Thursday, 29 March 2012

Centsless: Canada's 2012 Budget

Needless to say there is much in the Jim Flaherty's 2012 budget that should outrage Canadians. A cursory glance raises some problematic prospects for groups already marginalized by the Conservative regime. Obvious targets include seniors waiting longer to retire and the young Canadians who will pay for those benefits without the security of knowing they too will have those same benefits. There are other perennial losers, like the working poor and women. Some measures may have significant long-term ramifications. The relaxing of the environmental regulatory system could have implications for First Nations communities. What will become of the Crown's duty to consult when project approvals are expedited? Given the tone of the budget provisions here, it is likely an already tenuous process could further erode. No doubt though this will be frame as a positive step by the government and for those eager to acquire rights to Aboriginal lands. Yet it the realities of Neoliberal market dictates for these communities could bring far greater dangers than benefits.

Much of the budget could be regarded as death by a thousand cuts. Indeed the media narrative - and most mainstream press agencies are guilty of this - downplayed the cuts made by the government. Given what the Conservatives could have done, we are told, this is a fairly moderate budget. That will be cold comfort to those non-enumerated groups who as a result of budget cuts outside the central bureaucracy will find their jobs under the axe in the weeks and months ahead. The government may not have radically amputated any governmental limbs, but the wounds still have the potential to bleed out. Again, the effects of this budget will not be entirely immediate. It will be a slow, creeping process. The lobster's in the pot and the water is slowly boiling.

Apart from the soothing words from Canada's pundit class that this budget was mild, the central focus seems to be on the elimination of the penny. While this is certainly wise policy - pennies are useless and cost a small fortune to keep in circulation - the change highlights the ideological underpinnings of this government and it's total lack of deference to commonsense or honesty. Penny jars across the country are no doubt full to the brim, the result of a senseless and politically calculating policy (successfully) designed to win the 2006 election. For the average consumer - say, the Tim Hortons Canadian - the policy meant little in the way of benefit apart from (literally) an few extra pennies every cup of coffee. The impact on the treasure was profound, contributing to a structural deficit prior to the onset of the global recession in 2008. The abolition of the  penny has served its purpose, ceasing the initial media spotlight and deflecting attention from some of the more nuanced aspects of the budget.

The budget also represents a not so subtle attack on democracy in this country. First, some measures against charitable organizations and non-profits are likely meant to silence any organization that dissents from the government line. Second, and more fundamentally, the budget also takes aim at Canada's democratic guardians, notably Elections Canada. That organization ill see its budget slashed by about 7%, seriously affecting its ability to fulfill its mandate. As I noted in my previous post, this potentially undermines the independence of Elections Canada, reducing the amount of investigative work it can do. The timing is also suspicious, coming at a time when the agency is actively undertaking investigations which could implicate the government in widespread electoral fraud. It is particularly troubling given that Elections Canada - and, indeed, other Officers of Parliament like the Auditor General - represent a tiny fraction of government expenditures and deliver substantial value for money. Moreover, their role as watchdog is invaluable. These cuts simply exacerbate the growing crisis of Canadian democracy, undercutting Parliaments ability to hold the executive to account. Indeed, these seemingly insignificant cuts nevertheless cut to the heart of our democratic institutions. A Parliament without access to the resources it needs, either internal or external, is one a decreased ability to provide a check on power that has only eroded further since 2006.

Contrary to the pundit class in the country - a class increasingly failing in its own sacred trust to hold governments to account and speak truth to power - this is not a budget that is in anyway moderate. Indeed, while the talking heads praise the government's efforts to balance the budget, it remains to be seen how a budget balanced on the backs of the poor and marginalized in this country can been considered balanced in a wider sense. What is most disappointing is that there is the wealth available in this country to balance the fiscal books and do so while maintaining social programs. Contrary to what it claims and the excuses it makes, the Conservative government has made a conscious decision to implement a budget of massive wealth redistribution. In this case, the wealth flows to those who already posses it. This is a budget designed to dull and distract, to work incrementally. Canada's and its democracy seem set to bleed out slowly over the coming  years.

*Yes, I am aware the pennies in the jar are of the American persuasion.

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