Whether future governments will follow through on the poverty reduction goals outlined in a new bill depends not on the law but on voters.

The Trudeau government has a new plan to lock future governments into following through on its Poverty Reduction Strategy. Can it succeed where others have failed?

Since coming into office three years ago, this federal Liberal government has spent a lot of time making plans for the future. Its first budget featured a 10-year infrastructure plan, later extended to become a 12-year plan. Last year’s National Housing Strategy takes us through most of the next decade. More recently, the new Poverty Reduction Strategy sets targets for 2020 and 2030.

We want our governments to be thinking beyond the short term: the real-world issues that we expect them to address don’t fit neatly within election cycles. But it’s also worth asking how much stock we should put in promises that need to be delivered one, two or even three elections from now.

The new Poverty Reduction Act proposed on November 6 by Jean-Yves Duclos, the Minister for Families, Children and Social Development, is an attempt to work around that challenge by locking in future governments — regardless of political stripe — to the long-term poverty reduction goals set this year. The legislation would make the goals of the Poverty Reduction Strategy, which was rolled out in August, into federal law. It would require future ministers to have a strategy in place, to have that strategy overseen by an arm’s-length advisory council and to have the minister report to Parliament on progress. Duclos said that the law would force future governments to follow through on the poverty reduction goal, or else answer to Canadians.

While poverty reduction needs this kind of long-term commitment, it’s hard to see how the law alone can make much difference. The problem with trying to handcuff the decisions of future governments is that governments carry the keys to unlock those handcuffs whenever they please.

Take Ontario’s poverty reduction law. Passed in 2009, it is similar to the federal bill, setting rules to force future governments to have a plan and report on progress; unlike the federal bill, however, the Ontario law doesn’t spell out the target itself. When the first deadline came and went with the target nowhere in site, the government simply set the same target for another five years down the road. We will see in the next year whether the commitment survives Ontario’s change in government.

We can see similar examples with climate change. During the first Harper minority government in 2007, the federal opposition parties were able to pass the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act to force the government to table a plan for how Canada would live up to its obligations under the Kyoto Protocol. The government did table the plan but did not alter its actual policies in order to meet the climate targets. The legislation was repealed after the Conservatives won a majority of seats in 2011.

And the latest proposed federal legislation isn’t really binding, at least in the way most people would understand it. The new law doesn’t say anything about how the federal government should be reducing poverty. It doesn’t offer a budget or put in place new policies. And it doesn’t spell out any consequences for failing to meet the targets. On the surface, it’s more Snuggie than straitjacket. If a new government decides not to continue with the Poverty Reduction Strategy, this legislation isn’t really going to stop it.

That’s not a bad thing. Our democracy makes sure that governments can’t do too much to tie the hands of our future elected officials. Voters should be able to reverse today’s policies by voting for a change.

Duclos was right when he said that this law would force future governments to follow through, or else answer to Canadians. The reason that the earlier laws weren’t effective isn’t just that it was fairly easy legally to undo or ignore them. It’s that it was easy politically.

So, whether future governments will follow through on the poverty reduction goals depends not on the law but on voters. The Poverty Reduction Act would give voters the tools they need to hold governments to account, if they choose. If a future government tries to do away with the law, or simply ignore the targets, the law shines a spotlight on those decisions.

If we want governments to follow through on the targets in the Poverty Reduction Strategy — and we should — we will have to keep paying attention.

Photo: Federal Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Jean-Yves Duclos is seen at a youth homelessness organization in Toronto on Monday, June 11, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Colin Perkel


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