One national council we don't need
Written by Link Byfield   
Monday, 04 September 2006
A report emerged two weeks ago (August 24) from the National Council of Welfare. It said that welfare recipients deserve more money, and it accused everyone in sight -- Ottawa, the provinces and Canadians in general -- of being negligent, judgmental and cheap.

Well, maybe we are all those bad things and maybe we're not, but I have a question: why is there a federal National Council of Welfare at all -- welfare being an exclusively provincial jurisdiction?

Why is Ottawa funding a sanctimonious bureaucracy of salaried lobbyists to scold us about matters that are none of Ottawa's business? (As Diefenbaker once quipped, they've solved *their* poverty problem.)

Welfare is one of several provincial jurisdictions Ottawa invaded in the 1960s, producing a burst of inflationary public spending, a massive national debt, a big increase in political dependency, and a serious secession movement in Quebec. All these problems remain to this day.

The National Council of Welfare itself started in 1969, in the halcyon Trudeau years of bulging budgets and constitutional disregard.

Preston Manning and Mike Harris wrote a Fraser Institute report last year ("Caring for Canadians") about what happened after the feds forced their way into the welfare field with dollar-for-dollar matching grants.

We had just come through the most prosperous economic surge in our history -- even in the Atlantic. The Liberals intervened anyway. There is no better recipe for political success than compassionately giving away someone else's money.

The effect was to double the welfare caseload across the country. It peaked in 1993 at over 10% of all Canadians -- 13% in Bob Rae's Ontario, then the strongest province in Canada. The national debt crisis of the mid-'90s forced Ottawa to scale back and replace its matching grants with block funding, which in turn let provinces cut their welfare rolls in half without losing federal subsidies.

The whole fiasco was a mega-lesson in what economists call "perverse incentives." If you pay enough for poverty, you will get it.

Our Constitution has a good reason to consider poverty a "local" provincial matter (section 92) totally outside the purview of the national government.

As everyone knows, there are always welfare claimants who genuinely need and deserve it and others who don't. Distinguishing between them is always difficult and must take into account a wide range of local factors.

For example, the National Council of Welfare notes accusingly that the allowance given to able-bodied singles is lower in Alberta than anywhere else in Canada, especially the Atlantic. It's set at starvation levels.

Hello! Alberta is severely short of workers and housing. It can't be paying able-bodied people to watch TV. It can and does pay for job-training.

Perhaps if the National Council for Welfare had a director from Alberta, and fewer than five from the Atlantic, he or she might have pointed this out.

But to what end? Canada doesn't need a national welfare council, because it doesn't need national welfare.

Our system of Responsible Government was built on the principle that elected representatives will hold governments accountable for how they spend. Ottawa has no say over how provinces spend the Canada Social Transfer, and can't ensure value for money. Ottawa has no way of knowing whether some provinces are wasting or redirecting it, and neither do we.

So why is Ottawa forcing us to pay for it?

p.s. This issue, and others like it, will be the subject of national debate and resolution at the Calgary Congress on September 29. You can join this public assembly. The aim of the Congress is to set new and more effective ground rules for all Canadians.

- Link Byfield

Link Byfield is chairman of the Edmonton-based Citizens Centre for Freedom and Democracy, and an Alberta senator-elect.
 
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