The president of the Canadian Council of Churches wasn’t impressed with the latest federal budget – but then neither was an analyst from the C.D. Howe Institute.
“I don’t see that the problem of poverty has been addressed with much conviction or energy,” said Anglican Archbishop Barry Curtis, president of the Canadian Council of Churches.
This is despite targeted income tax relief and elimination of the surtax for low-income and middle-income individuals contained in Finance Minister Paul Martin’s deficit-busting budget.
Archbishop Curtis was one of several religious leaders who wrote to Mr. Martin in January urging him to deal with the problem of child poverty in his budget, which was delivered February 24.
This first budget of the government’s new mandate was not only the first to be balanced in 30 years, but also, countered Mr. Martin’s parliamentary secretary, the first of a planned series of theme budgets.
“The theme was education,” he said, referring to the Canadian Opportunities Strategy, which includes a Millennium Fund to help low-income students with grants starting in 2000.
“I might be going out on a limb a little, but you will continue to see these types of budgets, always remembering that whatever the theme is, it will reflect Canadian priorities – and education was certainly high on the list for Canadians.”
But, said Ken Boessenkool, a policy analyst with the C.D. Howe Institute, the government had submitted, with its eye on the opinion polls, what he termed `a timid budget.’
“The Liberals are trying to find their ground, they’re feeling their way around, keeping all their options open,” he said. “I think over the next year we will have an important debate in this country about which priorities Canadians want them to tackle.”
Few in the opposition parties or outside government are happy with the budget, the balanced books notwithstanding. Some, such as Mr. Boessenkool, said there is no genuine target to reduce the debt and the debt-to-gross domestic product ratio.
“In the next century, we have a huge seniors’ bulge coming through in 2020, and we’re going to have to get that debt down to very low levels well before that happens, because that will create some deficits,” he said.
Reform finance critic Monte Solberg agreed that paying down the debt should be the top priority. Spending announcements are “an attempt by the government to placate different groups of people,” he said. “I don’t think they’ve done a very good job of tapping into the values of most Canadians.”
Joe Gunn, social affairs co-director for the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops, said: “The government is announcing things that aren’t even going to happen in this budget year. They are promises. It is not the government taking steps now. We have to deal with unemployment and poverty in this country.”
NDP finance critic Nelson Riis was also unimpressed by the budget. “We simply have abandoned the poorest children and families in our country,” he said. “Since 1989, when there was a unanimous agreement in the House to eliminate child poverty, more than 500,000 children have been added to that list. It’s disgraceful. This budget does very little to conquer that.”
Education issues need to be addressed at a much earlier age to stop problems before they begin, said Scott Brison, finance critic for the Progressive Conservatives.
“A dollar spent on primary education is worth infinitely more than a dollar spent on secondary education, which is worth more than post-secondary education,” he said. “Higher education is very important, but we need a national commitment to head-start programs such as in the United States. There have been studies that show how one dollar spent on a child under 3 in a high risk situation saves the taxpayer $7 by the time the child is 30 in savings to welfare, employment insurance programs, police, penal systems, and so on.”
NDP leader Alexa McDonough said she saw “no sign whatsoever that there is a major re-investment in health, education and social welfare. The damage is immense. … Canadians know that they have loved ones lying on stretchers in emergency rooms. They know in the hundreds of thousands that when they go to the food bank, there is no food left. They know they’ve suffered a real erosion of income over the last decade. There is absolutely nothing here to deal with these serious problems …”
And, weighed in Progressive Conservative Party leader Jean Charest, “If they were serious about joblessness, they would have decreased EI premiums about 30 per cent.
“They’re still taking about $6 billion surplus out of the EI fund to pay down the deficit, which it wasn’t designed for. It was designed to help unemployed people. This is certainly not the type of long-term initiative that employers will base their decisions on when they re-invest in the work force.”
Margaret Dinsdale is a Toronto freelance writer.