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This Budget’s For YouThis Budget’s For You

This Budget’s For You

Finance Minister Bill Morneau handed down a 2018 budget today that spends billions in new money Canada doesn’t have, and raises the national debt to almost $700 billion. But no worries, writes Convivium’s Peter Stockland. It’s also got a gendered analysis.  And it puts people first.

Peter Stockland
5 minute read

The key number for understanding the federal Liberal government’s 2018 budget is 319. That’s the page number where total projected spending for the coming fiscal year is first mentioned.

It’s an eye-popping $338.5 billion, up from $311.3 billion in the government’s inaugural budget of 2016-17. It’s based on a projected deficit of $18.1 billion, increasing Canada’s federal debt to $669.6 billion or 30.1 per cent of the country’s overall economic activity.

What’s significant about those numbers, though, is their institutional insignificance. In a traditional budget document reporting on Ottawa’s annual financial health, they would have been among the first figures reported.

But “Equality + Growth: A Strong Middle Class” is not a traditional budget by any means. Arguably, it’s barely a budget at all. It’s much more a 281-page social engineering blue print, with 76 pages of economic and fiscal outlook appendices tacked on to keep accounting types from lapsing into withdrawal.

Of course, all budgets, regardless of partisan origin, have a mindset driving them, a frame of ideas to contain them. But here, even the budgetary language has a novel ideological blush. 

A gross $9.5 billion increase in what would once have been quaintly called “spending” is now grouped, diversely yet inclusively, as “policy action” and “investment.” The federal government, long considered by some as Canada’s leading collectivity of eager beaver social engineers, will now “invest” in you. (You being one of the taxpayers who handed over $221.8 billion in various federal fees and levies from April to December of 2017 alone.)

 Government invests. You pay. Get with the program.

And “invest” the government does with this document. The seven-page table of contents covers government busyness in almost every imaginable field of Canadian life, from “Access to the New Canada Workers Benefit” to “Supporting Those Who Keep Our Communities Safe.”

Some of that busyness is unquestionably beneficial for enhancing Canada’s social architecture. Some of it is undeniably questionable as an expenditure of public funds. All of it, good or bad, has been subjected to the rigors of something new called Gender-based Analysis Plus, which already has its own sprightly acronym GBA+, and will presently be legally required for all future federal budgets.

GBA+ has determined, for example, that “the LGBTQ2 community, new Canadians and others with marginalized intersecting identities (italic emphasis added) often find it more challenging to find and keep a good job…because of systemic biases that exclude them from opportunities open to other women and men.”  No doubt you wonder how you lived so long without knowing that. But now you do know. And so you can rest assured the GBA+ LGBTQ2 problem will be fixed ASAP.

In fact, many, many problems will be put right pronto. Why doubt it? It takes thousands of multi-million dollar program spending increases, after all, to spread $338.5 billion around the country. There will, naturally, be $82.5 million for cannabis research and education after the government legalizes weed this summer. Local newspapers, as reported, will get $50 million. The government’s new legislation to combat sexual harassment on Parliament Hill requires $35 million, on top of $50 million for legal aid funding to support victims of harassment.

There’s even a brand new six million dollar pot of cash to “fix” the problem of boring and uninformative federal election leadership debates. It’s a problem most Canadians have resolved simply by turning down the sound and turning the political combatants into silent goldfish swimming to the surface. But no longer.

Study is required. #Muchstudy. #Somuchstudy. Study of virtually every imaginable thing. Action on many of those things. Spending, of some sort, for it all. For whether we call today’s document a budget or a social engineering blueprint, it is what federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau rose in the House of Commons to declare: “A plan that puts people first.”

Those six words might be the most reassuring heard on Budget Day. After all, a $338.5 billion investment plan that put, say, cocker spaniels first would raise eyebrows at the very least, cause upset in certain quarters certainly.

Eyebrows might still rise when Canadians see the plan that “puts people first” is also a very dedicated effort to put some people first ahead of other people. It does not require a deep dive into the back pages of the document, lost among the dusty ruins of the spending, debt and deficit figures on page 319, to grasp that the plan puts women ahead of men. Way ahead.

Some will say that’s as it should be in the natural order of things. Others will say, and it would be futile to argue the contrary, that it’s as it should be given a political, social and cultural history that has put women far too far behind for far too long.

For example, increasing by $1.4 billion the amount available to women entrepreneurs through the Business Development Corporation, spending $105 million over five years for “women led businesses,” making $31.8 million available for “newcomer women who are also members of visible minorities,” and offering $10 million for women in business to develop better export market networks, should strike only the most churlish, nay sexist, male as unjustifiable. Shouldn’t it?

Indisputably, Canadian businesswomen have suffered serious disadvantages for decades. Why not give them a hand up even if it looks like a handout? Their male counterparts have never shown any shyness about lining up for the latter.

Likewise, an apprenticeship approach that encourages young Canadian woman to enter so-called non-traditional trades with incentives through the “Women in Construction Fund” or the “Union Training And Innovation Program” is a good way for the State to place its markers. If young men are inadvertently and temporarily edged out of trades training as a result, hey, that’s a fresh problem to fix in a future budget, yes? Yes, of course. There will always be a new blueprint that puts people first. It will pay off without any doubt.

Well, perhaps not without “any” doubt. Confidence in the government’s unqualified capacity to re-engineer society wanes a bit with a whopping spending allocation in the budget to fix its inability to pay its own employees.

The so-called Phoenix Pay System, which pumps out cheques for federal public servants, has already cost Ottawa $460 million. The 2018 budget earmarks another $16 million just to study how to scrap Phoenix and let something new arise from its ashes.

Over the next six years, the government will spend $430 million more to sort out the horrendous mistakes the system makes every payday. It even sets aside $5.5 million for the Canada Revenue Agency to deal with the income tax nightmare of some employees being wildly overpaid while others are underpaid.

The number of employees working on the Phoenix Pay System has tripled to 1500 to resolve the problems it creates. And that’s before new investment in the policy action to replace it is inflicted on taxpayers.

Now, you might think such fundamental fiscal (mis) management should be key in any federal spending blue print. Yet the graphic inability to control, never mind meet, its own payroll is back of the book stuff in this budget. It’s on Page 191 to be exact.

And, really, when you think of it, how could it be anything else in a document dedicated to equality, growth, Gender-based Analysis Plus, and above all, investing in program action all to put you, as peoplekind, first?

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