The Liberal budget delivered on some promises while breaking others

Analyzing the new Liberal budget for Canada is difficult.  It is so deeply disappointing, yet compared to any budget in the last ten years it represents a huge improvement.  So the key question in deciding whether it gets a passing grade is to determine against what standard it is measured.  Do we compare it to the regressive budgets of the last ten years or to the last Liberal budget of 2005 – which had measures for climate, child care and the Kelowna Accord?  Or do we measure it against the Liberal 2015 campaign promises?

The clearest commitment and strongest funding was delivered for First Nations, Inuit, and Metis communities.  At $8.4 billion, it was “historic” as the Minister claimed.  Whether it is enough is another matter, but it was significantly more than the 2005 Kelowna Accord (killed by the Conservatives) had promised.

The 2016 budget contains many encouraging measures for health, education, youth, waste and water works, and public infrastructure. Many of my requests to Finance Minister Bill Morneau have been accepted – including energy retrofits to existing social housing, support for affordable rental housing, re-opening the Coast Guard base at Kitsilano, restoring funding to the CBC, additional $50 million to Sustainable Development Technology Canada, reinstating the Court Challenges Programme, investing in science and returning support for basic scientific research, and action to reduce the burden of student loans and increasing student grants.

But there is so little in the climate action part of the budget.  $3.4 billion over three years for public transit may sound like a lot, but one billion dollars is not enough in a year to make a dent in the infrastructure deficit for a single city. In a budget premised on creating economic stimulus and employment, it made no sense to neglect the opportunity for energy efficiency improvements in Canada’s buildings. Leaky buildings are responsible for 30% of Canada’s GHG.  Employing carpenters, electricians, contractors, and plumbers to retrofit homes, commercial buildings and institutions would deliver immediate economic benefits in creating jobs, while cutting GHG.  Other than retrofits to social housing, it is ignored.  In contrast, the 2005 budget of former Finance Minister Ralph Goodale was much stronger on climate action. It included Eco-Energy retrofits for home owners, rebates for the purchase of hybrid vehicles (which should have been reinstated and extended to electric vehicles), as well as billions more for infrastructure and funding for provinces to meet GHG reductions.

Disturbingly, the budget cites the target of the Paris Agreement as avoiding 2 degrees global average temperature increase, when it was Canadian leadership that helped drive the world to the more ambitious goal of striving to hold temperature to no more than 1.5 degrees C.   The Liberal platform promised carbon pricing which, in fairness, we did not expect to see in this budget.  It is clear that the negotiations with the premiers on carbon pricing will run their course before we see a clear federal plan for pricing carbon. But the Liberal platform also promised to phase out subsidies to fossil fuel, reducing them by $125 million in 2017-18.  Instead, no changes have been made to fossil fuel subsidies and the subsidies to LNG are specifically continued until the end of 2024.

As well, although described as “Restoring Trust in Environmental Assessment,” this budget preserves the devastating changes to environmental assessment of the 2012 omnibus budget bill C-38.  Rather than repeal C-38’s gutting of environmental assessment (EA), the budget commits to four years’ worth of funding for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency for “fulfilling its responsibilities” under the C-38 version of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.   It also provides funding for what was announced last month as “interim measures” to cope with the broken process under C-38’s environmental review.  But the funding to the National Energy Board for “interim measures” is to last for three years, suggesting they are permanent.  The National Energy Board should not be conducting a single EA that has not already commenced during the previous government.  No new projects should start the EA process under the wrong act, conducted by the wrong agency.  Not for three months more, much less three years.

Do we now declare the Liberals have deliberately broken promises and turned their back on the environment? The rubber stamping just days before Budget Day of the weak environmental assessment of Woodfibre LNG (one conducted under the bogus C-38 version of EA and delegated to the province of BC) might lead some to do so.  And as leader of an opposition party, political culture would expect me to be among the first to denounce them.  But I do not.  Not yet.

Mitigating factors include the budget preparation process. The Minister of Environment never saw the budget before its big reveal on March 22.  The budget was reviewed by the Deputy Minister of Environment Canada. He is well-remembered by climate activists as the lead negotiator blocking action in Copenhagen.  Is it an accident that the 2 degree target, accepted by the Conservatives, is in the budget and not the 1.5 degree target championed by the new government?  Senior civil servants are to follow the direction set by political masters.  It would be a major breach of respect for that tradition for me to suggest any particular civil servant is working against the new government’s interests.  But it is widely acknowledged around Parliament Hill that senior bureaucrats across many departments are having trouble re-orienting to very different priorities.  The mandate letters from the PM to ministers instruct them to respect the advice of the professional civil service.  In respect of the traditional separation between the civil service and the political side of government, which Prime Minister Trudeau is working to restore, there has been no sacking of the old order to bring in the new.  Highly principled, but it does prolong what could charitably be described as inertia in the system.

So, my advice to those frustrated by the failure to reverse the damage inflicted by the Conservatives is “do not despair.”  Do not write off the new government. Instead, redouble efforts to hold them accountable.  Condemn broken promises, but hold out the hope the errors of this budget will be corrected by Budget 2017.

Originally published in Island Tides.