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The importance of moving toward a more equal society - an amendment to Bill 71

 On Monday April 26th, I spoke in response  to an amendment to Bill 71 which raises issues with the government's approach in Bill 71.  In providing large rebates to property owners, a concern is that it  will contribute to larger economic differences between those who are well off and those who are struggling.  My comments are below: 

Hon. Jon Gerrard (River Heights): The member for St. Johns (Ms. Fontaine) has moved an amendment, which is based on the fact that the bill fails to ensure an equitable distribution across income groups and makes life less affordable for renters in Manitoba.

      I support this amendment to Bill 71. Quite clearly, as I pointed out in my earlier speech on Bill 71, this bill does not ensure an equitable distribution of benefits across income groups and will produce greater inequalities among Manitobans.

      This bill, which reduced education property taxes by 25 per cent–that's Bill 71–this year will benefit about 650,000 Manitoba property owners, according to the minister. The precise number could be argued, as some property owners do not pay property taxes because of the resident homeowner property tax reduction or perhaps for other reasons, as I pointed out.

      In addition, some of the 650,000 property owners in Manitoba do not live in Manitoba. Thus, there are at least 700,000 Manitobans who will not benefit directly from Bill 71 and its 25 per cent reduction in education property tax. This is the first major inequity.

      Second, it is uncertain to what extent renters will benefit. Although the bill specifies a two-year rent freeze, this is hardly comparable to a long-term de­crease in the property tax, which property owners are expected to receive.

      Further, landlords have found ways, through renovations, as an example, to avoid rent freezes. This is the second great inequity between property owners and renters.

      Third, there are many Manitobans who live in First Nation communities and who do not pay prop­erty tax on land within the First Nations community. These Manitobans will not benefit. This is the third great inequality between First Nations people and others in Manitoba.

      Lastly, those who are experiencing homelessness and are neither property owners nor renters will receive no benefit. This is the fourth great inequity.

      Thus, I believe I have clearly established that this bill will produce inequities. But in order to support this amendment, it is important to show that address­ing inequities and inequalities is an important part of what governments should do. To address this, I will refer to a great deal of research, which has shown that inequities in income have a very negative impact on societies.

      Interestingly, the negative impact of inequalities in income is on everyone. The negative impact is on everyone in society, even those who may, in the short term, have greater wealth or benefit as a result of reduction in property tax.

      Let me explain, and to do this, I will refer specifi­cally to work of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. They have written an article titled, Greater Equality: The Hidden Key to Better Health and Higher Scores and they have reviewed a lot of research. This article was published in the American Educator, several years ago, in spring of 2011, but its message and the research on which it is based have been shown to stand on good ground and to have been research which is well done.

      What they show, Wilkinson and Pickett, is that inequalities appear to be a driving force in problems in societies. Egalitarian societies are more healthier. The big idea, which has been supported by much research is that what matters in determining mortality and health in a society is less the overall wealth of that society and more how evenly wealth is distributed. The more equally wealth is distributed, the healthier the society is.

      Inequality is associated with lower life expectan­cy, higher rates of infant mortality, shorter height, poorer self-reported health, low birth weight, in­creased AIDS and depression. I will go on and talk about more.

      When international comparisons were made and a whole variety of conditions were looked at, the list of problems which are more common in more unequal societies and more unequal countries include level of trust; mental illness, including drug and alcohol addic­tion; life expectancy and infant mortality; obesity; children's educational performance; teenage births; homi­cides; imprisonment rates; social mobility.

      To document this with very careful research, Wilkinson and Pickett formed an index of health and social problems for each country and for each United States state. And they looked at this pattern among many countries and among states in the United States, and what they showed is that there is a very strong tendency for ill health and social problems to occur less frequently in more equal countries.

      Health and social problems are more common in countries with bigger income inequalities. To empha­size that the prevalence of poor health and social problems in rich countries really is related to in­equality, rather than to an average living standard, they compared the index of health and social problems to average income.

      And what they showed is that there is no clear trend toward better outcomes in health and social issues in richer countries. And this is true across states in the United States as well, that health and social problems are related to income inequality, but not to average income level.

      The importance of community, social cohesion and solidarity to human well-being has been demon­strated repeatedly in research showing how beneficial friendship and involvement in community life are to health. Equality comes into the picture as a pre-condition for getting optimum healthy societies with optimum friendship and involvement in community life.

      It may seem obvious that problems associated with relative deprivation should be more common in more unequal societies, however, if you ask people why greater equality reduces these problems, the most common assumption that greater quality helps those at the bottom. The truth is that in fact, when you increase the amount of equality–when you decrease inequalities–the vast majority of the population is harmed by greater inequality.

      Thus, as examples, across whole populations, rates of mental illness are three times as high in the most unequal societies compared with the least equal societies. Similarly, in more equal societies, people are almost 10 times as likely to be imprisoned and two or three times as likely to be clinically obese, and murder rates may be many times higher in more un­equal societies.

      It looks as if based on all this research that the achievement of higher national standards of educational performance may actually depend on re­ducing the social gradient in educational achievement in each country.

This is a really important message for us in Manitoba. We are debating now–and have been for some time–how we improve the outcomes of education in Manitoba. And what this research is showing is that an important aspect of this is actually reducing inequalities in Manitoba. And this may actually be a much more effective way than all the totality of measures which are put forward in Bill 64.

It is interesting. Since 1980, income inequality in the United States has increased rapidly. And in this same period, public expenditures on prisons has increased six times as fast as public expenditure on higher education. That's not a direction that we want here in Manitoba. We would rather be spending that money on getting greater equality and on helping students get better education.

      What is actually most exciting about this research is that it shows reducing inequality would increase the well-being and the quality of life for all of us. Too often, every problem is seen as needing its own solu­tion, unrelated to others. People are encouraged to exercise, not to have unprotected sex, to say no to drugs, to try to relax, to sort out their work-life balance and to give their children quality time.

      The only thing that many of these policies have in common is that they often seem to be based on the belief that the poor need to be taught to be more sensible. The glaringly obvious fact that these pro­blems have common roots in inequality and relative deprivation disappears from view and is not con­sidered. We need in Manitoba to consider it.

      It is clear that income distribution provides policy-makers with a way of improving the psycho­social well-being of whole populations. It's interesting countries like Japan manage to achieve low levels of inequality before taxes and benefits. The Japanese differences in gross earnings before taxes and benefits are smaller, so there is less need for large-scale redistribution.

But other countries have operated differently and treated–created greater equality by having more redistribution of income. There is more than one way of getting to a goal of achieving greater equality among people in Manitoba.

      It is of interest that this research extends a clear warning, a clear warning to those like the government in Manitoba right now who want low public expen­ditures and taxation. Because if you fail to avoid high inequality, you will need more prisons and more police; you will have to deal with higher rates of mental illness, drug abuse and every other kind of problem. If keeping taxes and benefits down leads to wider income differences, the ensuing social ills may force you to raise public expenditures to cope. This Bill 71 is counterproductive, and it's counterpro­ductive because it will increase inequalities, and those inequalities will cause greater social problems and social health problems.

      There is a choice between using public expen­diture to keep inequality low–which is the best option–or the Pallister government option to cope with social harm where inequality is high. We need to bring all this together. Our drive should be to reduce in­equalities in Manitoba. And by reducing inequalities in Manitoba, we will improve school performance, we will improve the health of people, we will improve our whole society.

      Bill 71 makes a big mistake because what it's trying to do is to create greater inequality. It is pro­viding more benefits to those who are already well off and less to no benefits–some cases actually may be worse–to those who are less well off.

      This amendment is very important because it points out that we don't want to create greater in­equalities; we want to create greater equalities. And so I and the Manitoba Liberals will be supporting this amendment because equalities are important and they are very important to government policy. And creating greater equality is important if we're going to have a better community, a better society.

      What the Pallister government is proposing takes us in exactly the wrong direction, the direction of greater inequalities, more social problems and poorer health. Let us all support this amendment. Let us pass this amendment and get on with making a better Manitoba. Let us turn around from the direction of Bill 71, which creates greater inequalities. Let us support the amendment which recognizes that a more equal society is a better society. Let us support the amendment.

I hope all MLAs will do so and so that we can move forward at this stage and get on with Estimates, get on with dealing with the other business of govern­ment and create a better Manitoba.

      Thank you, Mr. Speaker–Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I will now pass it on to others, who I'm sure will have their own comments. Thank you.


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