Lower than the low expectations & better choices

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty set very low expectations for the Harper government’s third budget – and managed to deliver even less.     

There is nothing in this budget for public health care, childcare, poverty or homelessness, very little for the environment or for Aboriginal Canadians, nothing for working Canadians, nothing for women, nothing to improve public pensions, no long-term solutions for the municipal infrastructure deficit, and nothing for culture.    

To fill the void of any significant positive initiatives, the budget contains dozens of different measures, re-announcements and repackaging of existing programs.    It also provides dozens of new tax breaks, virtually all for corporations and investors but with nothing to benefit working Canadians.  

The promotional centrepiece on the tax side is a new Tax-Free Savings Account, which provides yet another tax shelter for investment income.  This will soon amount to billions in lost revenues – all in aid of the most affluent.  

It is not only the tax side that shows an absence of support for ordinary Canadians: new spending is overwhelming directed to business interests or to defence, policing and surveillance in most areas.  For example:  

For the environment, the Budget provides an extra $669 million over two years for “ensuring a cleaner, healthier environment”, but of this amount, 95% is to subsidize business in various forms, 4.7% is for enforcement and only 0.3% is for “promoting conservation and sustainable development”.  Providing only $2 million for conservation and sustainable development may have been some bureaucrat’s idea of a cruel and ironic joke, but it is also a stark reflection of this government’s priorities.  There is nothing else in the budget for environmental concerns, penalties for pollution, other measures to address the climate crisis or help doe households, communities or workers to adjust.  Not a core responsibility.  

For the vulnerable, the budget provides $406 million for “supporting the vulnerable”.   What this amounts to is $282 million in support to survivors of war veterans, $110 million for mental health demonstration projects, $10 million to protect elders from abuse and $3 million for medic alert bracelets.   There is nothing to reduce child or adult poverty, nothing to help exploited foreign workers, nothing to increase minimum wages, and nothing more for the world’s poorest.  Even the working poor lost out on a widely expected increase to the working income tax benefit.  Not priorities.  

Harper budgets always say that the federal government should focus on its core responsibilities.  This budget makes it clear just how narrow their view of that is: defence and policing, tax cuts, and support to a select group of profitable corporations.  And nothing else – and especially nothing more in the social realm.  

Even in an area such as Aboriginal affairs, which are undeniably and constitutionally entrenched as a federal responsibility, the Harper government is trying to relinquish these responsibilities to the provinces.  The 2008 Budget includes an extra $270 million over two years to “Strengthen Partnerships with Aboriginal Canadians”, but what this mostly involves is funding to integrate First Nations and Aboriginal programs with the provinces and territories.    

The budget also includes a ramming forward with the Harper government’s privatization agenda, with the incorporation of PPP Canada Inc., a federal office set up to privatize federal public assets and to force provinces and local governments to engage in P3s and to privatize public services. Apparently privatization, including of provincial and local government public services, is a core federal responsibility.  

For the Harper government, “Responsible Leadership” really means abandoning federal responsibility for the well-being of Canadians to business, free markets and, at most, lower levels of government.  

With just four simple revenue measures, the federal government could have raised enough revenue to show positive leadership in rebuilding Canada’s economy and society.  These progressive revenue measures and the positive programs they could finance are outlined below.

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