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No option except to claw back the clawback

Rob Shaw: As history repeats with advocates angry with the government over clawbacks, it remains to be seen if the NDP ‘have the jam’ to face them, or the sense to back down.

BC’s abrupt changes to autism funding have thrown families into an anxious outrage, with a protest rally planned for the front of the legislature later this month, and a petition circulating with more than 15,000 signatures calling on the government to rethink the move.

The shift from individualized therapy funding, where parents pick the types of services and hours for their child, to a new “community hub” model that’s based on need, and might mean fewer hours of support, has left many angry and confused. They’ve flooded their MLAs with emails and letters, which the Opposition BC Liberals have been reading in the legislature recently, during a four-day stretch in which the autism funding issue was the dominant topic canvassed during question period.

That made for an emotional series of personal appeals to Children’s Minister Mitzi Dean to pause the reforms.

There was Koryn Heisler from North Vancouver, as read by BC Liberal MLA Karen Kirkpatrick. “I'm a parent to three children, two of whom have autism diagnoses. We feel like we're swimming with our heads just above water, one wave away from drowning. Taking our supports away would be pushing us under the water."

Or Karissa Crawley, with an autistic son, as read by MLA Stephanie Cadieux. “My family has spent years finding the right service providers for my son, and it will be catastrophic to our family to disrupt the people and therapies we have put in place. My son, who is already struggling, will have the rug pulled out from under him."

Or Meng Dong, a mother with a life-threatening illness trying to get her autistic son locked in with therapies in case she dies, as read by MLA Jackie Tegart. “This new system throws us into an unknown world again. To make things even worse, I might not be able to help him through this transition. This change makes my efforts turn to nothing. I'm so worried."

Dean tried gamely to defend the change, but her talking points were no match for the impassioned personal stories.

To be fair, no minister could go up against those kinds of heartfelt appeals. Political rhetoric sounds worst when deployed against real people, and real stories.

The New Democrats know this well.

In fact, the last time the legislature was filled with so many personal stories that eviscerated a minister so thoroughly was five years ago when the then BC NDP Opposition helped organize a rally in opposition to the province’s clawback of free bus passes from the disabled.

Then, the BC NDP came armed with their own devastating anecdotes and emails, sometimes bringing those affected families directly into the public gallery and daring the social development minister to look them in the eye and explain why the government was clawing back their bus pass and their independence.

On one afternoon in mid-March of 2016, there was the story of Kyla, from East Vancouver, with a disability pension, highlighted by MLA Melanie Mark. “Now she will have to choose between keeping her bus pass — something she relies on — or trying to keep up with the rising cost of putting food on the table. What choice does the minister think that Kyla should make?”

And there was Tabitha Naismith, a single mom with two children on disability in Surrey who needed the bus pass because she had epilepsy and couldn’t drive, showcased by then-MLA Michelle Mungall.

“Does the minister really think it’s fair to force Tabitha to choose between a bus pass that she needs to get around or the baby formula and diapers that she needs for her children?” asked Mungall.

The BC Liberal government tried at the time to deploy some spin - something about making the system more equitable for those with disabilities in rural BC who had no public transit.

Five years later, this month, the BC NDP tried their own spin - something about making the autism system equitable for those in rural BC who can’t access autism service providers.

But in both cases, the details of the policy and the rationale were swamped by the sheer raw emotion of angry and confused advocates for the most vulnerable.

The current government has potentially valid justifications for changing the autism funding system - almost 6,000 kids waiting more than a year and a half for an autism assessment just to access current funding, who would be helped right away under the new hub model.

But much like the disability bus passes, it’s too late to argue the detailed merits of a policy proposal once the mass of angry constituents arrive.

A government gets one chance to bring alongside front-line community groups, advocates and those affected by a major reform. It needs to give them at least enough information to answer basic questions from the start - and this government, on this issue, has had almost nothing for weeks to offer parents worried about the bottom-line issue of whether their therapy hours will continue or be reduced.

In the end, the BC Liberals buckled on the bus pass clawback. The government could not withstand the drubbing of personal stories in the legislature, or the rallies outside the front lawn of the legislature and at MLA offices.

The bet would be on the BC NDP to do the same. Though with a four-year window to phase out the current funding model, it could also try hunkering down and waiting out the storm - callously waiting for anxious parents to tucker themselves out and for the public to stop caring.

The autism community is planning its own rally on the front lawn of the legislature on Nov. 24. Some of the same people who fought the disability bus pass clawback will probably be there again.

Undoubtedly, advocates will be invited into the public gallery where the opposition will hammer the government using their emotional stories, and the government will have to sit there awkwardly in a mess that is entirely of its own making.

To see how this month’s autism protest is likely to play out, let’s go back to 2016, on the day of the bus pass rally at the legislature. Then-Opposition Leader John Horgan went outside to whip up the crowd, then came back into the house to point out that no governing BC Liberal MLAs “had the jam to go out and speak with the hundreds of people assembled on the steps of the legislature.”

“It’s a bigger shame that not one single member on that side of the House could make themselves available to talk to some of their constituents on the front lawn of this legislature,” he said.

“That’s a shame. Too bad for the minister. But where were the rest of you? Having lunch, I guess — having lunch.”

How many New Democrat MLAs will “have the jam” to address the autism protesters? How many will stay safely inside their offices, eating their lunch?

We’ll see.

The parties may have changed places, but the mishandling of a key file for the province’s most vulnerable population continues.

Horgan put it well in 2016: “I want to plead with the Minister of Social Development: listen to the people you’re supposed to represent, not the spin doctors back at public affairs, and restore the bus pass for the most vulnerable people in BC,” he said.

Now, those spin doctors work for him and his embattled children’s minister.

What a web they all spin, as history repeats itself.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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