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Harper's boiling frog budget

By: 
Jessica Squires

March 30, 2013

 
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s 2013 budget, dubbed Economic Action Plan 2013, is a familiar Harper-style feat of smoke and mirrors. This budget is one more in a line of budgets since 2010 and earlier, in which the government is taking a boil-the-frog approach: through apparent small-scale tinkering, the Harper Conservatives are presiding over a wholesale shift in the governing approach of the Canadian state.
 
Attacks on workers
First, promising a public service that is “affordable, modern and high-performing,” Flaherty committed to “examine overall employee compensation and pensioner benefits and ... propose changes to the labour relations regime ...  following the lead of other public and private sector organizations.... In addition, the Government will be examining its human resources management practices and institutions in a number of areas, including disability and sick leave management, with a view to ensuring that public servants receive appropriate services that support a timely return to work.”
 
Many in the labour movement fear this is code for bringing in a sick leave regime close to that forced on Canada Post workers. The aims of that scheme, which eliminated sick leave and replaced it with a private insurance plan called short-term disability leave, were to save money by bullying workers out of taking leave at all. The regime places the onus on doctors to issue a statement that the employee is “totally disabled” and unable to work, and on workers to appeal a decision by Canada Post and a private insurance company. The plan will make people work when they are sick, but not too sick to move; discourage people from taking leave when they are sick; and privatize the remaining cost of sick leave to private insurers. Workers will work while sick, thus making themselves even more sick, possibly making others sick, and ultimately resulting in their needing to take time off, resulting in yet another claim cycle.
 
The public sector unions have signalled they will fight any such manoeuvre, which will require broad rank-and-file resistance.
 
Corporatization and militarization
The budget also continues the freezing of spending on programs and on direct spending to individuals. The net result is in fact a decline in program spending as a proportion of GDP over time. There are more hidden cuts as program and departments and agencies are being slashed or eliminated without being announced publicly, let alone listed in the budget.
 
The erosion of spending accompanies an ideological shift to an intervention style that benefits the 1%, with the politicization and militarization of governance. Harper has announced that CIDA will be rolled into DFAIT. Presumably this is to ensure that international aid decisions are made closer to cabinet. We can expect “aid” to translate into “subsidization of private corporate interest abroad”— in other words, imperialism.
 
Research funding continues to shift to benefit the needs of business and industry. The much-touted training plan announced in the budget is another example: training dollars are dependent on willingness of businesses to pay one third, and on forcing provinces (especially Quebec) to relinquish their autonomy over those dollars.
 
While Department of National Defense is supposedly cut, no figures are in the budget to attest to this. It’s true those cuts are expected to the tune of $2.7 billion. But the department will still receive about $19 billion per year, and remains by far the largest discretionary item in the budget. Infrastructure spending, supposedly increasing but in fact going down this year by about $1 billion, is tied to public-private partnerships.
 
Other, more culturally-focussed politicization and militarization measures can be expected through the CIDA merge, and through the Ottawa Winterlude festival—now to be run by the Cabinet department, Heritage Canada. Canada Day is also moved there from the National Capital Commission. Those festivals can be expected to be politicized, and probably militarized.
 
Colonial
Worst of all, this budget responds to demands for a transformed relationship between the Canadian nation and Aboriginal peoples by unleashing more unilateral program decisions, enforcement, and attacks.
 
Promises to resolve claims faster are actually about forcing aboriginal groups, within parameters set by government, to fight private interests for control over their own lands and resources. Along with measures to erode collective land use and management, these actions are designed to force a creeping assimilation on aboriginal peoples, and to deliver a conservative ideologically-driven goal of permanently undermining aboriginal resistance for generations.
 
Rather than answer calls for housing and education investments, the budget promises funding for police on reserves. The announced funding for income assistance is contingent on mandatory participation in youth training programs. In other words, the measure is workfare for Aboriginal youth.
 
These measures were imposed, once again, without the constitutionally required consultation. Meanwhile, on environmental issues the budget is so insignificant as to be laughable.
 
Secrecy
Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page spent his last week in his job arguing in court that the government must reveal to Canadians what has actually been cut. Even conservative commentators have remarked on how little of substance is actually revealed by the 2013 budget documents. One of the main commitments in this budget is to eliminate the deficit by 2015. However, the actual success of this measure will not be known until 2016 – the year after the next election.
 
This budget is part of a pattern: denial, and decisions based on ideology and not facts. This is based on ignoring the billions of tax corporate tax cuts and military spending that produced the deficit, ignoring earlier claims that Canada under Harper’s rule was unaffected by the economic crisis, balancing the books on the backs of the 99%.
 
This budget is a boiling pot of water in which the Harper government hopes the 99% are being lulled into complacency. We need to rise up and overturn the pot, and the Idle No More movement shows how accumulated grievances can explode, sparking solidarity across the country. We need to build solidarity for the indigenous sovereignty movement and connect it with the anti-war and labour movement, so we can strike back at the 1% behind Harper’s budget.

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