Island Tides: What’s in the 2017 budget?

What’s in the 2017 budget?
By Elizabeth May, Member of Parliament for Saanich-Gulf Islands, Leader of the Green Party of Canada

On March 22, Finance Minister Bill Morneau came out with his government’s second budget.

The big numbers spin around some ambitious announcements.

  • On Housing: a National Housing Strategy including $5 billion National Housing Fund, plus $3.2 billion over the next 11 years for provinces and territories on affordable housing, $300 million for northern housing, $225 million on housing for indigenous people not on reserves and another $2.1 billion for the Homelessness Partnering Strategy. Plus $202 million to use surplus federal lands and make them available for housing;
  • On Child Care: $7 billion over ten years to support and create affordable child care spaces;
  • On Health: $5 billion in home care and mental health, as well as $644 in drugs and prescription medications strategy;
  • For Via Rail: $867 million over three years vaguely described as “for operations and capital requirements;”
  • For Parks Canada: $364 million over the next two years;
  • On climate action, over $1 billion in commitments to greener infrastructure, light rail, energy efficient transportation, infrastructure for electric vehicles;
  • For Public Transit, over $20 billion over 11 years for federal-provincial-territorial cooperation;
  • Billions in several different funds for clean tech entrepreneurs, venture capital and super clusters.

For the most part the billions announced in budget 2016 are now getting more details in budget 2017.  But there is much to dig into.  Some of the funds will be spent soon, with money starting to flow this year.  But for most of the spending, funds do not begin to flow until budget year 2018-19, with most of the funds slated for spending after the 2019 election.   For example, of the over $20 billion for public transit, less than $1 billion will be spent before 2019.  For electric vehicle infrastructure, no more than $30 million will be spent before the next election. On child care spaces, no money flows until 2018-19 ($540 million).  For mental health and home care, just over 20% of promised funding will be spent before the next election.

I would have preferred the announced dollars were clearly presented.  The spending is better than nothing, but reading the budget is an exercise in chasing down the truth.  I don’t like the feeling someone is trying to trick me.

Funds committed to be rolled out immediately include the Via Rail and Parks Canada commitments.  With almost $300 million in new money for three years in a row for Via, I am hoping we can get the long-sought support to restore rail service on Vancouver Island.  With the right schedule, to suit commuters, we should be able to get hundreds of thousands of cars off the road.

Most of the Parks Canada money is for capital acquisition and not expanding the Parks operating budget, raising my hopes we may be able to purchase Owl Island off Salt Spring Island to expand Gulf Island National Park.  Certainly, Parks Canada was a big winner in this budget.

As well, an $80 million commitment was announced to rebuild and upgrade Sidney’s Plant Health Centre right here in Saanich-Gulf Islands, the one I succeeded in keeping open after the Harper government announced its closure.  The funds will run for five years, with spending starting this year. This exciting announcement will significantly boost the scientific research capacity of our local quarantine centre for plant viruses.

Other items in the budget of local interest include “a comprehensive plan to address derelict and abandoned vessels.”  This is part of the Ocean Protection Plan.  The previously announced $1.5 billion in spending is re-announced, but without details as to how much funding will go to the various components of the plan, including derelict vessels.

What was not in the budget?  I had been sure that climate measures that had been in pre-Harper budgets would be restored, such as Eco-Energy Retrofits and rebates for buying more fuel efficient or electric vehicles.

I am extremely disappointed that Morneau did not announce the change in the pension rules in the Superannuation Act for veterans and others who marry after 60 (the so-called “Gold-digger clause”).  I have been trying to get every finance minister since Jim Flaherty to eliminate this archaic rule.  I finally received a written commitment from Finance Minister Morneau that this was now government policy, but it did not happen.

Fossil fuels subsidies continue, but at a lower level.  The elimination of the tax credit for oil and gas discovery wells is a good start, cutting $150 million/year in public funds to fossil fuels. But billions continue to go to oil sands and fracked natural gas. Overall, the Trudeau administration continues to say the right things about climate, but without any degree of urgency.  Approving projects that increase greenhouse gas emissions while trying to reduce emissions with programmes that do not kick in for several years is a prescription for failure.   We need a tougher target and more disciplined, government-wide efforts to meet it.

And the big fiscal question: when will the budget be balanced?  At some point the government will need to re-examine its revenue requirements.  Those are our requirements to ensure our society is resilient, equitable and functions well.  This may mean going back to look at the GST, raise taxes on our largest corporations, such as the banks.  But no one in politics, except me, seems willing to say the obvious.  We cannot constantly cheer for tax cuts if we want to ensure fairness, health and the common good.

Originally published by Island Tides newspaper. See for more breaking West Coast news, views and enterprise.