BUSINESS WATCH

A zestful protector of Canadian values

Former CBC president Albert Johnson has some innovative and important ideas for altering Canada’s vital social programs

Peter C. Newman April 10 1989
BUSINESS WATCH

A zestful protector of Canadian values

Former CBC president Albert Johnson has some innovative and important ideas for altering Canada’s vital social programs

Peter C. Newman April 10 1989

A zestful protector of Canadian values

Former CBC president Albert Johnson has some innovative and important ideas for altering Canada’s vital social programs

BUSINESS WATCH

PETER C. NEWMAN

Albert Wesley Johnson is one of those rare Canadians who spent his life in the public service yet has never lost the zest for social reform or enthusiasm for imaginative new ways to help bring it about.

The son of an Insinger, Sask., preacher, Johnson earned a doctorate in political science and economics from Harvard and returned to his home province where, as deputy treasurer, he helped implement Canada’s first medicare program. He moved to Ottawa in 1964 and did the same thing federally, then served as chief economic and constitutional adviser to Pierre Trudeau. Promoted to secretary of the allpowerful Treasury Board, he later became deputy minister of health and welfare under Marc Lalonde and eventually spent seven productive years as president of the CBC. Johnson, who is 64, now teaches political science at the University of Toronto but expends most of his energy analysing current policy trends, especially free trade, Meech Lake and the fiscal impasse created by the universality of federal social programs.

Although culture was specifically exempted from free trade negotiations, Johnson says he is convinced that clauses in the agreement that allow outside investors to buy just about everything now Canadian-owned will permanently alter the way we see ourselves. He told me recently: “If one acknowledges that business has an impact on the social attitudes of a nation—whether by reason of its perspectives on preserving social order versus untrammeled individualism, its employment or workplace practices, or simply its advertising— then the more American business in Canada becomes, the more our social attitudes will tend to be influenced by those of the United States. It’s essential that the decision-makers who determine what will or will not be published have a deep and textured knowledge of and feeling for Canadian culture.”

Johnson is highly critical of the Meech Lake accord, mainly because its implementation

would so grievously weaken the federal power to initiate national social programs essential to a decent and dignified life—no matter what their jurisdictional origin. “The fathers of Meech Lake, unlike the Fathers of Confederation,” he said, “have not recognized one of the distinguishing features of Canadian nationhood—the sharing across the country of common public services which reflect our common values. Under Meech Lake, we could never have enacted medicare, for example. The sense of affinity and association, even esteem, which Canadians may feel for the federal authority will be fatally weakened if the accord is passed.

“What’s wrong with Canada’s social assistance system,” Johnson continued, switching to the current debate on universality, “is that, with the exception of programs for the very young and very old, there is nothing between universality and welfare. What’s needed most urgently is a family-income or earnings supplementation program based on income—a standalone plan to help the working poor. If I were advising Brian Mulroney, I would take out of the unemployment insurance system those payments that are really income supplements. It should be returned to its original function as

a genuine insurance scheme to help people between jobs—instead of the present system, which has brief qualifying periods and longterm payouts.

“I would then urge creation of a separate guaranteed annual income scheme,” Johnson went on, “so that any family of four with incomes below, say, $15,000 would be paid out of the federal treasury to bring them up to the minimum level. The Canada Assistance Plan would stay in place for people with incomes of less than $5,000, but the new income supplement would be reduced by 50 cents for every dollar of additional earned income.” (That means that support payments would actually range from zero to $30,000. One way to administer such a plan would be to integrate it with the tax system so that those individuals or families filing returns for incomes below the cutoff line would receive monthly compensatory cheques either from Ottawa or through their employers.)

Ottawa’s quest for some form of guaranteed minimum income dates back to 1970 and publication of the white paper on income security. Family allowances were increased to $20 from $6 a month per child, with a built-in rate of decline up to family earnings of $10,000 a year. Rudimentary as it was, the policy was adopted by all parties in the House of Commons in 1972. But it happened to come up just as the House was adjourning and, as a result, the bill needed unanimous consent. Independent Liberal Paul Hellyer voted against the measure, severely setting back Canada’s social assistance reform.

Three years later, with Johnson as deputy minister of health and welfare, the department published its so-called Orange Paper. It outlined a social insurance strategy that included a complicated but workable income supplement plan. Although a brief experiment with guaranteed annual incomes at Dauphin, Man., proved to be inconclusive, the Orange Paper set the stage for future policy. Its studies and conclusions contributed substantially to Saskatchewan’s Family Income Plan (1974), Ottawa’s Child Tax Credit plan (1978), Quebec’s Work Income Supplement Program (1979), Manitoba’s Income Support Program (1980) and the MacDonald Commission’s Universal Income Supplementation Program (1985).

Johnson says that the Tories were headed in the same direction with Michael Wilson’s 1985 budget when the finance minister declared his intention of adjusting social programs “so that benefits are targeted to those most in need and funds are freed for other social priorities.” Johnson added: “Wilson’s mistake was to announce cuts such as deindexing of old age security without any accompanying blueprint for alternate income supplementation. The gods of Canada’s past had been challenged and the grey power of Canada’s present had been angered. The protests were so strong that the government backed down.”

With its current emphasis on deficit reduction, the Mulroney government must take the political risk of jettisoning universality—and directing federal funds to those who really need them.