Opposition Leader Jack Layton has criticized the budget and feels families could be hit hard.

Small budget changes could have big social impact say critics

  • June 8, 2011

OTTAWA — The June 3 Throne Speech reiterates modest campaign promises and the June 6 budget is virtually identical to the budget tabled Mar. 22. However, these little changes could have a huge impact on Canadian society, observers say.

Though the 400-page budget document emphasizes stability, a think tank concerned about a flourishing civil society says the Conservative government is “preparing for a coming storm in Canadian politics: one which they intend to shape and survive.”

That storm involves the aging of Canadian society that will see 2.5 workers for every retiree, up from the present 4.7 workers per retiree; a coming health care crunch that has not been publicly addressed; and the ways an increased free trade environment might hurt some sectors of the economy, Cardus warns.

“The increased emphasis on expenditure review and the advanced targets for returning to surplus are just two indicators that this budget is really about battening down the hatches and rolling out the foundations for shaping tomorrow’s social architecture,” said an analysis by Cardus, a think tank that now incorporates the former Centre for Culture Renewal.

The Conservative budget is using incentives to shape behavior through tax cuts, rather than providing services with comprehensive programs, Cardus said. “The reduction in federal revenue will make for smaller government.”

But Cardus pointed out the stress on growing the for-profit sector does not consider the impact on the not-for-profit or charitable sector.

Criticism of the budget mostly feel along ideological lines, with fiscal conservatives giving faint praise and progressives warning against the unidentified spending cuts that will bring the federal government to a balanced budget by 2014.

"The Budget indicates that Prime Minister Harper is moving towards a more conservative fiscal stance, which is welcome,” said retired economist Richard Bastien, director of Canada's Catholic Civil Rights League for the National Capital region. “The new government appears to be clearly committed to reducing spending and to limiting the size of the public sector.”

“Such a commitment is essential to the long term healthiness of our public finance.”

But the government has not indicated where the cuts will come from. Opposition Leader Jack Layton criticized the budget for being “vague” on that front. “We’re worried they could hit families hard,” he said. Many other groups also expressed fear of what the cuts will do to government services and public employees.

“There’s nothing here on continuing challenge of poverty,” said Liberal Leader Bob Rae. “Even the tax credits that they’ve given out, none of them are refundable so that none of them go to people who are not paying income taxes, people who have incomes below – net incomes below 20,000. That’s an awful lot of people. So basically what the government is saying is if you’re poor, your kid doesn’t get piano lessons.”

Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ) flagged the lack of a poverty-reduction strategy in the Throne Speech.

“The word poverty was not mentioned, and the only reference to ‘the most vulnerable in society came in relation to the government’s crime agenda,” said analysis by CPJ, which like Cardus noted the government’s “whole approach to economic security is jobs and growth.”

“While the renewal of the Health Transfer in 2014 was referenced, the Social Transfer, due for renewal at the same time, was not mentioned,” CPJ said.

The budget’s plan to phase out per vote subsidies to political parties also got a mixed reaction. Layton called them essential to democracy. Bastien applauded them.

Cardus’ analysis said the $27 million political subsidy looks like “pocket change” in relation to a $280 billion budget, but said the cut “represents a fundamental change to the way political parties operate.”

“This is a strike at the heart of politics as usual,” Cardus said. The other parties have relied far more on the per-vote federal subsidy and will have to learn new ways to cultivate grassroots support, “limiting the influence of establishment elite.”

Yet while the Conservatives have done a much better job of garnering small donations from members, Cardus predicted the internal politics of all parties will become less stable. The Conservatives “will have to figure out how to keep their newly empowered but divergent base united,” Cardus said.

One area of disappointment for the Catholic Civil Rights League is a lack of any action on Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, the section that makes anything “likely” to expose an identifiable group to contempt or hatred the subject of human rights complaints and rulings that have often clamped down on Christian expression.

The Catholic Civil Rights League, REAL Women of Canada and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada all urged the government to respect religious freedom and conscience issues during the election.

An election promise to create an Office of Religious Freedom did get into the Throne Speech, but in the foreign affairs section. League executive director Joanne McGarry said the new office will address the “very serious issues of religious freedom around the world, particularly for Christians.” Because of the violence religious believers face around the world, the office belongs under foreign affairs, she said.

But she would like to see the government address religious freedom, freedom of speech and conscientious and parental rights here at home, particularly regarding section 13.

“I’m not pretending they are comparable but they are both religious freedom challenges,” she said.

KAIROS criticized the lack of any direct reference to the environment or climate change in his budget speech.

“Canadians understand that the interests of the economy and environment are interlinked, why doesn’t the Canadian government,” said Dorothy McDougall from KAIROS.

KAIROS, the Council of Canadians, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, the Public Service Alliance of Canada and other groups commissioned an Environics survey that found “over 80 per cent of Canadians believe the Canadian government should invest in ‘green jobs,’” according to a KAIROS news release.

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