Monday, April 9, 2012

Harper's 2012 Canadian Budget

Welcome to the wonderful and exciting world of Canadian politics! Or, to be more precise: blogging about Canadian politics! Could things possibly get any better?

I wanted to briefly discuss some of my concerns regarding the budget recently proposed by Stephen Harper's Conservative government. Full disclosure: I'm not an economist, so perhaps my opinions are somewhat uninformed when it comes to the technical details of the budget, but I'm also not a politician so I'd like to think that my views are a little less influenced by partisan bias, and I do occasionally pay attention to the news and have a decent idea about how this information is often presented.

The general attitude regarding this budget seems to have been something like: "Well, yeah, cuts were made, but the cuts weren't that bad, and we need to balance the books somehow, don't we?" Predictably, the opposition criticized the Conservatives for making any cuts whatsoever, and also predictably (at least if you've been paying attention to Harper's big-spending approach; the Conservatives under Harper are not fiscally conservative), the far-right criticized the Conservatives for not cutting enough. As they say, however, the Devil's in the details, and what interests me here isn't so much the grand total of how much was cut, but rather where these cuts were made, and where did spending actually increase?

I'm sure you've all heard about the cuts to public services, and, as I alluded to earlier, the general word is that these cuts aren't as bad as they could have been. The problem is that these cuts weren't uniform; cuts weren't the same across all of the public services and some areas were hit much harder than others. Furthermore, while the reported 19,200 jobs lost is lower than many expected, this doesn't account for jobs that will be lost when the full effects of this budget are felt. For instance, the CBC (which I've already written about at length; check the comments from MRR on this article) received heavy cuts while some other institutions were relatively untouched, and the cuts to the CBC were shown as a dollar value instead of as a number of jobs lost. Those cuts to the CBC, however, will translate into a significant number of jobs lost at the CBC. Similar things are happening in other areas, with many costs being passed on to government at the provincial level. This obscures the total number of jobs that will be lost as a direct result of this budget, since the specific details of those losses will have to be decided by those departments themselves.

Not only that, but it turns out the total job losses may be quite a bit higher than the 19,200 reported, because according to this article the Conservatives decided not to inform the public about thousands of "temporary" positions that would be cut. This is all very clever on the part of the Conservatives: they get to report smaller losses than many projected, which helps them appeal to politically-moderate voters. Right-wing voters, on the other hand, don't really have anywhere else to turn to and will chalk this up as a "small victory" rather than any sort of defeat.

Beyond the obfuscation of job losses, I think that some of the specific cuts and spending choices speak volumes about the Conservative mandate. These heavy cuts to the CBC are entirely consistent with Harper's tight-lipped approach to the media. Steven Harper doesn't believe in sharing information with the public and letting them decide for themselves, nor does he enjoy being questioned or challenged - his interviews are rare and heavily vetted - and so he doesn't see the value in a news source free from reliance on advertising revenue and, consequently, corporate influence.

He also made significant cuts to environmental protection agencies for the purpose of "streamlining" the approval process for businesses. Furthermore, limits placed on charities will prohibit them from taking place in "political" activities, so an environmentally-conscious charity won't be allowed to speak out against what they think is wrong. Again, this isn't unexpected from Harper - it's a consistent reflection of his party's values - but it's being buried in the guise of a "middle-of-the-road" budget. Whether environmental protection in particular is a big concern for you or not, the erosion of free speech that's gradually taking place should be a great concern to Canadians.

There are also significant cuts and changes being made to Old Age Security benefits. While I do think that changes to this and other old-age programs are required, these particular changes place the burden on those least able to bear it. These changes further reward the rich who are able to defer their payments and further punish the poor and ill who rely on that extra income. Furthermore, these changes are coming at a time where the group most affected by the changes - those in their 40s and early 50s who are on the wrong side of the cut-off dates - are facing a lot of instability in the workplace. I don't think these changes would be anywhere near as problematic if the Canadian economy was in a stronger place, but that's not the situation we're presently facing. I'm not an expert on this stuff, so here's a short video featuring someone much more well-informed than I am talking about these issues.

On the side of increased spending, Bill C-10 (the Conservative party's crime bill) will incur heavy costs on the provincial level, but won't be reported as a federal issue, making the Conservatives appear like they're saving money when they're really not. They're also spending an extra $5.2 billion over 11 years on the Canadian Coast Guard. I haven't seen a single news report in the past several years suggesting that the Canadian coast is facing any severe threat, so even though I'm not opposed to some increase for military and defense budgets, I suspect that this money could have been put to better use elsewhere. This may be a way for the Conservatives to try to score political points with some particular group or business that will benefit directly from the extra spending, or, it could be a manifestation of the Conservative's stance regarding immigration, but that's pure conjecture; the fact of the matter is that I haven't been able to find any reports that suggest why this extra spending is necessary. There's also the issue of the fighter jets, but that dead horse has been beaten far enough into the ground by now that I don't need to point out how stupid a purchase they are, do I?

The removal of the penny, for what it's worth, is essentially a red herring. It's a prudent move - originally suggested by the NDP - but it has received far more than its share of news coverage. It makes an easy story because it's something everyone can relate to and understand, but, in the end it's almost insignificant on a political level.

So, on the surface this budget might seem tame, but I think this budget is a very clever move by the Conservatives. They've made very significant cuts targeted against public broadcasting, environmental groups, and the poor, all while hiding the full extent of their cuts to the public. The numbers may not look as drastic as some initially predicted, but I think the effects of this budget will be far-reaching over the long term.

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