Government must restore free bus passes for people with disabilities

In the right conditions, a single spark can start a roaring fire. The BC Liberals’ decision to take away free bus passes from people with disabilities might just be that spark in British Columbia.

The government’s move was spectacularly insensitive. It must not be allowed to stand.

Already the issue has sparked protests at the legislature in Victoria, and an online petition closing in on 15,000 signatures. If the government doesn’t reverse itself quickly, the flames of opposition will be fanned and the Liberals will pay a serious political price. With just over a year until the provincial election campaign, this is an issue people will remember.

Last month, the BC Liberals introduced this year’s provincial budget, boasting that it included more than a quarter billion dollar surplus.

After so many years of frozen rates, the tiny net increase in disability benefits offered by the B.C. government is insulting and insufficient | Photo courtesy of the Province of British Columbia

After so many years of frozen rates, the tiny net increase in disability benefits offered by the B.C. government is insulting and insufficient | Photo courtesy of the Province of British Columbia

For those at the bottom economic rungs in B.C, however, the government offered next to nothing, despite the fact our province is plagued by income inequality, poverty, and soaring costs of living.

For nine years, social assistance for those living with disabilities has been frozen at a scandalously low rate of $906/month. In their budget, the Liberals included an increase of $77/month. But what the government gave with one hand, it took away with the other, cancelling the free monthly bus pass that was available to people with disabilities for a $45 annual fee. The government also cut travel subsidies for people with disabilities. These cuts hurt more than 50,000 people in the province, or more than half of all those suffering with permanent disabilities that affect their mobility, health, and ability to work.

The government justifies all this by pointing out that the new bus passes cost $52/month, so with the overall rate hikes there’s still a net increase for people with disabilities.

This is cruel mathematics, and it doesn’t make the removal of the free bus passes any more justifiable. After so many years of frozen rates amidst skyrocketing costs of housing, the tiny net increase in disability benefits is insulting and insufficient. The changes will see tens of thousands of people facing the indignity of having to choose between buying food and paying for a bus trip. Among other things, the risks of increased social isolation are obvious.

As a long-time critic of this government, I’ve often described Christy Clark and her ministers as neglectful of the poor, or as insensitive to the plight of those in need. The reality is it’s worse than that. In this case, their policy decision frankly looks like wilful cruelty.

Michael Smyth, the Province newspaper’s B.C. politics columnist, was scathing in his assessment: “They could easily give disabled people their rate increase, leave their transit passes alone and still balance the budget. Where is the government’s heart?”

Opposition to this heartless move is already spreading like wildfire. After hundreds rallied last week at the legislature in Victoria, the government reacted with a total lack of sensitivity. According to reports, the minister responsible, Michelle Stilwell, appeared to dismiss the protest as a stunt by the NDP: “today they bring everybody here for a photo op – a photo op – for their political gain, while they create anxiety and fear for people with disabilities around this province, when we are trying to assist them as best we can, when we can.”

Stilwell’s attitude adds insult to injury. It’s not the NDP creating anxiety and fear by giving voice to the concerns of tens of thousands of British Columbians with disabilities struggling to make ends meet. The anxiety and fear is all on the BC Liberals and their skewed priorities. A small fraction of the budget surplus would cover the cost of keeping the free bus passes. A slightly larger fraction of the surplus would allow disability assistance rates to be boosted to something more humane, like at least $1250/month.

The advocacy group Inclusion BC sums up the issue in a write-up explaining the rationale for an online petition they have created:

“As our provincial government tabled its budget, it touted B.C. as having the best financial outlook in the country. The government was finally in a position to announce an increase in benefits to catch up to the rapidly rising cost of living. To finally give people an increase only to claw it back for something as essential as transportation is mean-spirited and out-of-touch.”

The government must reverse its mean-spirited decision and restore the free bus pass. If they don’t, we must make sure they never hear the end of it.