This column was published in the May 28, 2012 Christian Courier and is reprinted here with the permission of the Christian Courier

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will also be,” says the Bible. This observation applies quite literally to governments: where they are willing to spend reveals what and who they value. It’s why budgets are so important; spending speaks louder than words.

Canada has a deficit at the federal level due to stimulus spending to counter the impacts of the 2008-09 recession. The Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page, has said that Canada’s economy is still weak enough that the government should not be cutting spending since it risks damaging the fragile economic recovery. However, rather than eliminating the deficit eventually through economic growth, the Conservative government has chosen to slash government spending by $5.6 billion.

Even after deciding in favour of spending cuts, the government had another important choice regarding who should pay for the spending cuts through lost programs and services. According to the government, the answer seems to be the most vulnerable among us: seniors, low income Canadians, First Nations and the environment.

And thus the government reveals where its heart is. It could have asked the rich to pay through higher taxes or through elimination of lucrative tax deductions that favour the rich. It could have asked the military to pay by cutting the purchase of F-35 fighter jets by five or six planes. It could have asked wealthy corporations to pay by clawing back billions in corporate tax cuts that have padded corporate coffers without creating new jobs. But the government chose to protect the rich and the well-off by asking the most vulnerable to pay instead.

Turning our back on the poor 
While the federal government has habitually ignored poverty in recent years, it is rare for the government to adopt a policy that will actually increase poverty. However, that is what Budget 2012 did in raising the age for receiving Old Age Security benefits to 67. Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement which accompanies it keep many seniors out of poverty. For Canadians receiving social assistance benefits, turning 65 often represents the turning point at which they are able to exit poverty and enter a new life of dignity with a modest but sufficient income. Now as many as 25 percent of seniors could be living in poverty while they wait to turn 67.

The changes are also being phased in over such a long period that it is today’s youth who will receive the full impact of the changes – the same youth who are also finding it difficult to save for retirement, given high youth unemployment, growing education debt, unaffordable housing and stagnating wages. Meanwhile the budget failed to even mention affordable housing and offered only a pittance for youth employment.

The budget also eliminated an important voice for the poor: the National Council of Welfare (NCW). The NCW was an arms-length advisory body to the Minister that provided the only source of pan-Canadian information on welfare, in addition to conducting important research on poverty. The Conservatives justified the move by arguing that the NCW was duplicating work done by non-governmental organizations, but anti-poverty NGOs have protested that they depended on the data and research produced by the NCW. And the grand savings achieved by ending this 50-year-old institution that defended the rights and interests of the poor? $1.1 million a year.

Giving with one hand
At the Crown-First Nations summit in January, the government made a big deal out of announcing a new relationship with Canada’s First Nations. The budget appears to make a promising first step in resetting the relationship: despite the significant cuts in the budget, the government set aside $275 million over three years for First Nations education and $175 million to build and renovate schools on reserves. This is a good investment, however it falls far short of what the Assembly of First Nations has said is needed to bring funding for First Nations education to parity with non-Aboriginal Canadians.

What the government gave with one hand though, it took away with the other. Significant cuts have been made to Aboriginal health programs, including funding for the National Aboriginal Health Organization (which will now close its doors), the Assembly of First Nations, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, the Native Women’s Association of Canada, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatam, Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, and the Métis Nation of Canada. These organizations provided research, policy development, public education and health programs for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Canadians, who have some of the worst health outcomes in the country. Aboriginal Canadians have lower life expectancy, higher infant mortality rates, and higher rates of disability, injury, and chronic and infectious diseases. So why are we cutting their health programs? Shouldn’t we be investing more?

The budget also eliminated the First Nations Statistical Institute and the National Centre for First Nations Governance. There will therefore now be significant gaps in the data available regarding First Nations and big holes in the supports available to First Nations communities.

War on the environment
Finally, the budget inflicts major cuts on environmental assessments and clamps down on charities that seek to protect the environment. Environment Canada is being cut by $88.2 million while Natural Resources Canada is losing $108.3 million. Among the work to be sacrificed is the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, which studies climate change and the economy. Meanwhile, the review process for major projects will be gutted, with reviews limited to two years regardless of the size of the project and a new patchwork system of assessments to be created through the adoption of a “one project, one review” approach. At the end of these reviews, cabinet will have the right to approve a project regardless of the review’s outcome.

The budget also sets aside $8 million to investigate charities that are suspected of undertaking political activities. Many see this move as a response to what the government has complained are “radical groups” trying to “hijack” environmental assessments, rather than acknowledging the legitimate role of civil society groups in defending and protecting the environment.

Budget 2012 sets the tone for a government agenda that erodes the foundations of a caring society that looks after the most vulnerable among us. Instead of everyone contributing as they can to promote the common good, the budget offers a scenario in which the poor, the marginalized and the environment pay the costs of political choices that marginalize them even further. The government has revealed that its treasure, and therefore its heart, lies with the rich and the powerful, not with the least among us.

Chandra Pasma is an Ottawa-based policy analyst.

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