Blue Budget Blues

Stephen Harper’s contempt for Canada shines through in the 2009 Federal Conservative Budget.

At the end of 2008, there was a huge brouhaha when Stephen Harper’s cronies presented a gut-wrenchingly useless fiscal update. The opposition parties formed a coalition designed to bring Harper’s government down – which is a perfectly legal manoeuvre. Harper then did what any spoiled child does when the game isn’t going his way – he took his ball and went home (otherwise known as “proroguing parliament“), promising to generate a new-and-improved budget by the end of January.

The new budget was rolled out on the 27th. You can just google “canada budget 2009” if you want to read the gory details. I’m not about to waste bandwidth summarizing it here. I do want to list, however, a few of the things that are wrong with it. This list is more than sufficient, as far as I’m concerned, to condemn the budget in its entirety.

It’s not enough. Even though the budget is being advertised as being intended to address the current hard economic times, it’s no where near the kind of budget that other nations have been mounting. According to The Star, the actual stimulus amounts to 1.3% of our GDP, which is “…clearly in the bottom ranks among major industrial nations’ response to the recession, and barely two-thirds of the 2 per cent advocated by the International Monetary Fund as an appropriate fiscal response.” So Harper lacks the courage – the stones – to actually try to address our economic troubles.

The budget is unprincipled. Harper said that conservatives must be pragmatic, not ideological. Pragmatism can be useful, but it must be grounded in ideology. Practicality without underlying ideals is activity without a moral centre. Ideals are essential, even if they’re unattainable. They point the way by which we can improve. If we’re “here” and our ideal is “over there” then we can measure whether we’re improving things by gauging whether we’re getting closer to the ideal. Ideals – captured in an ideology – are the principles that guide pragmatic decision-making. So if Harper says ideology is unnecessary, then it follows that he must be unprincipled. And since his actions run counter to this perfectly rational argument, Harper is also irrational.

Corporate bailouts cater to corrupt businesses. The budget includes cash infusions for struggling businesses. But there are no real constraints on the businesses as a result of the help. These companies are in financial trouble because of their well-documented, highly irresponsible practises (look at how disproportinate the compensation is for high level executives in the American auto industry – see my post about the salary pyramid). Basically, these bailouts – let’s call them what they really are – amount to federal permission for companies to keep screwing up. This does no one any good. Sure, in the near term, bailouts will help keep workers employed. But the underlying causes – the corporate rot festering in many big corporations – will continue to grow. These companies will not change the way they operate in any substantive way, so the bottom will eventually fall out, and everyone will be in much worse shape. As they say: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Instead of giving dysfunctional corporations billions of dollars for the sake of keeping people employed in the near term, the government should invest the money to retrain those workers so they can get other jobs, improve Employment Insurance to cover them while they’re finding those jobs, and let the sick companies die. Indeed, the government should provide “palliative care” by ensuring a controlled but definitely terminal descent into corporate oblivion. Propping up failing companies is a band-aid solution that will only make matters worse in the long run. Letting them collapse now will cause far less damage. Given this, it is clear to me that Harper can’t see past the end of his fiscal nose.

Micromanagement is always bad. The budget includes puny, targeted tax breaks – for instance, you can get up to $1,300 back for renovating your home. $1,300? That’s not enough to re-do a bathtub, let alone a bathroom. My wife and I expect to do some serious renovations soon, and $1,300 won’t be enough to cover the GST! If you’re going to do any serious renovation, $1,300 is a drop in the bucket. If the point of this part of the budget is to stimulate spending, it’s an abject failure because it is a negligible amount compared to the costs of any reasonable renovation work.

It is also far too specific. Why limit this tax break only to home renovations? What lobby group got to Harper and convinced him to toss this little biscuit their way? Why not give single mothers $1,300 to buy food and clothes for their children? Or $1,300 free public transit for the working poor? There’s a thousand ways to better direct this money. What Harper is doing here is micromanaging people’s lives…. “You want a tax break? You have to do exactly what I say!” He’s interfering with our lives; he’s trying to have us live according to what he and his cronies think is best for us.

Too much red tape. Much of the funding allocated to cities in the budget is “by application;” that is, cities will have to fill out tonnes of paperwork and undergo protracted approval processes to get money, even for projects that have already been approved at all levels of government. Toronto’s Mayor, David Miller, an indefatigable defender of cities’ needs, had discussed this long before the budget was announced. (That is, Harper knew very well what the cities needed when he was assembling the budget. He just chose to ignore it.) Mayor Miller has made it clear that there are many essential projects that are ready to start immediately, except for the necessary funding. The federal budget should have contained direct payments to the cities to let those essential projects start at once.

Instead, Harper’s control-mongering has resulted in a process that requires the cities to apply for and justify the need for funding, information that was already provided to the Feds in the course of getting all the necessary approvals. This means many projects that could start the day after the budget is approved, will be delayed by upwards of two years.

In the meantime, Toronto – and the other big Canadian cities – will suffer.

Continued neglect of public transit. While the budget includes a great deal of infrastructure money, not enough of it is dedicated to urban public transit. Most transportation-based pollution is coming from cities, yet the infrastructure money is so thinly distributed across the country that no province or group will get enough to make any significant progress to combat it.

The fact is that cities are the economic, cultural, and technological centres of our civilization. Outstanding public transit is an essential feature of any outstanding urban centre. Look across the world and this will be immediately apparent. Toronto could be a world-class city, but until the Feds recognize this and give Toronto (and Vancouver and Montreal) the real resources they need, Canada’s cities will always be second-rate, compared to London, Rome, Paris, Tokyo….

Perhaps this is all because Harper’s main supporters are ignorant yahoos that generally live outside of the intellectually, socially, and culturally enlightened urban areas. Or perhaps it’s just that Harper is stupid. The reason doesn’t matter; the fact remains that this budget is utterly inadequate for the heart of Canada’s society – it’s cities.

It’s a liberal budget. Well, not really; but it’s close. The budget implications arising from Harper’s original 2008 fiscal update are much more in keeping with Conservative dogma: focus on corporate wealth instead of individual health; lower taxes at the expense of government programs; rigidly maintain the status quo; try to reverse progress (e.g. interfering with continued efforts to further gender equality).

Instead, what we got in 2009 was clearly a budget that responded to the liberal threat to bring down the Conservative government (by way of a coalition), by adopting certain quasi-liberal budgetary features. It was a well-played political trick: the liberals can’t really oppose the budget without opposing their own principles.

Whether the budget really is a liberal one or not is not the point.

The point is this: Harper betrayed his own Conservative philosophy for the sake of keeping power. That is, Stephen Harper is such a power-mongering coward that he could not stick to his principles and produce a proper Conservative-style budget. Instead, he was a traitor to his own ideology for the sake of remaining Prime Minister.

Oh, wait – I forgot, Harper doesn’t believe in ideology.

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One thought on “Blue Budget Blues

  1. Tsk tsk. This slam is heavy on opinion. Noted economists have admitted the world economy has ventured into the unknown land. Therefore, all government action is speculative and reflects a particular party’s philosophy. What I do expect is for the government to be proactive and make corrections as the economy dictates. I lived through Trudeau’s wild spending sprees. Yes, controls on the spending are necessary or we will end up with ‘a bridge to nowhere’ and other wasteful pork barreling programmes that the Liberal Party of Canada is so well known for. I may not agree with everything the Conservatives do but like the majority I believe Mr. Harper to be the best leader in an economic crisis. If you must vent your spleen then slam the Liberal led left as they talk equality while benefiting politically by persecuting the law abiding minority that own firearms. Yes, that is another issue that urban elitists, such as yourself, are comfortable about ignoring. After all it doesn’t effect you. Economics issues change but rights once lost are difficult to reinstate. I often say why call a plumber for an opinion when the problem is electrical. As an historian my opinion on economic matters is just that – a personal opinion but then I did take some economic courses at Ryerson.

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