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B.C. Liberal MLAs take up NDP’s child-support clawback battle

Premier Christy Clark speaks to media following a flash mob event put on by Reynolds Secondary School on the steps of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria on Feb.26, 2014.

Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail

B.C. New Democrats have been unsuccessful in getting the provincial government to end the clawback of child-support payments for single parents on income assistance. But this weekend at the party convention, members of the governing B.C. Liberal party will join the battle.

Delegates from Liberal MLA Doug Bing's riding have drafted a resolution calling on the government to provide an exemption that would allow single parents on welfare to keep the additional support, saying it fits with the party's core values of a "compassionate free enterprise system."

There is no guarantee the resolution will make it to the floor for debate – for the most part this convention is expected to be a love-in for Premier Christy Clark, who led her party to an unexpected and hard-fought victory in 2013. And there are only two hours allowed for policy debate, so the majority of proposals will not be discussed.

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But the resolution highlights an undercurrent of tension in Ms. Clark's coalition party.

Mr. Bing said the resolution reflects concerns from Liberals in his constituency about poverty, but he added that it is not unique to his community. "There is a government policy and the caucus has a position, but I don't think it is unanimous by any means," he said. "This motion comes from the grassroots and people want this discussed."

William O'Brien is an executive member of the Liberal Vancouver-Langara riding association. He said it would be a mistake for convention organizers to suppress any real debate at the Kelowna gathering.

"At this point we are feeling pretty abandoned," he said. Mr. O'Brien's MLA is Liberal backbencher Moira Stilwell, but he stressed he is only speaking for himself. He said the Liberal government has made policy decisions, such as the changes to the Agricultural Land Reserve, that don't sit well with rank-and-file party members.

"I believe there are solutions out there," he added, but said Ms. Clark's government hasn't tuned in to the party's internal policy debates. "The issue with kids in need – that whole file is embarrassing. They are heading off in a direction I don't believe in."

Ms. Clark, who has steadfastly rejected the NDP's efforts to end the clawback, said in an interview on Thursday that her government will to be guided by convention policy.

The province collects roughly $17-million each year by deducting, dollar for dollar, from income-assistance payments any court-ordered child support payments, to ensure that people collecting benefits from government have exhausted all other means of income support.

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Ms. Clark said her party has been tone-deaf to the party's rank-and-file in the past under former premier Gordon Campbell, and it is something that she is trying to change.

"We haven't had a tradition in the last decade of passionate public debate within our party about important policy issues, and part of the change that I hope I have brought to this party is that we can start to have those debates again publicly," she said. "Because that's why people join political parties, so they can express their views and they can have an impact on what government is doing."

The policy resolution notes that the B.C. Liberal party "believes in the commitment to achieve a fair-minded and prosperous society [that protects] the rights, freedoms and dignity of all individuals." It calls on the government to exempt any payments that are made under the family maintenance enforcement program from the rules for social assistance provided to single parents.

Ms. Clark maintained that her government can't afford to change the rules right now.

"This is not an ideological debate. It's whether or not we can afford it as a province," Ms. Clark said. But she said she and her cabinet will be listening carefully to the weekend debate.

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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