When Middle Ground Becomes Battle Ground

I wish to note for the record that I respect Jason Cherniak, Liblog founder and co-chair of the Stephane Dion blogging campaign. Just like Stephen Taylor, I’ve seen the person behind the politics and I know him to be a decent chap. And though I’ve corrected him on a couple of (in my opinion) mistakes, he’s not held a grudge. So I hope he doesn’t mind if I deconstruct his week.

Jason is facing some controversy after engaging in a debate on the minimum wage with a number of NDP bloggers and other bloggers on the left. He started when he rebutted NDP MPP Cheryl DiNovo’s proposal to increase Ontario’s minimum wage from $7.75 to $10 per hour. He followed up with a post critiquing statements in a Toronto Star article describing how hard life was when one only earned a minimum wage. He did not like the criticism that followed and lashed back, which earned him more criticism.

It seems to me that Jason has not had a good week, between this and the Wajid Khan affair. But more than that, Jason had the misfortune of finding himself defending the middle ground in the debate over whether or not to raise the minimum wage. Part of this is simply the unavoidable consequence of how the Liberals have handled the issue, but part of this is Jason falling into the pitfalls of partisan debate.

After Mike Harris froze the minimum wage in Ontario, the McGuinty Liberals have been raising it incrementally. This February, workers earning $7.75 per hour will see their wages increase to $8. This has to be of some relief to individuals who must have found the Harris years to be especially punishing. Not only were services downloaded into oblivion, minimum wage earners were for years denied a raise while inflation continued apace.

But $8/hr at 37.5 hours a week is a very low salary, and it is hard to imagine anybody making a living on such a pittance, especially in such high-cost cities as Toronto and Ottawa. A lot of people note this, and the widening gap between the rich and poor, which is why DiNovo — an individual with a long history of advocacy for the poor — has proposed increasing the minimum wage to $10/hr, something approaching a decent living for our working poor.

Although Jason makes a valiant attempt to explain the Liberals’ reasoning for raising the minimum wage to $8/hr but not $10/hr, he still finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place. The Liberals had already bought into all of the reasons for intervening in the economy, enforcing a minimum wage, and increasing it, so why not increase it to $10? Jason’s arguments could not help but borrow from reasoning which argued that the minimum wage should not be increased at all — the pressure to the economy leading to increases in unemployment, that sort of thing. And immediately that led those who are sensitive to the issues of the poor to lump the Liberals in with the Conservatives as being enemies of the poor.

That the Liberals selected a standpoint that is between the conservative (stay out of the marketplace; DON’T increase the minimum wage!) and the progressive (the least among us need our help; raise the minimum wage MORE!) points of view, is not a surprise. The art of Liberal governing, however, is the difference between establishing yourself as the reasonable compromise, and getting both extremes angry at you. Part of the problem may have been that the Liberals have been forced to challenge the NDP proposal. Standing out as the reasonable compromise requires getting the NDP and the Conservatives to duke it out, and right now, as the Liberals end up defending the more Conservative point of view, the Conservatives are sitting back and eating popcorn.

I don’t know how the McGuinty government could have avoided this. In many cases, you just have to take a stand, and take your lumps. This is what the Liberals are doing, to their credit. But where Jason makes his first mistake, in my opinion, is in this post wherein he takes on statements posted by the Toronto Star:

Benzie’s article includes this gem:

Ashley Nickles, 18, is one of the slew of Ontario residents struggling to make ends meet on minimum-wage or near-minimum-wage.

Nickles, who moved to Toronto from London, Ont., about seven months ago, earns $8 an hour dispensing ice cream to customers at a downtown parlour. She works about 44 hours a week and after taxes takes home roughly $300.

“It’s just enough to get me by,” said Nickles, who shares the rent on a Scarborough apartment with her boyfriend. After paying for the essentials, including the rent, food, transportation and hydro, she has about $250 left over for the month.

[Emphasis Added]

Wow. That’s actually much better than I expected. $250 after paying for the essentials? I’m not saying it’s a lot, but it is sure as heck a reasonable living. At 18, she could even put away $1,200 a year in savings if she wanted to!

My wife and I earn close to $50,000 per year, but it is still a struggle to make ends meet. The Liberals and the Conservatives have both proposed programs and policies designed to make our lives easier, including day care and education programs on the Liberal side and tax credits and cuts on the Conservative side. But as each critiques the other, they’ve been very careful to focus on the individual benefits of their own plans, and the wider drawbacks of their opponents’ proposals. The Liberals do not say “people who want tax cuts are complaining about nothing” unless they focus those statements on corporations or the very rich, who they can safely criticize without alienating the rest of society. The Conservatives, to their credit, have tried to clean up the sense that they want to punish the poor; instead, they’re more likely to say “middle class families don’t want your programs” instead of “middle class families don’t need your programs.”

Then there is the fact that, “the essentials” listed above are a pretty short list and probably don’t cover the expenses an average individual earning minimum wage is likely to encounter. Despite Jason’s implication, that $250 per month is not going to frivolous items. In a city as expensive as Toronto and Ottawa, $250 per month offers few opportunities for individuals to purchase those items which make life more worth living. More critically, $250 per month is not a big cushion to protect yourself against unexpected expenses, such as dentist bills, insurance premiums, repairs, accidents, loss of income due to illness. Even at $50,000 per year, Erin and I are still far from building a proper security blanket around ourselves, and that adds stress to our daily lives. In many people, stress leads to anger.

The point is: nobody likes to be told that their day-to-day struggles are all in their head, that their needs are not real, and that they shouldn’t be complaining about how hard their lives are. My life is hard enough to have the Liberals and Conservatives tripping over themselves to come up with policies to help me and gain my vote. Indeed, the NDP harms their credibility by claiming that Erin and I are rich, and that our tax burden needs to increase to help those less fortunate than ourselves. Jason inadvertently commits the same mistake on a group of people whose lives are probably much harder than my own. And he’s surprised when people get angry at him?

Yes, it’s clear that some have gone a little too far in attacking Jason’s position. Debating against an increase in the minimum wage does not make one a sexist pig; witness how Robert McLelland responds to a question raised on his blog about why $10/hr is a better minimum wage than, say, $12/hr. But in responding to these attacks, Jason makes another mistake by playing the martyr card, and accusing the Ontario NDP of being the ones throwing the stones.

As the individual who started this thread notes, she doesn’t live in Ontario and while she is a member of the Blogging NDP, she’s also a member of the Green Bloggers, and Jason didn’t title his post “Online Greens Exposed”. The forum in question, Bread and Roses is not affiliated with the New Democratic Party. Jason really hurts his credibility with his baseless accusations.

It is unfortunate that some individuals have attacked Jason in the way they have, but the wider response is understandable, and legitimate. When you make any sort of political policy as concrete as setting the minimum wage at one level and not another, you put your neck out. You invite people to take swings at it. And with the Liberals planting themselves in the middle of the minimum wage debate, they risk turning the middle ground into a battle ground, with attacks coming from both sides.

The struggle to make a living is harder in few other places than for those earning minimum wage, and a struggle that intense is going to provoke strong responses when debates start up. Ultimately, Jason has to grow a thicker skin, because people are not going to stop caring over the fact that their lives are hard and that the government (for whatever reason) refuses to make it better the way that they would like.

There was also more diplomatic ways to articulate a critique of the NDP’s proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10. Rather than question the need, Jason’s response should have remained along the lines of “I understand your frustrations, but…” Again, Robert is able to defend why the minimum wage should be raised to just $10 and not $12 without deriding the needs of those earning $11/hr. Yes, any such statements is going to risk you getting lumped in by the NDP anti-rich mouth-frothers with the Conservative anti-poor Neanderthals (not my words), but you still stand a better chance of being seen as the beacon of reason in a tumultuous debate. It’s not easy, but when politics seems easy, you’re probably doing something wrong.

Jason is still young, though (27), and a week is a lifetime in politics. This debate will be forgotten by the blogosphere, and it hasn’t even registered in the wider media. I do hope that Jason learns from his experience, however, and takes the constructive criticisms to heart.

On Wajid Khan and Jason Cherniak

As for the other part of Jason’s bad week, while I agree that he must be having a frustrating time trying to manufacture outrage for a defection Canadians don’t particularly care about, I could do without the hypocrisy of bloggers trying to manufacture outrage over Jason’s throwaway suggestion that Liberals picket Khan’s former business, Dufferin Mazda.

Before election as an MP, Wajid Khan was the President and CEO of a car dealership, Dufferin Mazda. I don’t know if he still owns it, but I do know that Khan Motorsport is a Maza parts company that works closely with Dufferin Mazda. Maybe we should protest in front of the dealership. I would not organize such a thing unless I knew for sure that he or his family still had a financial stake, though. Does anybody know for sure?


In response:

Cherniak crosses the line. He wants people to go after Khan’s business. What next? Khan’s home? The school where his kids go to school? The restaurant he likes? Anyone with a name Khan?


While it would be nice if jason had suggested something more appropriate (like, say, picketing Khan’s constituency office), it’s instructive that Jason did not suggest Khan’s home, or the school where Khan’s kids went to school. That’s a mighty hefty amount of projection on this blogger’s part.

And I seem to recall, a Conservative blogger or two went so overboard during the Belinda Stronach crossing as to publish the woman’s personal cell phone number and encourage her readers to render it unusable with a bunch of angry and threatening personal messages. So far, no one has apologized for that.

Nice to know that when Liberals go overboard, they don’t go as far overboard as some Conservatives can when they feel betrayed.

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