December 10, 2019

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As campaign closes, social policy groups prepare for post-election advocacy

OTTAWA - Cindy Barnes has spoken with friends about the need to expand employment insurance sickness benefits to provide more help for those who deal with serious illnesses like cancer, as she once did.

But Barnes, 57, hasn't had much opportunity to talk about the issue during the election campaigning because it seems buried under others, even though the sickness benefit, and its future, appear in the NDP and Liberal platforms.

That experience has been shared by multiple advocacy groups and think-tanks: Many of the issues they expected to get a lot of attention on the campaign have instead been muscled to the sidelines.

"It seems like they have only gotten a news cycle or two and maybe that is because they have been so micro-targeted" to specific groups, said Katie Davey, founder of the policy platform Femme Wonk.

She pointed to changes to taxation of parental benefits that, while helpful to a number of new parents, doesn't address larger issues about the future of the EI system. Employment insurance wasn't designed for a labour market defined increasingly by part-time or contract work instead of long-term, full-time employment.

"We haven't seen that broad vision on a number of social-policy issues that people are keeping their eyes on in this campaign," Davey said.

In cases where issues got attention, there were also concerns about a lack of detail. Housing groups, for example, wondered if the Conservative promise to delay infrastructure spending that hasn't been committed to projects would affect the decade-long housing strategy the Liberals unveiled two years ago.

"Cutting housing investments balances budgets on the backs of those least able to afford it and ends up costing more than the cuts would save," the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness wrote in an online platform analysis.

Geranda Notten, a professor at the University of Ottawa's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, said the lack of discussion could be a result of the steps the Liberals took over the last four years, pointing to the housing strategy and poverty-reduction plan.

The hard work on those efforts happens when plans are implemented, monitored and tweaked over ensuing election cycles, she said.

"There is a bit of a feeling that, 'We've got the strategy now, we can move on to something else,' " said Notten, who researches poverty and social policy. "But that's not how it works with these topics."

The EI sickness benefit could fall into this category since the benefit hasn't changed since its introduction in the 1970s, even though data suggests it needs updating. Barnes, like many cancer patients, maxed out her 15-week benefit.

The Liberals have proposed expanding the benefit to 26 weeks; the NDP to a full year. Having 26 weeks, Barnes said, would have been helpful for her and for other cancer patients whose treatments can take longer.

"It wouldn't have made me anxious about thinking, 'I've got to go back to work and how am I going to do this?' because I knew I wasn't physically able to go back to work."

Katherine Scott, a senior researcher at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said most campaign policy talk gravitated to pocketbook issues of affordability and tax cuts. Broader issues of poverty or gender equality, for instance, became wedge issues that candidates steered away from, she said.

Looking ahead, Scott said organizations will likely work extra hard after Monday's vote to get their issues into mandate letters so they become part of ministers' marching orders.

"Clearly, the challenges are still there," she said. "The community groups will regroup, they will attempt to obviously make sure their issues are in front of politicians and officials as they draft the plans for a new government."

Davey said the possibility of a minority government — which polls suggest is a likely electoral outcome — shouldn't be a hurdle to a broader vision for social programs largely missing from campaign talk.

"We have gotten some of our largest social policy at a federal level from minority governments," she said. "It is highly possible that we could see the same thing over the next few years."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 20, 2019.

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