We are "pleasantly surprised by the fiscal direction of the provincial government," said Robert Metz, president of Freedom Party (Ontario), reflecting on the recent welfare cuts that have raised the ire of some people in the province.
Referring to what he sees as a human tendency to shun work, he said that many of us "need a little more hardship." This view, which places the responsibility for a person's poverty, in most cases, on his own shoulders, is generally rejected by many opponents of the provincial Tories' reforms.
A spokesman for Stop the Cuts Coalition (SCC) said that the cuts that do most harm to the poor are unethical because, among other things, "the middle class is responsible for the deficit," not the poor.
Mr. Metz, however, argued that "when you take away hardship, you take away the incentive to act," adding that "making life easy for the poor keeps them poor."
Welfare Minister David Tsoubouchi recently supervised the 22% cut in welfare payments promised by the PCs in their Common Sense Revolution, generating a lot of conflict in the process with "anti-poverty" groups and the new Ottawa-based SCC.
The PCs, however, argue that these cuts, along with the rest of its program, will provide Ontario with a better economic environment in the long-run, thereby improving the lot of the rich and poor alike, not to mention the middle class. They respond to their critics by noting that Ontario still has a welfare payment rate that is 10 percent higher than the nation's average, ahead of all provinces except British Columbia, Manitoba and Prince Edward Island, for a "single employable" person and above all provinces but B.C. for a "single parent with a child."
Groups like SCC are calling for more of the approach that the PCs campaigned against, with their spokesman stating that her personal view is that the only thing that Bob Rae did wrong was not adhering to the principle of collective bargaining.
Recent reports, however, indicate that, for whatever reason, the present government is overseeing a movement among welfare recipients that all the major parties claim to want - a reduction in the number of people on the dole.
Mr. Tsubouchi has overseen a decline of 80,000 welfare recipients, in eight months, representing a saving of about $499 million a year. Each month since July has seen a reduction from the previous month, including October with a decline of 36,189 people, the largest since 1969 when the government started keeping such records.
The minister is not speculating about where those 80,000 people have gone and, while some groups that minister to the needy report growth in the numbers of people seeking help, no one has effectively tracked all them.
Some critics, however, have suggested that some of them have begun to work at jobs that perhaps did not look as appealing when their welfare cheques were about 30% above the national average.
Although such work may not be satisfactory, some conservatives like Mr. Metz argue that working is decidedly better for the person concerned and for society at large than living on welfare.
The SCC may be the most vocal opponent to Mike Harris' cuts in the Ottawa area. It comprises a growing number of individuals concerned about the government's economic program, and is independently funded and volunteer staffed, said the SCC spokesman.
"It has been very active since it was formed," she added. "I think we have accomplished a lot by building a public awareness that not everyone likes these cuts."
On November 22, the group participated in a "Fight the Cuts" march in Ottawa that was also endorsed by the Communist Party of Canada, International Socialists, Pro-Choice Network and several local branches of CUPE.
The organization recently submitted a petition to Ottawa-Carleton's regional government, requesting that the government publicly express its opposition to the provincial cuts as well as the proposed tax cuts.
Regional councillor Diane Holmes (Ward 14) made a motion in Council based on that petition.
Using even stronger words than the SCC, Ms. Holmes moved that it be "resolved that this Council regards the Provincial Government's welfare cuts to be an unacceptable attempt to victimize the poor for economic problems they did not cause, that this Council oppose the Provincial Government's welfare cuts, cuts to childcare, cuts to women's shelters, cuts to social housing, and the introduction of workfare."
Councillor Linda Davis seconded the motion. Alex Cullen (Ward 7) and Alex Munter (Ward 4), who was recently voted the favourite regional councillor of Ottawa Sun readers, also voted in its favour.
A separate vote on the SCCs recommendation that the regional government oppose the 30% income tax cut proposed by the provincial Tories found support from the same individuals and five others: David Pratt, Richard Cantin, Michel Bellemare, Jacques Legendre and Acting Chair Madeleine Meilleur.
An SCC spokesman said that although the government watered down her petition, it made more headway than she originally anticipated.
Mr. Munter has been very vocal about his opposition to Mike Harris' strategy, arguing that the combination of spending and tax cuts is nothing more than stealing from the poor to give to the rich.
Mr Metz, who said that he has been on the receiving end of such a comment, himself, stated that this claim is "almost like a religious dogma repeated verbatim" by liberals.
He added that you can not take from the poor because they do not have anything.
"What Mike Harris is really doing is stopping the flow of money from the rich - actually from the average guy - to the poor."
This approach that has gone unchallenged by the Liberal and conservative parties for several decades - that the government should be, as much as possible, all things to all people, and even the first source of charitable help for those in need is being challenged increasingly today.
In its "Taxpayers' Budget" issued in February, the Reform Party argued that personal reserves, family and private charitable organizations should be the first sources of help for people in need. In the Freedom Party philosophy one would be hard-pressed to find justification for any government role in the provision of charitable help.
Far from being a reflection of meanness, as critics often argue, Mr. Metz said that it reflects a fundamental ethical paradigm that may not usher in utopia, but does offer much more hope than the political philosophies that run our governments today.
A story about David Crocket, a member of the U.S. Congress in the 19th century, is often used by conservatives to illustrate their view on this matter.
Challenging a bill to appropriate money to help a widow of a notable naval officer, he said that "we must not permit our respect for the dead or our sympathy for a part of the living to lead us into an act of injustice to the balance of the living ... We have the right, as individuals, to give away as much of our own money as we please in charity; but as members of Congress we have no right so to appropriate a dollar of the public money.... I am the poorest man on this floor. I cannot vote for this bill, but I will give one week's pay to the object, and, if every member of Congress will do the same, it will amount to more than the bill asks."
With these two political philosophies competing for power and the other permutations developed by mixing different portions of the two, the battle over the Tory government's fiscal plan is not likely to go away.
Nevertheless, with no lull in the controversy in sight, Mr. Tsoubouchi says that his government is still planning to pursue its "work-fare" promise in the new year.
last updated on April 28, 2002