing this, but when I think about our life span getting longer and yet our infant mortality [rate] not improving, I would think about expanding or strengthening”¦the area of a national childcare system and start investing in our citizens in their youngest years before I would strengthen a program for seniors.”