Flaherty has changed – and more than just his footwear

There is a distinct change of tone in the 2013 budget. It is a matter of tone more than substance, but the jackboot style of Budget 2012 — the “we will build pipelines and the environment be damned” tone — has been replaced with a kinder, gentler message.

This budget shows a sensitivity on issues where the Harper Conservatives have been repeatedly hammered. There is money for the burial of our veterans and $8 million for the restoration of Massey Hall. Public outcry over the savaging of fisheries habitat leads to a small sop this time around — $10 million over two years to work with local conservation groups to improve fish habitat.

I was keeping a little mental checklist of all the suggestions in my submission to Flaherty where some action at least was taken: new funding for the Sustainable Development Technology Fund (although at $325 million over eight years, less than what had been recommended by the Pembina Institute); a commitment to go after offshore tax-havens; less money wasted in Government of Canada travel and greater use of telecommunications and video-conferencing; and (some) money for First Nations education.

I was pleased to see the funds for municipal infrastructure; while it’s less than what the crisis demands, it is certainly a step in the right direction. And finally, a sign that the Harper Conservatives have given up efforts to prop up the domestic asbestos industry: $50 million over seven years for retraining workers in that shameful industry.

There is language about mental health and homelessness, as well as small amounts of money for each. Unlike last year’s budget, the word “climate” is actually used without being restricted to the “investment climate.” The Copenhagen target is referenced, albeit with the predictable falsehood that we are “halfway to meeting (it).” (p.242) The same page even boasts of the accomplishments of the ecoEnergy retrofit program — a program they killed last year.

The problem with the budget documents is that they are increasingly “fudge-it” documents. We no longer receive the appendices with the total budget numbers for departments. So is the total envelope going up or down? Who knows?

For instance, VIA Rail is mentioned and gets money — $54 million this year and $58 million spread out over the next five years. But there is no context to tell us if the 50 per cent cut in VIA support in the Main Estimates would be redressed in the Supplementary Estimates, or whether the cuts are devastating and these amounts are band-aids on a fatal wound.

There is an announcement of $248 million over five years for Environment Canada for much-needed investment in our Meteorological Service. But without seeing any overall estimate for Environment Canada, it isn’t possible to know if this is robbing Peter to pay Paul — money taken out of some other part of the department.

The overall direction of this government is unchanged. Aquaculture is getting more funding, without any response to the Cohen Report on the fate of wild salmon ($57.5 million over five years). Accelerated Capital Cost allowances for mining remain, but are reduced to the same level as oil and gas, while the access 15 per cent Mineral Exploration Tax credit for flow-through shares for mining exploration, an incentive to widespread ecological damage, is extended another year.

What we will not know until we see the implementing legislation is how many egregious measures will be rammed through the House in a 2013 omnibus bill that claims to derive its legitimacy from this budget. The reality is the 2012 budget made no mention of the Fisheries Act — but C-38, claiming to implement the budget, destroyed fish habitat.

Originally published on iPolitics.ca.