Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The budgetary magic show

The curtain rises. It’s good old-fashioned prestidigitation, and we’re hypnotized right off the bat by the sheer size of the budget numbers. Transfixed, we watch the man in his elegant cape wave his magic wand. Money is flung into the air, handful after handful, and seems to hang there. Stimulate us, we cry. Give us confidence. Let investors once more invest, and consumers consume.

The man puts his hand into his top hat, and pulls out--tax cuts! Lots of tax cuts! Whee! All the less to spend on childcare, education, health and social security, but what a neat trick! And the best thing about those cuts? The rich benefit too!

Why, there’s a pittance for nearly everyone in this budget. Abracadabra! $400 million for social housing for low-income seniors! Nicholas Gazzard, of the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada, told me he was pleased to see money for this sort of thing, plus social housing retrofitting and the like. I asked him how much one social housing unit cost: $50K. Quick math—why, that’s a whopping 4,000 new units for the entire country in each of the next two years.

He paused and frowned. "Well, it's a good start."

Education! Hey, presto! But Katherine Giroux-Bougard, of the Canadian Federation of Students, was "underwhelmed." While the new US president is busy unveiling a wide and comprehensive plan to support post-secondary education, she said, this budget focuses narrowly on graduate students and summer jobs.

James Turk, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, agreed. For him the budget was "very disappointing, filled with half-hearted measures." Funding for post-secondary education doesn't meet the needs in that sector, he said. No core funding for colleges and universities. No new money for the provinces to provide it. And, in contrast to Obama's planned expenditure of $12 billion on research, Harper’s budget offers a paltry $137.9 million over three years. The net result, says Turk, will be a brain drain, as talented academics head to the US, encouraged by Obama's research-friendly approach.

Student debt is now a staggering $13 billion, yet there's no new money for undergraduates. And the money for 500 doctoral and 1,000 master's students ends in three years.

$2 billion in post-secondary educational infrastructure! The man flourishes his cape and waves his wand again. We rub our eyes. Not so fast. Projects have to have matching funds from the provinces--which are getting no additional money for post-secondary education, while experiencing shrinking revenues--or from the institutions themselves, which have no money to give.

Bottom line, says this audience sceptic: the Liberals should demand amendments to the budget, and if these aren't forthcoming they should defeat it.

The man in the cape decides on a well-worn old turn to still the muttering—public sector union-bashing. OK, keep the right to strike, people! he says. We’ll just suspend collective bargaining instead. Unsurprisingly, PSAC National President John Gordon, many of whose members settled just a few days ago, isn’t happy. 30,000 of his members, employees of the Canada Revenue Agency, may find themselves subject to an actual wage rollback, while other groups are still in negotiations. Canadian Labour Congress President Ken Georgetti couldn't see how cutting back on wages would encourage people to spend, an objective of a stimulus package. Neither union leader was enjoying the show.

The President of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, Michèle Demers, was having a better time of it, at least at first. She liked the $40 billion stimulus package. The extension of EI support will ease things for the unemployed, she said (although nothing has been done to relax eligibility requirements, meaning most people paying into EI still won't be able access it when they need it). She believes that some of the proposed infrastructural stimulus project money will be injected into government departments, and her members will benefit.

Yet, she says, those very members, who will be instrumental in helping these projects along, are being dinged yet again on the collective bargaining front. "We're still being treated as part of the problem, not part of the solution," she said. "We need respect and the tools and resources to get the job done." More of her members' jobs are on the line with an on-going "strategic review." 1,500-2,000 of them face an uncertain future. Layoff? Relocation? No one knows.

Women in the audience were growing restless as the man in the cape pranced around the stage. What about pay equity? someone shouted. I'll make the current complaint-based system disappear, he boomed. Shazam! We'll set up union-employer negotiations instead, in a framework to be determined. You didn’t like the slow pace of the current system, did you?

So pay equity, once a principle, will now be something to be negotiated, with one side holding all of the legislative cards. But even that may be an illusion. Gordon points out that job classification, the source of so much of the historic pay inequity in the federal public service, cannot legally even be brought to the bargaining table.

His Program Administration group, 85,000 strong, did win some contract language recently that allows pay equity issues to be addressed in a joint classification review. If that doesn't pan out, the matter can now be grieved. To a neutral third party? Maybe, maybe not. Other members involved in on-going pay equity disputes have even less hope to cling to.

Beverley Jacobs, President of the Native Women's Association of Canada, sank into gloom. Aboriginal women aren't even mentioned in the budget, she said. She foresaw an uphill battle trying to access any of the funds set aside for First Nations to use in projects and ventures that will benefit women on the reserves. Jody Dallaire of the Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada points out that the budget keeps Canada solidly in last place among industrialized nations with respect to early childhood learning and childcare. Yet women need a comprehensive national childcare program to allow them to access training and participate in the job market.

A good portion of the audience, it seems, was less than impressed. Will the show go on? Will it be updated and made more appealing? Or will the man in the cape get the hook? At this point, it must be said, the suspense has become the most entertaining part of the performance.


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