The bluest of budgets delivers a disappearing act

The striking thing about the 2010 federal budget as a physical document is its colour scheme. Its cover matches the ubiquitous Canada’s Economic Action Plan logo—shades of blue with arrows pointing up. The 2010 budget is the first federal government document I can recall that has eliminated the Canadian flag with a red maple leaf and replaced it with shades of blue. The maple leaf on the front of the book is blue; the Canadian flag on the back is blue and white. While Canadians are kicking up a fuss over making the national anthem gender appropriate, it is a wonder no one has complained about elimination of red from government documents.

A lot more has disappeared in this budget than a primary colour.

There’s a fairly magical vanishing act with the $56 billion deficit. By 2015, the budget projects a $1.8 billion deficit. To get there, the Harper government is counting on a 40% increase in revenues from corporate profits, even as they continue to slash corporate tax rates. To have these numbers hold up, absolutely nothing can go wrong in Canada or the world economy’s recovery.

Real pain will come from a dramatic hike in EI premiums. The budget sets out that by 2015, the government will have collected $29 billion more in EI premiums than in 2010. The impact of this job-killing tax has already been protested by independent, small business and the labour movement. Other cuts are in projected increases in funding. Particularly hard-hit will be CIDA and our overseas development assistance, set to lose $4.5 billion in increased support. This translates into a budgetary freeze at CIDA, even though the budget claims Canada will help re-build Haiti and assist developing countries with impacts of the climate crisis. Stockwell Day is charged with finding $7 billion in cuts to government operations by 2015. Promised pension reform also disappeared. Instead, the government promises a national consultation.

Also gone, hey presto! is the funding for climate research to the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences. Many of the researchers at University of Victoria’s Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis have benefitted from grants from the CFCAS. Their work is now in jeopardy, as is the polar research station at Ellesmere Island, now likely to close. There was no renewal of the ecoEnergy Technology Initiative which boosted wind energy production (although the budget boasts of its success). There is nothing for national parks. No money for mass transit investments, and other than an already announced upgrading of existing VIA cars and track (to bring them up to standards in the developing world) nothing for trains. No high speed rail for Canadians. We just export that technology to China and Spain.

The elimination of funding for climate science is particularly egregious. IPCC scientist Dr Gordon McBean, who spent some of his earlier years on West Saanich Road in the Institute for Ocean Sciences, was outraged.

‘Budget 2010 is basically the nightmare scenario for scientists across the country—our community is gutted,’ said McBean who is Chair of Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences. ‘…Without sound scientific information, how will the government evaluate the effectiveness of green technologies, or build northern infrastructure, or develop our energy industry, or assure water supply and clean air?’ he commented.

This question to the Harper government is largely rhetorical—how the government will evaluate anything related to science is a question that has not troubled this government. It has eliminated the Science Advisor to the Prime Minister and has cut into research before. This decision impacts climate research across Canada. We didn’t have a climate action plan before this budget and we don’t have one now. The new Harper government target, announced in January, represents yet another weakening. By changing our base year (again!) from 2006 to 2005, Canada has even more room to evade responsibility. Unlike the US, Canadian emissions in 2005 were higher than in 2006, so by shifting to 17% below 2005 instead of 20% below 2006 levels, we have reduced our target by 6%, not the 3% that simple math would suggest. We have the lowest target in the G-8, with no plan to get there. Our government’s strategy on climate change is transparent. Harper and Prentice continually associate our inaction with our commitment to a North American strategy. They claim we are ‘waiting for Obama’ before taking any action. If this government should still be in power by the time the US has settled on the details of their domestic plan, I am sure they will find a reason that they can no longer meet US actions.

President Obama, while hobbled by a flawed strategy of faith in bi-partisanship in the US Congress, has not stood still. The US stimulus package included hundreds of billions for green technology. Canada, in contrast, is the only nation in the G-20 to have cut support for renewables in the budget. The truth is that the Harper government is using the ‘waiting for Obama’ strategy as a stalling tactic. It has no intention of ever acting to reduce greenhouse gases. On the contrary, it is committed to their expansion.

That will explain why the budget section titled, ‘Green Jobs and Growth’ is all about oil, gas and uranium. It commits to reducing red tape that gets in the way of investments in energy mega-projects. To do that, the 2010 budget sets a course to remove energy projects from assessment under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. All energy projects will now be assessed by the National Energy Board or, if nuclear, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC).

After Saanich–Gulf Islands MP Gary Lunn’s firing of Linda Keen, the former President of the CNSC, it is unlikely that boards or commissions will thwart the will of the Harper government. Keen’s firing sent shock waves through boards and tribunals. As Auditor General Shelia Fraser said at the time, it had had a ‘chilling effect.’

Meanwhile, the National Energy Board lacks the tools to conduct full environmental assessments. It is a quasi- judicial body, far more formal than Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA). This change will not save money, but it is clearly intended to rush projects through review.

The planned expansion of the tar sands, the Mackenzie Gas Pipeline, pipelines across northern British Columbia and the use of oil takers to move tar sands crude to China will not be put to an environmental review under CEAA.

Oil spills such as that from the Exxon Valdez, are also of great concern to people living on southern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.

When such risky projects gets to the approval stage, I want to know they will be placed before a process founded on principles of public participation. I want to be confident we can present the best scientific case before an impartial panel of experts in environmental matters. Under this budget, that will not be possible.

We must push back on this dangerous delegation of responsibility. The Harper government may have used the gender-neutral lyrics for ‘O Canada’ as a deliberate diversionary tactic. Standing on guard for Canada means more than singing our anthem. It means defending our lands and waters.

You can view a visual presentation of Elizabeth May’s budget commentary at:

Elizabeth May, Order of Canada, is leader of the Green Party of Canada. She attended the Speech from the Throne and the budget lock-up with other Opposition leaders on March 4, 2010.