Twenty-five years ago, the House of Commons unanimously passed Ed Broadbent's resolution to abolish child poverty by the year 2000. We are far from that goal.
Child poverty as measured by the Statistics Canada Low Income Cut Off has fallen since 1989, meaning that the proportion of families forced to spend a well above average share of their budgets on food, clothing and shelter has diminished somewhat.
But it is a different story if we use the low income measure, which looks at the gap between poor children and the middle class, calculating the number of children who live in a family which has less than one half of the income of a comparable middle income family.
With a national child care program back on the front burner, it’s time we talk about the links between child care and child poverty.
Here’s the bottom line: affordable and reliable child care in Canada could help lift 300,000 children under six, and their low and modest income families, out of poverty.
Today, very few such families have access to regulated, high-quality and affordable child care. Instead, these families compete for regulated daycare spaces accessible to only about one in five children under six years old, most of which come with costs beyond their reach.
As an idealistic young girl I always played the role of Ed Broadbent during our school yard political debates. Yes, that’s right, as a school girl I followed the 1984 campaign more closely than many of the double-dutch contests in my school yard. But that won’t surprise anyone who knows me well.
Flash forward over two decades and that same idealistic girl, who believed passionately in what Ed Broadbent represented, was honoured to become the first employee of the Broadbent Institute.
Left and right-wing politicians have traditionally clashed over economic, social and environmental policy.
Now Ed Broadbent is adding democracy to the list of issues that differentiate so-called progressives from conservatives — at least in Canada.
The former NDP leader says the Harper government's proposed overhaul of national election laws has turned what used to be a shared value among all federal parties into another ideological battlefield.
"Whereas 10 years ago progressives had little or no need to defend our basic democratic values and institutions, today it is essential," Broadbent says in a speech prepared for the inaugural summit of the progressive think-tank founded in his name.
"The mis-named Fair Elections Act is nothing more than U.S. Republican-style voter suppression."
The speech is to be delivered Saturday morning to welcome participants at the Broadbent Institute's sold-out "progress summit."
Text of the speech was made available to The Canadian Press on Friday.
During his 24 years in Parliament, Broadbent says no prime minister ever attempted to rig election laws and undermine voter participation in the way he accused the Harper government of currently trying to do.
"Before Stephen Harper, changes in electoral institutions — the rules of the game — were always made on the basis of an all-party consensus ... He has acted unilaterally and undemocratically."
Broadbent, who worked in developing countries around the world as head of a non-partisan democratic and human rights advocacy group created by Parliament in the 1990s, says Canada used to be seen "as a model democracy."
"Now, as the prime minister promotes democracy in Ukraine, we have 19 serious scholars from half a dozen countries publicly denouncing him for repressing democracy at home."
Experts on democracy and elections, both at home and abroad, have been scathing in their criticism of the proposed overhaul of election laws. They fear it will disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters, muzzle the chief electoral officer and give a big advantage to the political party with the most money and biggest database — which happens to be Harper's Conservative party.
It would boost, both directly and indirectly, the amount of money parties can spend during campaigns. It would end the practice of vouching for voters without adequate identification. And it would forbid the elections watchdog from communicating with the public about anything other than mechanics of how, where and when to vote.
Thus far, the government has been undeterred by any of the criticism.
In addition to their fight to defend and strengthen Elections Canada, Broadbent says progressives are characterized by their belief that "prosperity needs to be broadly shared," that the gap between the very rich and everyone else must be closed.
They are also characterized by their belief that economic growth must go hand in hand with environmental sustainability.
"Progressives, indeed most Canadians, understand that environmental and economic priorities need to be reconciled and made mutually reinforcing," Broadbent says.
"And at some basic level the federal government has rejected this ever since Mr. Harper came to power eight years ago."
For years, Ed Broadbent fought his battles on the front lines of Canadian politics as leader of the federal NDP.
These days, he’s taking his fight to a different plain — to the battle of ideas, of influence and of political relevance.
He is chair of a think-tank — the Broadbent Institute — that champions “progressive change,” trains activists and confronts some of the long-term issues political parties ignore.
He’s intent on countering the influence of Canadian think-tanks such as the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, established in 2005 by former Reform leader Preston Manning.
“Mr. Manning, from his point of view and from the conservative point of view, has done very well,” Broadbent said in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen.
“They have had an impact on the public debate. And it’s time we did some catch-up, frankly.
“Mr. Manning’s institute does it on the right and we want to do it on the left in Canada.”
Call it the battle of think-tanks. Left versus right. Broadbent versus Manning. Progressive versus conservative.
The two organizations have now become parallel incubators for ideas in Canadian politics, unrestrained by the formal partisan ties that can stifle debate among true believers within parties. Moreover, unlike most traditional think-tanks, both organizations offer training on how to achieve political change — all the way from community groups or city hall to provincial and federal politics.
This weekend in Ottawa, the Broadbent Institute, founded in 2011, will hold its first annual “progress summit.” About 600 people are expected to attend.
The conference will feature topics such as: income inequality; the federal government’s “attack” on the labour movement; the rights of indigenous peoples on natural resource development; and how businesses can build a “green economy.”
The institute believes in the merits of learning from “progressives” elsewhere in the world. Former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard will headline a list of speakers that includes a French politician describing the “rise of the right” in Europe, and a human rights “marketing director” based in Washington, D.C.
There will be a session on how to use Google and social media in campaigns, and on “lessons from winning progressive campaigns in the U.S. and Canada.”
The event is virtually a mirror image — with different policy leanings — of the annual Manning Centre conference, the most recent of which was in Ottawa in early March.
Chuck Strahl, a former Conservative MP who chairs the Manning Centre, said the country is well-served by having parallel think-tanks because political parties are more focused on winning elections.
“The parties themselves are forced, if you will, to focus on what they do best and that leaves it open for other organizations like the Manning Centre and the Broadbent Institute to delve into some of the big issues. We don’t have to get elected to anything.”
Strahl said he welcomes the emergence of the Broadbent Institute.
“It’s not really a competitor; it’s a competitor for ideas. We’re not tilling the same soil here. We’re looking for people on the conservative end of the spectrum, but we both have the same sort of objective: to engage them in civil society.”
Broadbent said his institute faces a big challenge getting its message out because many of the country’s prominent think-tanks, such as the Fraser Institute and the C.D. Howe Institute, are predominantly conservative.
Broadbent’s institute is not a registered charity, nor does it plan to become one. It funds its operations through donations — often $5 or $20 from thousands of donors, says executive director Rick Smith — and will have a budget of over $1 million in the next year
There is a strong NDP tinge to the group; some key players have held prominent jobs in the party.
But the institute proclaims it is an “independent” and “non-partisan.” It has the support of Allan Gregg, once the Progressive Conservative party’s chief pollster, and John Laschinger, formerly campaign manager for many federal and provincial Progressive Conservatives.
Indeed, Smith said the institute appeals to a broad range of Canadians.
“On any given day, the vast majority of Canadians are untethered from any particular party affiliation. They’re open to good ideas and they’re looking for a good debate about the issues of the day. That’s is the kind of audience we’re trying to cater to and reach.”