2015 budget holds few surprises; a litany of lost opportunities

Finance Minister Joe Oliver’s first and last budget represents a hodge-podge of election promises, rather than a coherent, prudent plan for Canada’s future economic and social health. It all comes down to priorities. The Harper administration is set to spend more money on the celebrations of Canada’s 150th birthday than on the crisis of First Nations education. As noted by the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Perry Bellegarde, critical First Nations issues continue to be ignored.

Perhaps the most shocking omission is the climate crisis. It is remarkable that in a budget tabled seven months before the deadline negotiations for a comprehensive climate treaty, at COP21 in Paris, the words ‘climate change’ are nowhere even mentioned—zero versus 108 references to oil. Having put all their eggs in the bitumen basket for so long, the Harper administration reacted to low oil prices like a bunny in the headlights—delaying the budget by months, while ignoring economic opportunities. In the Green Party’s pre-budget submission, we had urged the minister to move quickly to provide needed boosts for those sectors of our economy that benefit from the low dollar—specifically tourism, film and television production, and manufacturing. While the budget acknowledges that tourism is a significant sector of our economy, no funding is committed. It was this prime minister who cancelled all advertising in the US market to promote Canada as a tourism destination. Now, he has blown it again by missing the chance to boost our visibility as a vacation destination in advance of the 2015 summer season.

The treatment of tourism (a subject and a heading, but no money) is repeated on many other topic areas. The budget is bizarre in having included sections, even relatively long ones, about departments and programmes that receive no new funding. For example, there are two pages extolling the virtues of our national parks system, itself the victim of a 10% budget cut in 2012, without a penny in funding.

It was also surprising to find no funding announced after the bolded headlines and text devoted to credit unions, digital infrastructure, consumer protection framework for banks, and mental health. Meanwhile, much of the new funding, such as for municipal infrastructure, is not slated to even begin for another two years. Budget commitments starting in 2017 are a bit rich from a government on the eve of an election.

This budget’s forecasting uses rose coloured glasses anticipating a growth rate consistently higher than that set out in the most recent Parliamentary Budget Officer’s report, further compromising spending set to begin in 2017.

Funding pledges set to begin in the 2017- 2018 fiscal year include: public transit, enhanced funding for Department of National Defence, and increased funding for the Canadian Foundation for Innovation. Meanwhile, the Harper administration has continued largesse to polluting industries, like oil sands and nuclear energy. Violating the prime minister’s own pledge to the G-20 to stop subsidizing fossil fuels, the 2015 budget opens up a whole new category of accelerated capital cost allowances to promote fracking and LNG.

Anticipating the Energy East pipeline and dilbit spills in the St Lawrence River, there is new money for spill response there, and in the Arctic. There is also enhanced funding for the NEB and CEAA to conduct pipeline and fossil fuel project reviews. Almost comical is the section boasting of the world-class spill response already in place for the BC coast: ‘Since 2012, the Government has provided funding to strengthen Canada’s marine spill prevention, preparedness, and response regime….to more effectively manage oil spill response operations….’ Clearly, this was sent to press before the English Bay spill.

A whole series of measures are destined to be meaningless without federal leadership to ensure coordinated action with the provinces. For example, much more effective federal action is needed to eliminate internal barriers to trade than the creation of an Internal Trade Promotion Office within Industry Canada to only ‘support’ a long overdue review of the cumbersome and ineffective Agreement on Internal Trade (AIT) that dates back to 1995. The same lack of critical federal initiative is evident in the lack-lustre reference to harmonizing training and certificate requirements.

In our federation, it makes no sense to throw money to trades and apprenticeships without working with the provinces and territories to develop a rational national approach. The same can be said of the changes to the Workers Income Tax Benefit where provincial engagement is critical to remove barriers for workers or in providing money to immigrants for foreign credential recognition process.

And again, a $2 million announcement for a consultation on Autism Spectrum Disorder—without taking a lead in working with the provinces and the territories getting actively engaged in health care—is laughable. There are many more sections on which I could comment— funding for ‘security’—but nothing for increased oversight in the face of the terrifying C51, funding for the bombing of Iraq and Syria, nothing for the sustainability of Canada’s health care system. It is worth noting some welcome measures to stop the claw-back of student income from their student loan needs assessment, and to assist small business. And as I have pointed out in comments about recent budgets, the bottom line about this budget is that it omits the bottom line. There are no actual budgets, department by department, to allow any citizen—or MP—to find out if departments are set to receive more or less funding than in the previous year. But, by now, anyone who looks to this government to deliver sensible budgets has just not been paying attention.

It is a big thick brochure for the next election. And, as Joe Oliver noted, the instability in federal funding can be sorted out by Stephen Harper’s grand-daughter.