by Barry Weisleder
Justin Trudeau’s undeserved reputation as a ‘progressive’ is now officially in tatters. His one-day wonder of a federal budget, calculated to overshadow the ongoing SNC Lavalin scandal, quickly shrank to a footnote. Still, there is plenty of fiscal anguish, even in Liberal ranks.
At the Toronto Star, a media pillar of liberalism, there is much hand wringing. The March 20 lead editorial was titled “Morneau’s Budget – Liberals can be bolder.” Star columnist David Olive later wrote, “since it came to power in 2015, the (Justin) Trudeau government’s progressive instincts have weakened… this week’s budget should have Grits worried that their party is losing its soul.”
Well, if there be such a thing as a soul, the Liberal Spiritus Sanctus is comfortably dwelling deep within the Canadian Corporate Corpus. The pre-election 2019 federal budget sprinkles bread crumbs on the sea without raising a ripple against the vessel of capitalist private profit. While the captains of industry and commerce continue to enjoy public subsidies and tax havens abroad for their billions, here are some conspicuous acts of neglect and omission on the domestic landscape.
Pharmacare: About 20 per cent of Canadians are uninsured or under-insured for prescription drugs. One in ten goes without prescribed medications due to cost. The Parliamentary Budget Officer estimates that universal pharma care would save more than $4 billion a year if the government exercised its purchasing power as the sole buyer. (Even more would be saved if a public enterprise did the research, production and distribution of medical drugs.) But Finance Minister Bill Morneau kept such a scheme out of the budget. He prefers to wait for the final report of an advisory body he appointed, which may recommend only filling in the gaps left by Canada’s current hodgepodge of pharmaceutical plans. That would keep Big Pharma happy.
Skills training: The budget says workers between the ages of 25 and 64 will be eligible for a training allowance of $250 a year, to a maximum of $5000. Not much training can be purchased for that paltry amount. Worse, the allowance can be accessed only if the provinces change their labour laws to let workers take re-education breaks without losing their jobs. Furthermore, adults who take time off work for re-training will be eligible for a mere four weeks off the job at just 55 per cent of full pay, and only once every four years. Is this the definition of useless, or what?
Childcare: For just one child it can cost as much as $12,000 a year. The government’s Canada Child Benefit has reduced the child poverty rate, but that doesn’t build any daycare spaces. It doesn’t enable many more women to go to work, or reduce the debt burden that is weighing down so many people. Canadians have accumulated more household debt than the residents of almost any other country. Debt dismay fuels right wing populism.
Housing: Young workers are shut out of the home ownership market. Many are couch surfing, some even living rough and dying on the streets. Trudeau/Morneau’s answer is a “shared equity” mortgage plan. It raises the amount people can borrow from their RRSP (if they have one) to put into a down payment. But the plan effectively caps the price of a home to be purchased this way at around $500,000. Experts say this no help in big markets like Toronto and Vancouver. Queen’s University real estate professor John Andrew calls the move symbolic. “They’re trying to appease the real estate lobby… to appear as though they’re doing something for first-time home buyers.” After WW2, the state built affordable housing to accommodate the baby boom and subsequent waves of immigrants. Socialists demand the creation of a public land assembly and housing construction corporation with a mandate to build 500,000 energy efficient, affordable, quality units within five years. Venezuela built 2.5 million homes in eight years. But hey, that’s a government Ottawa wants to overthrow, not emulate.
Energy – The feds opt for a mix of electric cars and dirty oil pipelines. Seriously. To be precise, the Liberal budget allocates $435 million in incentives for electric or hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicle buyers in order to nudge hitherto unwilling auto makers – after spending $4.5 billion to buy the Trans Mountain Pipeline (and double that to build a new parallel line). Trudeau refuses to convert the extensive Canada Post delivery fleet to electric — much less nationalize job killing GM in Oshawa or Fiat/Chrysler in Windsor to produce the trains, buses, freight hauling and personal vehicles for a green, sustainable future. Environmental scientists say it’s twelve years to irreversible climate catastrophe.
Farmers – The supply management system in Canada protects farmers in dairy, poultry and egg sectors by limiting imports from abroad and setting quotas for domestic production and sales. But Trudeau/Freeland signed trade agreements with the EU and the Pacific Rim that opened up these markets to foreign competition. Will the $3.9 billion support program for these farmers keep them operating?
Low income seniors – Folks aged 65+ have been falling behind for decades. The budget promises to spend $1.76 billion over four years to increase the Guaranteed Income Supplement – beginning in 2020. It will also increase the amount of income seniors can make without shrinking the supplement payouts they receive. In other words, low-income seniors are encouraged to keep working. O joy!
Pinch the Rich? — Hardly. In 2017, 2,330 Canadians ‘earned’ more than $1 million and claimed stock options tax deductions (i.e. bought company stocks, only half of which is taxed). The budget caps at $200,000 the use of this tax dodge at large “mature” companies (which exempts millionaires at start-ups). Clearly, this measure does nothing to fund social needs, much less close the gap between the super-rich and the working class. According to author Linda McQuaig, top CEOs receive 2,000 times the earnings of the average worker.
And what about electoral reform? Indigenous reconciliation? Feminism? Better forget about it, so long as Colonel Sanders is in charge of the hen house.
Forgive the pun, but under capitalism, big business greed trumps workers’ needs. “Affordability anxiety” preoccupies 57 per cent of Canadians, according to the Abacus Data polling firm. With appropriate leadership, it could power a challenge to capitalist rule.