When you’re trying to reduce the cost of living, which costs do you cut? 

OPINION: The Liberals have proposed a number of policies aimed at boosting “affordability” — but they should make a clearer distinction between must-haves and nice-to-haves
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Oct 04, 2019
The Liberals have pledged to change the Canada Child Benefit such that families with kids under the age of 1 would get more money. (iStock.com/yavdat)



It’s the nature of election campaigns that political parties — more specifically, the coterie of staffers around the party leader — try to hit one big issue each day so as to focus the media’s attention on whatever the party thinks will work most in its favour at that moment. Several times so far this campaign, the parties have tried to hammer home their messages on “affordability” or “pocketbook” issues in an attempt to convince voters that not only do they feel your pain — they’ve got the cure for it, too.

But what could actually make a difference in people’s lives and what makes it through the marketing process of political parties trying to hog the limelight during a weeks-long election campaign are two very different things. And, in this election, as in past ones, parties have often dangled sparkly baubles instead of promising things people actually need.

Consider two headline-grabbing Liberal promises — one to lower the costs of cellphone bills and the other to change the Canada Child Benefit such that families with kids under the age of 1 would get more money. Both appear in the section of the Liberal platform titled “making life more affordable,” but that’s where the similarity ends. The changes to the CCB are relatively detailed and straightforward, and could be easily implemented.

The proposed cut to cellphone bills, on the other hand, is an exercise in handwaving. How would the government do it? “By using the government’s regulatory powers,” the platform says. So does that mean the Liberals led by Justin Trudeau have embraced the idea of price controls by government fiat? Students of Canadian political history might find that amusing, but it seems unlikely. What voters are likely to get instead is some tinkering with CRTC rules with the goal of fostering competition or prohibiting some of the most usurious practices by Bell, Rogers, and Telus.

(Observers of recent Ontario political history, where a promise to lower auto insurance rates by 15 per cent was abandoned by the Liberals and dismissed as a “stretch goal” after their 2014 election win, might be hearing a familiar tune right about now.)

But the Liberals at least have their priorities straight: Canadian cellphone rates, relative to those in other countries, are a scandal, but the child-care costs are even worse — with the notable exception of Quebec. We reported this week on how child-care costs affect people’s lives, with TVO.org’s Mary Baxter talking to Thorndale resident Kasey Huizenga about the difficulties she’s faced finding a balance between the competing needs of accessibility and affordability: currently, she drops her two children off at two different providers, adding 25 minutes to her commute.

Making childcare more accessible and more affordable would be an expensive proposition, to be sure, but consider this from the perspective of lost time. Governments spend billions on transit and highway projects geared toward saving commuters time and money — so why not view accessible child care through the same lens? Huizenga could probably do a lot with the time she’d get back if she could bring both of her children to one affordable child-care location.

And child care is hardly the only so-called pocketbook issue Ontarians have to deal with. In the north, there’s a lack of access to fresh and affordable food. Implementing any of the proposals aimed at addressing this — whether they involve infrastructure investment or something more radical, such as a universal basic income — would cost money, but not doing so would lead to added health-care costs down the road.

And, north or south, housing continues to be a problem. Even a federal government that’s vocally and substantially supporting new affordable housing can get tripped up on details, as the case of Indigenous housing co-ops shows. The Liberals were clear that they wanted to support co-op housing and keep units aimed at low-income families from being lost, but their policies are still going to need to be tweaked to save all the Indigenous housing that’s at risk.

Not all these affordability issues are as urgent everywhere — southerners in Ontario probably aren’t as worried about food costs, even if food banks are still distressingly busy; northerners don’t have the eye-watering housing costs someone in Toronto does — but no place is entirely immune.

Whichever party forms the next federal government should think hard about what it means that some of the most basic elements of a decent Canadian standard of living seem either expensive, precarious, or both to more and more people — despite a decently functioning economy. And it might want to pay more attention to that than to the data plans that will be offered for the next iPhone model.

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