Martyn Brown: Former NDP finance minister Elizabeth Cull agrees—Horgan was wrong to cut COVID funds for the poor

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      In my last article, I argued that B.C. premier John Horgan’s planned cut to the COVID-19 support supplement for B.C.’s most vulnerable citizens is dead wrong and especially unworthy of an NDP government.

      To recap, effective January 1, that desperately needed assistance for all those who receive income assistance, disability assistance, hardship assistance, the comforts allowance, or the B.C. Senior's Supplement will be slashed in half: from $300 monthly to $150. 

      And after March, even that reduced monthly grant will be entirely eliminated, regardless of whatever other measures might be announced in the April 20 budget.

      According to Horgan, those people affected by the cuts shouldn’t gripe, because at least for the next three-month period, that “Christmas clawback” will be offset by the one-time B.C. Recovery Benefit.

      Don’t bitch, he essentially argues, because “net-net” as it were, those desperately needy individuals “will have 50 bucks more as we go through the budget process and make permanent changes to reduce poverty in British Columbia”.

      Trust us, more help is on the way with the budget. Just not now. 

      Moreover, he suggests, families who are receiving disability assistance or income assistance will come out even further ahead then if he had “done nothing”. 

      Hell, their one-time “windfall” recovery benefit of $1,000 will more than offset their monthly COVID income support losses to the tune of $550, net-net. 

      Anyway, we’re “only” talking about some 200,000-plus residents who are dependent on those monthly income-assistance programs. Including more than 23,000 families with children, 60,000 low-income seniors, and thousands of persons with disabilities.

      Meanwhile, most of the other 3.5 million British Columbians who will benefit from Horgan’s vote-buying scheme will get the full net-benefit of $500 for individuals or $1,000 for families. 

      Whether they need that money or not. Even though their incomes might be five or 10 times larger than those who are struggling just to subsist on their reduced monthly assistance, inclusive of their already paltry monthly COVID supplement.

      Then again, if the government’s website keeps crashing as it did today (December 18), we all might have to work a bit harder, or wait a while longer, to successfully file our applications.

      If you were among the unfortunate ones who tried to get through online today and complete your application before getting rudely bumped off, congratulations. 

      You’ve earned one of those $5 lattes that Horgan hopes you might buy with your own borrowed tax dollars.

      Which brings me to my discussion on this issue today with former NDP finance and health minister Elizabeth Cull and Dr.(!) Norman Spector, during our weekly CBC On the Island political panel.

      You can listen to it here, starting at the 8:43 mark.

      I was chomping at the bit, ready to take Cull to task for potentially defending Horgan’s indefensible boneheaded COVID support cuts. 

      Which appear to have been inspired by Scrooge. Or maybe, by the ghosts of B.C. Liberal premiers past. Or, perhaps, by the mean one, Mr. Grinch. 

      Indeed, his theme song now stands to be Horgan’s signature tune, in the minds of the many who will be so cruelly hurt by his small-hearted actions.

      I mean, if he was trying to steal Christmas, what better way than to scoop $450 over the next three months from the pockets of those who can least afford to lose that crucial cash. Now, especially. 

      I suppose, you could add insult to injury by also vowing to entirely scrap the remaining supplement after March, without making any clear commitment as to what amount of new help will be provided in the budget.

      Ah, right. He did that, too. 

      The people most affected by the Grinchlike clawback are the homeless, who often don't have identification, let along bank accounts where government cheques can be deposited.
      Zac Durant/Unsplash

      Oh, but he would have us all believe that he is only “one voice in cabinet”, who is utterly at the mercy of his own finance minister in making the “ultimate” decision on any permanent increases for income assistance and disability assistance.

      Why, he’s no Grinch at all. 

      Rather, he’s more like that abusive green character’s helpless, loyal dog Max. Only notionally in the lead, pulling that heavy sled to which he is teathered, tumbling downhill at breakneck speed. The one now caught in a growing snowball that threatens to leave his whole enterprise hanging on a limb.

      Sorry, I’m not buying it. 

      Horgan’s the guy who’s leading the rush to snatch away half of the COVID relief “present” he dangled out with one hand to B.C.’s poorest residents in the run-up to his unwanted, ill-advised, backstabbing, and disingenous snap election. 

      And he has all the power he needs to reverse course, apologize, and restore the loot that he is planning to remove from B.C.’s most vulnerable residents.

      Back to the radio panel discussion. What happened, then, in host Gregor Craigie’s Whoville?

      Something remarkable. Something laudable. Something encouraging.

      Something that I sure hope might spur more New Democrats of Cull’s moral fibre and courage to write a new happier end to Horgan’s Grinch story, by convincing him to stand down on his COVID support cuts.

      Cull made it abundantly clear that if she were him, she wouldn’t touch his Christmas clawback with a thirty-nine-and-a-half-foot pole.

      “I have to say…sigh…I think this is a case of the bean counters overruling political common sense here,” she suggested. 

      Which was Cull’s way of trying to lay the blame for Horgan’s COVID relief cuts on faceless bureaucrats, rather than on the guy responsible.

      A good NDP soldier she, once and forever; but not one to shrink from calling bullshit, in so many kinder words, on a heartless and politically stupid policy that she agrees begs to be corrected.

      “If you do the math, you can say, sure, we’re giving with one hand and taking away with the other,” Cull continued, repeating Horgan’s lame defence. “So, at the end of March, you’re going to have the same amount of money available to you that you would if we had done nothing.

      “But, it causes stress on people who already have enough stress in their life right now. They have to apply for the $1,000 or $500 grant and that’s stressful. Some of them may not even be really aware of this, and so they won’t know until they look in their bank and see that the amount that was deposited was $150 less. 

      “I just don’t understand why the government just didn’t let it go on till the end of March as it was,” Cull continued.

      “I understand the rationale that they’ve given. But from the point of view of political common sense—and just from the people who are vulnerable and don’t have enough to live on most of the time … there’s three months of tough times to go through and we didn’t need to do this.” [Emphasis added.]


      Here's a blast from the past—former finance minister Elizabeth Cull speaking in the legislature beside her former boss, then premier Glen Clark.

      Will any other New Democrat dare to amplify Cull’s appeal for Horgan to come to his senses? 

      No? Not even Horgan’s previous social development minister, Shane Simpson? Hope springs eternal.

      Whatever. Cull’s comments alone should give Horgan all the advice he needs to immediately correct his dumb attack on the crisis support supplements for those who most need financial help in this deadly pandemic, especially in the next several critical months.

      Suffice it to say, I was a lot tougher in my subsequent condemnation of the NDP’s lame-brain COVID relief cut than Cull, as was Spector. Not that anything we say will have much impact on Horgan or his right-hand man, Geoff Meggs.

      I only wish many more others would find the nerve to speak out as they should, to force Horgan to back down on his planned cut.

      Indeed, I was pleased to see the Disability Alliance of B.C. weigh in more forcefully on the issue in its December 17 blog post.

      This was the meat of its somewhat belated public message to the NDP:

      “While DABC acknowledges and appreciates the BC Government’s response to aiding our communities into economic recovery from COVID-19, we are saddened to see that this new BC Recovery Supplement in particular will ultimately result in a drop of COVID-19-related financial assistance (from $300 a month to $150 a month) for people on provincial income and disability assistance. 

      “DABC has been lobbying the BC Government to make permanent the $300 COVID-19 crisis supplement for income assistance and disability assistance recipients, further indexed for inflation, because we know that current income and disability assistance rates are below the poverty line and therefore inadequate to meet basic needs. 

      “DABC will continue to advocate on this issue despite the drop in COVID-19 financial assistance, as we understand this affects people on income and disability assistance beyond our current COVID-19 situation.”

      That organization is only one of several stakeholder groups whose advocacy has always played such an important role in trying to drive governments of all political stripes to provide fairer, more adequate, and desperately needed income supports and other assistance to B.C.’s most needy and most vulnerable citizens.

      To be fair, as I noted in my last piece in the Straight, Horgan has basically said that permanent increases should be expected in the April budget, as part of his government’s commendable poverty reduction strategy

      He knows that despite the modest increases his administration has thus far provided for people dependent on income or disability assistance, the base rates are still a cruel joke for a province and country as wealthy as ours.

      No individual can reasonably live on $760 a month from income assistance, or $1,183 a month if they are collecting disability assistance. 

      No single parent with two kids can properly get by on a mere $1,609 a month in income assistance.

      Let alone during a global pandemic that is now imposing even higher monthly costs on some of those people. 

      For the homeless, it’s an even more unfathomable living nightmare, including those who have addictions issues, mental-health challenges, and physical disabilities.

      It’s too easy to overlook the fact that many of those people find themselves so far off the government’s support radar, they aren’t even blips on its application-based screening processes.

      Too many lack even the basic identification and other documentation required to apply for and receive even those meagre supports in the first place. 

      I’ve also learned another important thing from one reader’s firsthand experience, in response to my last piece on this issue. We should also bear in mind that money given to the most impoverished individuals in our society immediately circulates in the economy, whereas government grants given to those of us who are already quite financially comfortable may just go into a savings account. Which doesn't do a hell of a lot for anyone else.

      Others who are renters face their own new monthly living financial hells. More about that in a future column.

      For now, consider this.

      It’s not just the $300 monthly COVID-19 Crisis Supplement that is being cut, replaced, and renamed with the $150 monthly B.C. Recovery Supplement. And again, it will be gone entirely in a few months.

      We should remember that the emergency rent subsidy of $300 per month for individuals and $500 per month for families that was introduced last spring to help people through the COVID crisis was also eliminated on August 31.

      Why? Isn’t that needed now as it was then, during these even more dangerous winter months?

      Let’s remember, despite the NDP’s recently announced extended rent freeze until July 9, 2021, the moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rents was lifted on August 18.

      That’s nuts. The threat of being evicted now hangs like the sword of Damocles over too many renters’ heads—and disproportionately for those who are only one missed payment away from finding themselves on the street, with a new $150 monthly income cut to boot.

      That moratorim on evictions should be immediately restored, at least until next fall, when Dr. Bonnie Henry assures us that everyone who wants to be vaccinated will be.

      If rent was hard to pay back when COVID first erupted, it is no less so now with record high case counts and 20-plus people dying every day. Especially for those living below the poverty line.

      Here’s another crippling burden.

      Under the government’s rent repayment framework, many of the individuals and families who will see their monthly COVID supplement slashed in half before it is eliminated in a few months are also on the hook for paying back overdue rents from last spring.

      Their costs have gone up, not down, as this public health crisis worsens by the day. For they are among those who are subject to a rent repayment plan, imposed by their landlord, which obliges them to repay in equal additional monthly installments any back rent they owe from March 18 to August 17, 2020.

      That might add another $50 or $100 a month in costs, which clearly is even less affordable for those depending on income supports.

      All of it demands an immediate rethink, in the case of the planned cut to the COVID support supplement, a clear mea culpa and policy reversal.

      How Horgan’s $1-a-year special adviser Carole James, can abide by that untenable cut is truly beyond me. Surely, if she speaks out, privately or publicly, he will listen.

      Every sitting NDP MLA knows better. 

      They all need to find their party’s missing moral compass, along with their potentially powerful voices, to fess up to and fix the mistake they made.

      Restoring that supplement for the next three months would only add about $110 million to the government’s currently projected $13.6 billion deficit

      These days, that’s a rounding error, in the larger scheme of things.

      More importantly, retaining the full $300 monthly supplement would effectively give all of those needy individuals and families the same full value from Horgan’s one-time B.C. Recovery Benefit that everyone other eligible recipient will enjoy.

      Speaking of which, if you’re not strapped for cash, I’d urge you to consider donating your $500 or $1,000 COVID Christmas cash to help others who could use it more.

      As I said during the election, I will certainly be doing that. 

      And in so doing, I’ll probably also get a tax credit. Net-net, as it were, that will still leave me with a portion of my household’s $1,000 grant, which I will donate to a worthy charity next year.

      Come on, Premier. Just do the right thing.

      Restore the full $300 monthly supplement to those who really most need your government’s immediate support.

      Find the fiscal space as well to bump up the base rates for income assistance and disability assistance by that same $300 monthly amount, and commit to enshrining that in the budget.

      Just because past governments—including the one I served for a decade in the premier’s office—failed so miserably to properly support B.C.’s most vulnerable citizens, is no excuse for your inaction or misguided penny-pinching.

      Be the good Grinch. 

      Be the big-hearted guy that so many people voted for; the one you believe yourself to be.

      Restore the full COVID relief supplement and make it permanent in the new income and disability assistance rate structures. 

      I guarantee you, as the story goes, your heart will grow at least three sizes that day and the true meaning of Christmas will come through.

      Martyn Brown was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, the top strategic adviser to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment. He also served as the B.C. Liberals' public campaign director in 2001, 2005, and 2009, and in addition to his other extensive campaign experience, he was the principal author of four election platforms. Contact him via email at