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Parliament talks minimum wage, and considers growing inequality

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On Tuesday, members of the House of Commons talked about a phenomenon which they very rarely address: inequality.

The occasion was an NDP motion to increase the minimum wage for federally regulated industries to $15/hour.

At present there is no federal minimum wage. Federally regulated workers' pay is pegged to the provincial or territorial minimum wage, which means it varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

Provincial and territorial rates vary from $10/hour to $11/hour, or between a bit more than $20,000 and a touch more than $22,000 a year, based on a 40-hour work week.

It was the Chrétien Liberals who abolished the federal minimum wage in 1996. During Tuesday's debate, the NDP's Peggy Nash admitted that after 1996 some low-paid federally regulated workers got increases up to provincial minimum rates. The pre-1996 federal rate had actually been lower than that of some provinces.

The minimum wage the NDP proposes now would be significantly more than any of the provincial or territorial rates.

Federally regulated industries in Canada include transport, banking and communications. Those sectors tend to be dominated by large, often unionized corporations, with relatively few minimum-wage workers. In fact, during Wednesday's debate Liberal and Conservative MPs quoted a figure put out by the Globe and Mail to the effect that out of the nearly one million federally regulated workers only a few more than 400 earn minimum wage.  

The NDP's Nash did not dispute that figure, but made the point that, while only a small number might be at the rock-bottom minimum, tens of thousands of federally regulated workers earn less than the NDP's proposed $15/hour.

The real issue is inequality

The larger point NDPers want to make is that a $15/hour federal minimum would be a step toward addressing the growing crisis of wealth and income inequality in Canada.

It would send a signal to businesses and other Canadian governments that the federal government will not sit still while the gap between the richest and poorest grows each year, with incomes of the group in the middle stagnating.

The Liberals now, it seems, support a federal minimum wage, even if Nova Scotia Liberal MP Roger Cuzner argued that the NDP motion was a "humble" measure that would not have a major impact. The Liberal MP made a point of noting, for "those across the country watching," that the NDP's proposal would not help most of the low-paid folks flipping burgers out there -- many of whom are not teenagers and have families to support. Those workers, Cuzner underlined, are provincially regulated.

Conservative MPs flatly opposed the idea of raising the federal minimum wage and in so doing discovered a sudden respect for the prerogatives of the provinces.

Conditions are different across the country, Minister of Labour Kellie Leitch said during Tuesday's debate, and it would be best to leave the minimum-wage decision to each provincial or territorial government.

When, over the past few years, provinces contested a number of major Harper government initiatives that tread on their toes, the Conservatives were not nearly so respectful.

The Harper government ignored the provinces when they objected to its minimum sentences law, its abolition of the long-gun registry, its cancellation of the refugee health program, and its decision to push forward the age at which Canadians will be entitled to receive Old Age Security.

All of those Harper government moves dealt with areas of joint or overlapping federal-provincial responsibility. Yet Prime Minister Harper was entirely indifferent to provincial concerns on all of them.

Further, as NDP MP Raymond Coté pointed out during the debate, Stephen Harper is the only Canadian Prime Minister in recent memory who has never met with his provincial colleagues as a group. Harper's idea of cooperative federalism appears to be limited to following the provincial lead on the minimum wage.

A serious debate, leavened by some 'personality-cult-ism'

The final result of the Official Opposition's minimum-wage motion was foreordained from the outset. The Conservatives have a majority in the House, and they can vote down whatever they want to.

For NDPers, presenting this motion was mostly an opportunity to put one piece of their program in the window. The fact that the Liberals, who had killed the federal minimum wage some 18 years ago, felt forced to say me-too is a bit of a bonus for the Official Opposition. It no doubt gave a small measure of satisfaction to NDP leader Tom Mulcair and his caucus.

More important, Tuesday's debate was an opportunity to substantively discuss a key aspect of economic policy which rarely gets an airing in Parliament: the situation of low-income people in Canada. Members on all sides tended to take that substantive debate seriously, even if they did not agree.

One exception was the Liberals' Kevin Lamoureux. He gave a barely coherent and rambling presentation in which he talked obsequiously about the great virtues of his party's leader.

Canadians are to be favorably impressed, the Winnipeg MP delcared, by the fact that the current Liberal leader is the first to put the question of the "middle class" before the House of Commons. Like his leader, Lamoureux did not say what he meant by "middle class;" and his comments had virtually nothing to do with the question before the House. Lamoureux's intervention did, however, give insight into the near personality cult that has taken possession of a good many federal Liberals.

On hearing Lamoureux, one weary observer asked: "How much more of this cloying adulation and hero-worship can we take?"

The answer is: Get used to it, you'll be hearing a lot more of the same in the months to come.

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