Budgets Through the Decades

Published in Policy magazine May 2015:

I have been going into lock-ups and reading budgets for years – and years.

I remember the first seriously green budget.  It was the Mulroney administration’s 1990 Green Plan - a five-year $3 billion commitment for forests, clean water, climate action and greener technology.

Next contestant for greenest budget ever was Finance Minister Ralph Goodale’s 2005 budget – $4 billion over five years for climate action, not including green municipal infrastructure commitments.  This was the budget that launched the gas tax as a commitment for cities.  And the climate component would have gotten Canada within shooting distance of our Kyoto targets.

Not in the running – even as a distant 65th greenest budget in Canadian history -- is Joe Oliver’s 2015 budget.  It was a flabbergasting moment this week when Environment minister Leona Aglukkaq claimed it was the greenest ever.  Maybe she counts on no one remembering a time Before Harper.

Remembering only makes it worse.

Budgets through the decades

I remember going into lock ups when I was Executive Director of Sierra Club of Canada ready to dive into a budget to check on those issues we were most closely tracking.   I knew where to look and what to look for.  Budgets were organized along the lines of government departments, and there were tables and charts showing what those departments received over the last few years and projections for the next few years.  In lock-ups I could easily find how we were faring to meet our 1992 Rio commitments – were we getting near the Lester B. Pearson commitment to development assistance of 0.7% of GDP?  Was there new spending to promote renewable and increase energy efficiency and invest in our communities?

Under Stephen Harper a budget is a nearly incomprehensible amalgamation of promises and appearances of promises -- a hodgepodge of boutique tax cuts, nearly infinitely complicating the tax code, plus bribes of all kinds.  More subsidies for polluters, and no coherent way of measuring spending this year against spending in previous years. Some major 2015 announcements are timed to appear in a budget two years after the election.  The long-overdue commitment to public transit is not set to begin until 2017.  Ditto for the increases for the Department of National Defence and increased funding for the Canadian Foundation for Innovation.  All that spending presumes economic growth.  The projections for GDP growth and future oil process are not quite worth the paper they are written on.  There is no coherent, prudent plan for Canada’s future economic and social health.

We are so used to budgets that are not real that we hardly notice anymore.

As in Bruce Cockburn’s lyrics “the trouble with normal is it always gets worse...”

This budget represents a new low.  The existence of an overseas development programme is never mentioned.  This even though we were told just weeks ago in the House, during the debate on the extended mission in Iraq and Syria, that the mission included a generous contribution to address the humanitarian crisis.  With $360 million in 2015-16 for the bombing campaign, not a penny is mentioned for aid.  No mention is made of development assistance anywhere in the world.  In the two previous years’ budgets aid was cut by $670 million.      And, of course, in the omnibus budget bill, CIDA was eliminated and merged into the Department of Foreign Affairs.  Now, we realize how truly erased CIDA has been. ODA is now 0.23 % of GDP; less than half what is was when Brian Mulroney recommitted Canada at Rio to the target of 0.7% of GDP.

There is equally no mention of climate change.  Not even a whiff of a suggestion that Canada’s government has noticed increasingly severe weather events, nor our abysmal failure to move toward greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions pledged by Stephen Harper in Copenhagen six years ago.  Instead, the budget brings fresh proof of the meaning of Harper’s promises.  In 2009 at the Pittsburgh G-20 Summit, Stephen Harper pledged to stop subsidizing fossil fuels.  Not only are subsidies still flowing to the oil sands, budget 2015 opens up a whole new tax benefit to fossil fuels to assist the fracking and LNG industry.

Seven months from now, Canada will join the global negotiations for a meaningful comprehensive treaty to move the world away from fossil fuel dependence.   COP21 (the 21st Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) will take place in the last week of November and first week of December in Paris.  This is a deadline with no chance of “do-overs.”  The atmosphere is already so over-loaded with GHG that we have one last chance of reducing emissions sufficiently to avoid increasingly catastrophic levels of impacts. We will be expected to step up.  We are already over-due to table our planned commitment with the UN climate office.  The “intended nationally determined contributions” were due in the first quarter of 2015.  Missing that deadline and ignoring climate in the budget make it clear where Stephen Harper thinks climate change belongs.  Somewhere well below his commitment to oil sands expansion.

 Having put all their eggs in the bitumen basket for so long, the Harper administration reacted to low oil prices like a bunny in the headlights – delaying the budget by months, while ignoring economic opportunities. In the Green Party’s pre-budget submission, we had urged the finance minister to move quickly to provide needed boosts for those sectors of our economy that benefit from the low dollar – specifically tourism, film and television production, and manufacturing. While the budget acknowledges that tourism is a significant sector of our economy, no funding is committed.  It was this prime minister who cancelled all advertising in the U.S. market to promote Canada as a tourism destination, yet we have missed the chance to boost our visibility as a destination in advance of the 2015 summer season.

One great tourist draw, our national parks system, has suffered deep cuts. This budget includes a two page spread extolling the benefits of the national parks. It would lead the inattentive to assume enhanced funding for Parks Canada is part of the budget.  But, no. Parks get a two page profile, but no new money is mentioned; nor is it suggested to be in the offing.

The same is true for the Digital infrastructure, Mental Health, the Consumer Protection Framework, and Credit Unions. Lovely write-ups and discussion of the exciting future plans; but no funding. This is new, even in the Harper era.

The fundamental principle that Parliament controls the public purse is one of those things forgotten. The omnibus bill that allowed the PMO to control even that, through the “deeming” of the fact of Parliamentary review of billions of dollars of spending, must be repealed.  Members of Parliament must be able to read a budget and know what it says.  For now, I cannot call this volume a “budget.”  It is no longer even called a budget by Harper, but the “Economic Action Plan 2015” sub-titled “STRONG LEADERSHIP: a balanced budget, low-tax plan for Jobs, Growth and Security.”

It is Harper’s annual big thick brochure.  After the election, let us hope we can renew the notion of real budgeting with the well-being of Canada, for this generation and the next, and not merely political spin, as a shared goal of serious people.

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