Budgets are about choices. They let us know what our political leaders think is important.
On April 21, Finance Minister Joe Oliver Federal delivered Budget 2015, entitled “Strong Leadership.” According to its full title, this budget was designed to provide jobs, growth and security for Canadians.
But this budget is not for everyone in Canada.
It ignores the 4.8 million Canadians who live in poverty. And with major climate negotiations coming later this year, it ignores the climate crisis that future generations will have to deal with. It ignores the tens of thousands of vulnerable refugees who come to Canada looking for a better life.
The federal government also chose to balance Budget 2015. With over $290 billion in revenue, it has a surplus of $1.4 billion – 0.5% of the total budget. Meanwhile, according to an Ipsos poll released just hours before the budget, 59% of Canadians prefer a budget that makes investments in jobs, the economy, and social programs to a balanced budget. So this budget is not for them either.
A Budget for Bankers
Would Canadians looking for ways out of poverty, or an end to growing inequality, find “Strong Leadership” in Budget 2015?
Perhaps. That is, if they are older persons with considerable discretionary income to invest in retirement funds. For the poor, for Indigenous peoples, and for single parent families... less so.
A key announcement in Budget 2015 was the government’s fulfillment of their promise to introduce income splitting for families, topped out at a saving of $2,000. CPJ has questioned the fairness of this plan previously, due to the fact that there are more advantageous options to assist poorer families in need. The Opposition parties suggest only 15% of Canadians will benefit from income splitting.
CPJ would have liked to have seen Budget 2015 announce a federal plan to reduce poverty, but this was avoided once again. CPJ’s brief to the Parliamentary Finance Committee suggested financial enhancements to the Conservatives’ Working Income Tax Benefit – but Budget 2015 offered none, suggesting only that “The Government of Canada will examine initiatives to further increase awareness and take-up of the WITB.”
The decision to increase Tax Free Savings Account annual contributions from $5,500 to $10,000 will cheer bankers and investment firms as well as that small number of our neighbours able to invest such amounts. Some seniors will benefit from the announcement of lower withdrawal rates for Registered Retirement Income Funds, the welcomed expansion of compassionate leave benefits to care for a gravely ill family member (from six weeks to six months), and the Home Accessibility Tax Credit which allows tax deductions for renovations for seniors’ and disabled persons’ residences.
Although some policies announced in Budget 2015 could somewhat help low income Canadians, there were more effective policies available to government. Substantially increasing child tax benefits and the Canada Pension Plan, for example, could have yielded more equitable and inclusive results.
Staying the Course on Climate Change
Climate change is the issue of the 21st century.
Per capita, Canadians are among the most egregious emitters of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the world, and the most significant contributor to our emissions is the oil and gas sector (yes, even with the slump in oil prices).
Cognizant of the seriousness of climate change, the urgent need for an economic transition, and our Christian imperative to protect and promote the flourishing of creation, CPJ simply asked that Budget 2015 implement promised regulations across the oil and gas sector to meet Canada’s Copenhagen Accord commitments by 2020.
Recognizing, however, that regulation is insufficient to prompt the necessary reduction of GHG emissions (they must be virtually eliminated by 2015), CPJ also supported the Alternative Federal Budget’s call for the government to establish a carbon price based on the “polluter pays principle.”
The federal government, however, chose to stay the course.
If Budget 2015 is any indication, the only climate of interest to the government is Canada’s investment climate.
Where a discussion of a renewed approach to Canadian energy policy should have been, the government has once again focused on “responsible resource development.” Instead of investing in green energy, Budget 2015 chose to support the development of a liquefied natural gas industry, tax-credits for mining, and extending natural gas export licenses, among others things.
According to the budget document, “The Government has enshrined the principle of ‘polluter pays’ in legislation” (emphasis added). But in truth, this principle is applied only to industrial “accidents.” It is not applied to GHG emissions that are known to result from the normal operation of the fossil fuel industry.
To their credit, the government did include a provision for $80 million over five year to the National Energy Board, “for safety and environmental protection and greater engagement with Canadians” relating to interprovincial oil, gas, and electricity activities.
Fortunately, the government also responded to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ request for public transit funding in the amount of “$750 million over two years, starting in 2017–18, and $1 billion per year ongoing thereafter.”
By supporting more convenient and time-efficient commutes for Canadians, investments in public transit will result in fewer (single-occupancy) vehicles on the road and a corresponding decline in carbon emissions. According to the TransitWindsor, one bus can replace 40-50 cars and eliminate upwards of 175 tonnes of GHGs per year.
Cleaner air and healthier cities will also most likely result, as well as between 9,000 and 14,000 green jobs for every $1 billion of public transit investment, according to the Canadian Labour Congress.
Finally, in the category of “protecting Canada’s environment,” the federal budget pledged $75 million to protect species at risk, $32 million to enhance conservation, $34 million to maintain meteorological and navigational warning services in the Arctic, $393 million to address toxic substances, and $100 million to clean up contaminated sites. Together, this amounts to $634 million, or approximately 0.2% of the total budget (based on a $290 billion budget).
Refugee Rights Ignored
Refugees are not specifically mentioned in the federal budget. There are, however, some relevant elements hidden within it.
The government has made it clear that its priority is economic growth. Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of such vulnerable groups as refugees. Though the budget stated that the Canada Social Transfer will continue to grow by three per cent, no money has been specially allocated for refugees to ensure that they can access these crucial services. There will be no increased funding to assist in the resettlement of sponsored refugees, meaning that the burden will continue to fall to private sponsors, most of whom are faith groups. Finally, there was no indication that the government plans to restore funding for the Interim Federal Health program, which was cut in 2012.
The government consistently professes its commitment to ensuring jobs for Canadians. To this end, they had thousands of temporary foreign workers (TFWs) expelled from the country at the beginning of the month, despite the contributions of TFWs to the Canadian labour market and the fact that many had been here for years. The government claims that restricting the TFW program will make more jobs available for Canadians. At the same time, however, it has implemented the Express Entry program which “selects the top economic immigrants who are most likely to succeed in Canada and contribute to the Canadian economy, the labour market and communities,” demonstrating that its focus is still on growing the economy, rather than the prosperity of individual citizens.
Although refugees are not singled out, the legislation contains the same language that has been used when justifying other restrictive measures targeted directly at refugees. Specifically, it mentions facilitating “legitimate” travel for “genuine” visitors, students and businesspeople. By identifying these groups in these terms, the government is demonstrating its continued preoccupation with excluding certain categories of people deemed not worthy of entry to Canada.
An Election Document
Budget 2015 is clearly an election document. That’s not altogether a bad thing. In any democracy, it’s important for our leaders to present citizens with their vision.
This pre-election budget made its choices based on political calculation. It opted for a sliver of a budget surplus instead of needed investments. It made promises to honoured in two be to three years’ time, while it ignored the immediate needs of low-income Canadians, Indigenous peoples, and refugees.
A public justice lens would expect a federal budget to present a vision for Canada that includes all of us. It would be an expression of our love of neighbour and care for creation.
Photo Credit: World Economic Forum (Flickr CC)