Sunday, February 01, 2009

Molly has presented several other opinions, and made her own ideas known, on the subject of the recent federal budget. Michael Ignatieff, the leader of the federal Liberals, has decided to give Harper a pass, and thus what you see is what you get in terms of Canada's response to the economic crisis. Here's yet another opinion on the matter from the pages of the Public Values website.
Half-hearted budget won't help the hard-hit:
by John Baglow
The just-tabled Conservative budget resembles a magic show. It's all about appearance and psychology, the fostering of illusions in the public mind. Stimulus packages are like that, of course: they are intended to inspire confidence in consumers and investors by injecting a little oil into a seized economy. But some packages are better than others.

The heavy emphasis on tax cuts — the voluntary renunciation of tax revenue — means less to spend on childcare, education, health and social security, all of which need more, not fewer, resources in a deep recession.

And the actual spending program, which as one commentator puts it "attempts to scratch every political itch," scatters the money so widely that its local effects may be minimal.

There is $200 million this year and next, for example, earmarked for social housing for low-income seniors. Nicholas Gazzard, of the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada, said he was pleased to see money for this sort of thing, plus social housing retrofitting and the like. But at $50 K per unit, this amounts to a mere 4,000 units each year, in a country of 35 million with an aging population.

Education and research are also ill-served by the budget. Katherine Giroux-Bougard, speaking for the Canadian Federation of Students, was "underwhelmed." While the new US president is busy unveiling a wide and comprehensive plan to support post-secondary education, she said, this budget focuses narrowly on graduate students and summer jobs.

James Turk, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, agreed. For him the budget overall was "very disappointing, filled with half-hearted measures." Funding for post-secondary education doesn't meet the needs in that sector, he said. There is no core funding for colleges and universities, and no new money for the provinces to provide it.

And, in contrast to Obama's planned expenditure of $12 billion on research, Harper's budget offers a paltry $137.9 million over three years. The net result, says Turk, will be a brain drain, as talented academics head to the US, encouraged by Obama's research-friendly approach.

Student debt is now a staggering $13 billion, yet there's no new money for undergraduates. And the money for 500 doctoral and 1,000 master's students ends in three years.

$2 billion is set aside for post-secondary educational infrastructure. But projects will require matching funds from the provinces, which are getting no additional money for post-secondary education, while experiencing shrinking revenues, or from the institutions themselves, which simply have no money to give.

The public sector is not faring well either. True to form, the government is engaging in a little union-bashing, suspending collective bargaining with imposed wage settlements. Unsurprisingly, PSAC National President John Gordon, many of whose members settled just a few days ago, isn't happy. 30,000 of his members, employees of the Canada Revenue Agency, may find themselves subject to an actual wage rollback, while other groups are still in negotiations.

Canadian Labour Congress President Ken Georgetti was exasperated, wondering aloud how cutting back on wages will encourage people to spend, one of the objectives of a stimulus budget.

The President of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, Michele Demers, was more sanguine. She liked several aspects of the $40 billion stimulus package. The extension of EI support will ease things for the unemployed, she said (although nothing has been done to relax eligibility requirements — most people paying into EI still won't be able access it when they need it). She believes that some of the proposed infrastructural stimulus project money will be injected into government departments, and her members will benefit.

Yet, she says, those very members, who will be instrumental in helping these projects along, are under attack yet again on the collective bargaining front. "We're still being treated as part of the problem, not part of the solution," she said. "We need respect and the tools and resources to get the job done." More of her members' jobs are on the line with an on-going "strategic review." 1,500-2,000 of them face an uncertain future. Layoff? Relocation? No one knows.

The budget is not kind to women. Pay equity in the federal public service is being gutted. The current complaint-based system will disappear: to be replaced by union-employer negotiations, in a framework yet to be determined.

Unions have, certainly, been frustrated by the lengthy delays under the present system. But there is little cause to celebrate its demise. Pay equity, once a principle enshrined in the Canadian Human Rights Act, will now be something to be negotiated, with one side holding all of the legislative cards. And even that promise of negotiation may be an illusion. Gordon points out that job classification, the source of so much of the historic pay inequity in the federal public service, cannot legally even be brought to the bargaining table.

His Program Administration group, 85,000 strong, did win some contract language recently that allows pay equity issues to be addressed in a joint classification review. If that doesn't pan out, the matter can now be grieved. But to a neutral third party? Maybe, maybe not. Other members involved in on-going pay equity disputes have even less hope to cling to.

Beverley Jacobs, President of the Native Women's Association of Canada, pointed out that Aboriginal women aren't even mentioned in the budget. She foresaw an uphill battle trying to access any of the funds set aside for First Nations to use in projects and ventures that will benefit women on the reserves.

Jody Dallaire of the Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada noted that women need a comprehensive national childcare program to allow them to access training and participate in the job market.

Yet the budget, she said, allows Canada to remain in last place among industrialized nations with respect to early childhood learning and childcare.

Contrary to recent comments by former Clerk of the Privy Council Mel Cappe, the budget is indeed a political and ideological document. Its emphasis on "tax relief" and corporate handouts at the expense of social spending, and its light sprinkling of minor benefits to all and sundry, combines classic Conservative doctrine and political expediency in an uneasy mix. Whether the concoction proves to be stable and curative is, at this point, anyone's guess.

John Baglow is a former Executive Vice-President of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. He is currently pursuing an advanced degree in anthropology, and works in his spare time as a writer and a consultant in the fields of public and social policy []. You can read his blog at the URL below.
Links and sources

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