March 30th, 2012 - 6:48pm

Presentation of budget downplays a slashing agenda and hides failure to invest in people, communities, and a real jobs strategy

On Thursday I was officially sworn in as your Member of Parliament for Toronto-Danforth. It was, to say the least, an exciting first day. I asked my first two questions in Question Period, I took the Conservatives to task for their disrespectful conduct and lack of decorum, and I watched with disappointment as the Finance Minister presented the newest Conservative budget.

I am certainly not surprised with the aggressive cuts seen in the Conservative budget – this is what we’ve come to expect from Stephen Harper’s Conservatives – but I am definitely disappointed with the Conservative government for presenting its budget in an entirely misleading way, both in its 498-page budget brief and in Finance Minister Flaherty's budget speech. Many deep and unjustifiable cuts have been obscured within the Conservatives' false narrative about prosperity.

For example, neither Mr. Flaherty's speech nor the budget document mentions, let alone defends, major cuts to social housing funding. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation will take a $102 million hit. The bulk of that cut is planned for 2014-2015, which happens to coincide with the end of current agreements between the housing coop sector and CMHC that are crucial for rent subsidies that help make coops accessible to lower-income Canadians.

Similarly, the slashing of at least 10 per cent of CBC / Radio-Canada's budget ($115 million) passed without comment from the minister in his March 29 speech to the House while, earlier in the day, the Minister of Heritage James Moore dodged the two questions I asked in Question Period on cuts to CBC / Radio-Canada. And the government gave another non-answer today, March 30, to my question in Question Period, refusing to even discuss the CBC / Radio-Canada and instead providing talking points on general government arts and culture policy.

And the Canadian International Development Agency will be reeling from a 7.5  per cent cut of $319 million dollars, which will surely lead Canada to betray even further our country's longstanding pledge to devote 0.7 per cent of GDP to international development assistance.

The government also used the budget to confirm major future cuts that do not even show up in the $5.2 billion in cuts that take effect over the next three years -- namely, the assault on retirement security for those born after 1958 whose date of eligibility for OAS/Old Age Security will rise to as much as age 67. And this includes delaying receipt of the GIS / Guaranteed Income Supplement, on which millions of seniors now depend to stay out of poverty, until age 67 as well. Provinces will largely bear the burden of the downloading of government assistance between ages 65 and 67, with vague commitments by Minister Flaherty to compensate the provinces providing no guarantee that such compensation will actually transpire a decade from now (when the age changes kick in) let alone will be adequate.

As well, another massive attack on social spending is hidden from view in the government's budget narrative. Even as the government promotes the fact health funding transfers to the provinces will rise somewhat until 2016, the budget completely fails to mention the Harper government's unilateral decision several months ago to abandon a transfer funding formula to the provinces that would have seen adequate levels of healthcare funding flow to the provinces. As a result, provinces will be shortchanged by many billions of dollars from 2016 onward, putting  pressure on provinces to gut public healthcare and opening the door to privatization and two-tier healthcare.

Stephen Harper pledged in the past not to undermine both old age security and health transfers to the provinces. It appears that he has broken this promise.

The Conservatives' so-called "prosperity" budget is in fact an austerity budget. Just as significantly, the philosophy of job creation is misguided. In completely leaving out items like childcare, transit and immigration settlement programs not to mention the pressing infrastructure needs of municipalities across Canada, the government is willfully blind to the fact that its own Department of Finance has observed that infrastructure and social investment create five times as many jobs as corporate tax cuts. The Conservatives clearly do not understand the connections between healthy communities and health of the economy.

And yet, the Conservatives have, since first coming to power in 2006, deprived the country of billions of dollars a year in revenue by lowering the corporate tax rate from 20 per cent to the present 15 per cent. In its response to the budget, the Canadian Labour Congress estimates, for example, that these corporate tax cuts will have deprived Canada's federal government of $13 billion in revenues for 2012-13, a figure I am seeking to verify.  This policy has resulted neither in much-needed economic innovation nor in the creation of good jobs by companies benefiting from these tax cuts. The Conservative budget takes as given this massive loss of revenue rather than doing what the NDP advocates, which is raising the corporate tax rate so that it is back in the 19 per cent range -- a move that would generate billions of dollars for desperately needed infrastructure, targeted job creation strategies, and social investment.

While some investment in people and communities in the budget are certainly welcome -- for example $331 in long-overdue funding of water systems in Aboriginal reserve communities -- this aspect of the budget is paltry compared to the free-the-market philosophy that underpins almost all the other so-called 'prosperity' priorities in the budget. This failure is even reflected in the $275 million in new funding for Aboriginal education, a priority one would have expected the Government to fund adequately after voting for a recent NDP Motion in the House of Commons on Aboriginal education. Yet, the amount is several times less than what First Nations representatives have shown to be needed in order for Aboriginal children to be treated equally in education funding with other Canadians.

As well, the government will make much of the fact the Department of Defence will suffer large cuts, in an attempt to show fair distribution of the pain. We do expect this will mean major lay-offs of civilian personnel. However, much of these savings appear to be from delaying equipment purchase over the next three years, which just pushes these expected costs off onto future governments. At the same time, the acquisition of replacements for Canada's F-18's -- which the government wants to be 65 F-35's that will cost at least double what the government claimed -- is also not part of this budget, but any Conservative government decision to acquire them will saddle future governments' budgets. The interaction of defence procurement decisions, which generate deferred spending, with present-day budgets thus amounts to a sort of shell game.

There are, finally, extremely worrying 'small ticket' anti-environmental items in the budget. For example, the government has earmarked $8 million to help allow the Canada Revenue Agency to go after charities ostensibly engaging in political activity or being "funded by foreign sources." In the hands of a government at war with environmental and social justice organizations, this is a frightening new-spending initiative.

This decision to go after charities in one part of the budget dovetails with the termination of an important institution, the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy. As reason for this termination, the Conservatives offer up the unconvincing argument that the NRTEE is no longer needed because "a mature and expanded community of environmental stakeholders has demonstrated the capacity to provide analysis and policy advice to the Government." For Canadians who have paid attention to the environmental record of this government and its ferocious attacks on environmental defenders as radicals and extremists, it will come as no surprise if these "stakeholders" turn out to be corporate lobbyists, global-warming-denying organizations, and a range of other actors who don't let the facts get in the way of anti-ecological business as usual.

 Finally, the charity and NRTEE moves in the budget must be seen within an agenda of the government marching in lockstep with Big Oil, a relationship that Freedom of Information requests by concerned citizens and NDP Environmental Critic Megan Leslie have shown is very tight. The government has used the budget as the excuse to change environmental assessment procedures, ostensibly just to streamline and lessen delays in decisions on whether projects should go ahead. But it is transparent that the goal is to make it easier to push through tar sands and other oil and gas projects such as the controversial pipeline to pass through northern BC to reach tankers on the west coast.

This budget is a reminder of why we need our strong New Democrat team here in Ottawa to take on Stephen Harper. Today in the House, our Finance Critic, Peter Julian, did a great job with a simultaneously wide-ranging and focused critique that laid bare the problems with the government's claims to be the stewards of prosperity. Next week, the debate resumes in earnest in the House.

I know we have a fight on our hands, now and for the next three years before the 2015 general election. I promise to be a strong voice for Toronto-Danforth, and will continue to stand up for our community and the country.