Ministers’ comments may indicate trouble ahead

By Patrick Hunter Wednesday May 23 2012 in Opinion
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There are very good reasons why politicians have communications advisors. A key one is that it helps them say what they need to say clearly. More specifically, it helps them to say things with well-chosen words or to avoid saying things that may offend. Well, it doesn’t always work.

Two recent statements by federal government ministers are worth reviewing in that context. Finance minister, Jim Flaherty and Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism minister, Jason Kenney, made comments in the media that can be seen as either knee-jerk reactions or carefully planned trial-balloon statements to signal major changes in policies.

As a rule, cabinet ministers undergo media training when they are appointed and they have personal staff that provide communications advice. The objective is to make sure that they do not get caught up in answering questions that have not been posed; saying more than they need to; creating policies in the heat of a scrum or saying something that they plainly should not be saying. From time to time, the caution button is overlooked.

Recently, our finance minister, in talking about upcoming changes to employment insurance, said that “Any job is a good job” and that the unemployed should be prepared to take any job if they are unable to obtain work in their field.


I believe that the majority of people who go on employment insurance do so with a sense of unwillingness because they feel it is a loss of dignity. Not to be able to work to earn an income that will support his or her family, for many, is often self-identified with a sense of failure. It shouldn’t. In many cases, they make a determination that the earnings from a job would yield less than the benefits from employment insurance. Thus, it would be more advantageous to stay on employment insurance while seeking to return to a position that earns them a decent income.


The statement by the finance minister suggests that it will become harder for benefit recipients to do that. It suggests that, for example, a policy will be instituted that may offer benefit recipients a job which, if they refuse, will lead to the denial or cut-off of benefits.


The employment insurance program is a safety net to assist workers who are caught in the scenario of lay-offs or involuntary income loss. One of the reasons for its existence, from an economics viewpoint, is that it is better to keep money moving – by ensuring purchasing power in a way that leads to job maintenance and or creation, thus keeping the momentum of the economy expanding.


From the recipients’ standpoint, they paid a premium in good times, under the employment insurance program, to provide some protection during bad times. It could also be seen as “forced saving” on which they can rely during tough times.


Under this government, which as an ideology does not seem to favour this kind of support, one is led to believe that it may be a step toward dismantling the program altogether. With a majority in Parliament, this would be an appropriate time to make that move. It will not happen suddenly, but the gradual tightening of the conditions does lend itself to that scenario.


The other statement that causes me to wonder about the intentions of the federal government is the disdainful response by Kenney to the preliminary findings of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food during his visit to Canada.


In his preliminary report, Olivier De Schutter was critical of the lack of “food security” of 800,000 families in a country as wealthy as Canada. He called for a national food strategy to address this shortcoming.


Kenney, and later, health minister, Leona Aglukkaq, essentially told the UN visitor to butt out of Canada’s business; that the UN would do better to direct its resources to looking at the problems of the developing world.


The first thing to note is that the UN Special Rapporteur – and there are several with different areas of responsibility, including racism and racial discrimination and indigenous peoples – does not visit a country without the consent of the government. Yet, until De Schutter made his statement, no minister of government apparently made him or herself available to meet with him. Aglukkaq met with De Schutter after he held his media conference.


Apart from the embarrassment for the federal government, I suspect that there is a bigger picture here of a policy of distancing itself from some of the “rights” agreements and standards set by the UN. I find it interesting that it was Kenney who was first off the mark in commenting on De Schutter’s finding. One would have thought that the foreign minister or the minister more directly responsible for food or agriculture or something similar would have been the lead responder – even the minister of health, for that matter. But my suspicion is aroused because the immigration minister, Kenney, is also making changes to immigration and, particularly, refugee policies, which may run counter to the UN Covenant on refugees.


As part of its cost-cutting philosophy for one thing, the federal government plans to cut its health care support of refugees and refugee claimants who are not covered by provincial health plans.


So, it is always very telling what some ministers say. There are some who are veteran ministers and you don’t expect them to make the typical statement that can be assessed as an error in judgement. When these high profile ministers say something, it is quite often the proverbial tip of the iceberg.



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