Jim Flaherty released the federal budget yesterday afternoon, and as expected it presented a “business-as-usual” approach. Announced in the midst of the Sochi Olympics, Budget 2014 contained few new policy announcements, achieving its goal of a quiet release.
That silence was heard across Canada as those concerned with stubbornly high poverty rates, continued inaction against climate change, and Canada’s treatment of refugees found little to cheer for. Despite growing consensus around clear alternatives on these issues, yesterday’s budget set its sights on fighting the financial deficit. Sadly, huge and unnecessary social and environmental deficits are left in its wake.
The federal government’s stated goal is a surplus by 2015, which is clearly politically motivated with the 2015 election on the horizon. CPJ maintains that Canada should avoid making long-term policy decisions based solely on the deficit or surplus of the moment. Yet it is entirely possible that we could craft a budget that pursues the common good while ensuring sufficient revenues for a surplus in 2015, as demonstrated by the Alternative Federal Budget (AFB). CPJ’s own pre-budget brief, which addressed critical social and environmental concerns, recommended increasing revenues by adopting a harmonized carbon tax and eliminating boutique tax expenditures that benefit those who least need tax relief.
Budgets are about priorities. They represent values. With this year’s budget, the federal government has missed another opportunity to contribute to the common good and to create change that would benefit everyone in Canada.
As CPJ’s Poverty Trends Highlights: Canada 2013 indicates, at least 2.96 million Canadians live in poverty — a condition that robs people of opportunity and dignity. Depending on the measure used, 9 – 14 per cent of children are poor, including a shocking 50 per cent of First Nations children. Clearly all levels of government in Canada have a public justice responsibility to love “the least of these” through income supports and policies that help low-income children and their families.
Despite this, Budget 2014 ignored the long-standing recommendation made by CPJ and countless other researchers, anti-poverty groups and the opposition parties to increase just such a program: the National Child Benefit Supplement (NCBS). Introduced in 1998, the NCBS is targeted at low-income families and has proven successful at reducing poverty. Doubling the maximum monthly NCBS maximum (to $370 for the first child) could lift as many as 260,000 children out of poverty.
The cost? Approximately $3 billion a year, just over 1 per cent of total government spending. While this isn’t an insignificant amount, it would make a demonstrable difference in the lives of children in need and represent a collective investment in our nation’s future.
Instead of making this investment, Budget 2014 touted the government’s low-tax agenda and its progress in reducing public spending. Rather than helping give poor kids a better chance in life, the government has indicated it will spend a portion of that surplus – the exact same amount of $3 billion dollars a year – on their controversial income splitting proposal, a policy which will disproportionately benefit the rich instead of helping those most in need.
As part of a growing global consensus that urgent action is needed to address climate change, Canada signed onto the Copenhagen Accord in 2009, making a commitment that by the year 2020, we would reduce our emissions by 17 per cent from our 2005 level. Indications from Environment Canada, however, are that we are barely half-way to this goal. And according to the September 2013 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in order to limit global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, most known fossil fuel reserves must stay underground.
In light of the global environmental crisis, CPJ and many others (including the coalition behind the AFB) recommended that Budget 2014 include the introduction of a carbon tax as part of a policy framework that would encourage a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to moving Canada towards our emission reduction goal (and preparing us for the additional work needed as we join the international community in Paris in 2015), a carbon tax would have the added benefit of actually generating federal revenue that could be invested in societal goals.
Instead, under the auspices of “responsible resource development,” Budget 2014 commits the federal government to continuing to expand oil sands exploration, setting the stage for a 75 per cent increase in production over 2012 levels to 5.8 million barrels of crude oil per day by 2035. At the core of this expansion is a $28 million review of pipeline projects (like the Energy East pipeline), improvements to the tanker safety regime, and reduced tariffs to promote offshore drilling in oil and gas exploration. While the financial outlay is relatively modest, oil sands expansion sets Canada on a collision course with creation.
“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” If we are to preserve God’s great Earth, the life-giving source upon which we all rely, it is clear that action to curb climate change is urgently needed. We invite the Canadian government to listen to the voices of religious leaders (see the Interfaith Call for Leadership and Action on Climate Change), networks of non-governmental organizations (see the Alternative Federal Budget), and ordinary Canadians who are taking personal action through initiatives like “Fasting for the Climate.”
Last year, CPJ’s pre-budget submission included a recommendation to rescind the Interim Federal Health Cuts to privately sponsored refugees awaiting approval in Canada. Despite similar calls from the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Nurses Association, the College of Family Physicians of Canada, and the Canadian Council for Refugees (among many others), this issue was not addressed in Budget 2014.
Until June of 2012, refugees and asylum seekers were able to access basic health care services — approximately the same level of care as those on social assistance. Now, some asylum seekers will only be seen if they have a condition that poses a public health risk.
Since our initial budget submission, Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews reinstated health coverage to refugees and asylum-seekers in Ontario. Her government joins five other provinces in defying the federal government on compassionate grounds. Recently, all 10 provincial health ministers condemned the federal cuts.
The Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers and Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care have launched a Federal Court challenge of the cuts based on several sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But the government continues to cling to saving $20 million a year — a tiny fraction of one percent of health spending — instead of rescinding the cuts.
A Glimmer of Hope
More than a third (38%) of aboriginals in Canada do not complete high school and only 7% percent obtain a university degree. Given this fact, and the disturbingly high poverty rate of First Nations children mentioned above, CPJ was encouraged to see Budget 2014 commit $1.25 billion over three years to the on-reserve education system through the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act. While it remains to be seen whether or not the new Act will empower First Nations communities to effect meaningful change, it is a step in the right direction.
Budgets reflect the underlying values of a society. Even though Budget 2014 was largely disappointing, we must maintain hope. Hope that we can find common ground for the common good. As we continue to respond to God’s call to work for a Canada where public justice is reflected in our public policy, it is these values of love and justice that spur us on.