Friday, March 25, 2011

Families First - sloganeering or something real?

As the pundits have already noted, the new premier’s “Families First” platform is wide open to interpretation at this point.
So we’ll see where things go in the months ahead. But let’s at least take a moment to celebrate that a B.C. premier even thought families were important enough to be the focus of her leadership.
It’s a cliché that it has to be a woman premier making the point, and a shame that we don't yet know whether she could win an election on the same platform. But it’s still a good sign when the most prominent message coming out of the new premier’s office is about putting families first.
Families were never something Gordon Campbell talked about much. Search the Hansard debates and you’ll see that. I always got the feeling that they just didn’t cross his mind; he loves his own family, of course, but it never seemed to me that he saw any role for the province in building stronger families overall.
That’s a cliché in itself - what does it really mean to build strong families? Everybody’s got a different take on that. As Christy Clark has reminded us with her own “Families First” catch phrase, there are a lot of different meanings you can attach to the promise of helping families.
But hey, at least this premier actually said the words. At least she put together a new legislative committee on families that actually has some clout in cabinet, even if it’s too soon to say whether it will get used.
It doesn’t mean that hard times are over. But it’s quite an improvement over complete disregard.
We expect miracles from the Children and Family Development Ministry. The bazillionth revamp of that benighted ministry - now under a new deputy minister with a speciality in organizational change - comes with no guarantees.
But at least it’s underway, after years of bitter management issues inside the ministry and a toxic relationship at the top with B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth. MCFD simply has to be made to function better if Clark is serious about families, because its work has a massive impact on tens of thousands of British Columbian children and families every year.
The minimum wage is finally going up, also essential. Yes, it will be hard on some businesses initially. But blame that on the foolish and mean-spirited position of the Campbell government to hold the line for 10 long years as the ranks of the working poor swelled. I hope Clark also recognizes that welfare rates have to rise, and that earning exemptions are desperately needed.
The previous government had already committed to reducing that “vulnerability rate” to 15 per cent by 2015. But while the Campbell government talked a good game about “15 by 15,” the reality was cuts and more cuts across all services to B.C. children and families.
Cuts are inevitable sometimes, but it’s disrespectful and disastrous when every government ministry just blithely goes about its reductions with no thought to overall impact. Will a family-friendly premier finally see the wisdom in planning reductions more carefully so that fewer struggling families are left high and dry in the aftermath?
Gaming revenue has almost doubled since 2002 in B.C. But charities now get less of that money than they did in 2002, even with the $15 million boost Clark announced Thursday. A families-first agenda will hopefully return gaming to its roots as a funder of charitable works. The government will get no bigger bang from its gaming buck than by investing the $1 billion in annual net revenues into community services for B.c. families.
Affordable housing is the foundation for sound family policy.  Campbell did put more effort into homelessness late in his reign after several years of making things worse, but Clark now needs to build and expand on that momentum. Our province has more citizens living below the low-income cutoff (11.4 per cent) than anywhere else in the country, and they need real help around housing.
It goes without saying that putting families first also means paying attention to the economy, the deficit and the tax structure. They aren’t mutually exclusive goals.
We’ll know soon enough whether Christy Clark really is the kind of premier who means what she says about families. But here we are, talking about it. And that’s a start.

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