Before going on summer break, the federal Conservatives pushed through their first budget as a majority government which they claim is designed to lower the deficit – which stood at about $23.5 billion for the 2011-12 fiscal year.
In doing so, however, the Stephen Harper government is also making sure that it can check off many of the boxes that satisfy its Conservative agenda.
The decision, for instance, to reduce the size of the public service will save on spending but also begin to address the right-wing goal of smaller government. And don’t be surprised if the matter of a public-private health care system arises again with federal finance minister Jim Flaherty’s recent take-it-or-leave-it transfer payment offer to provincial health ministries.
In a previous deficit-reduction crisis during the 1990s, Liberal finance minister Paul Martin’s cuts to social programs and public services came at devastating and lasting cost to working families. However, Martin did not pursue tax cuts for large corporations as these Conservatives are doing.
That we continue to face huge deficits and humongous debt speaks more to a structural problem where governments continue to spend beyond their – and our – means and that keeps being an excuse for them to enact all kinds of austerity measures that in the end cause considerable grief, especially to the most vulnerable. And efforts – or attempts – at reduction usually come at a time when it is political advantageous or when, as with this government, the time has come to fulfill its ideological commitments.
This Conservative government’s deficit fighting, while still leaving the lower economic groups in peril, takes a predictably different focus than Liberals, and as such reveals its priorities.
The Harper government’s strategy has led to cuts not only to the federal bureaucracy, but also in foreign aid, environmental assessments, to environmental advocacy organizations that challenge the government, the forestry industry, curtailment of the purview of Statistics Canada which will affect information gathering on the results of government policy, cuts to an already highly restrictive Employment Insurance system of payments, increasing the prison population, and a delay of Old Age Security payments to age 67, among other things.
Significantly, it is cutting or limiting some programs established during the Liberal era, and in the case of the environment portfolio, is even backtracking on advancements put in place by the previous Conservative government of Brian Mulroney.
As long as a system prevails that allows for deficits to accumulate year after year we will have governments that use them as an excuse to foist their agenda on the populace, starving services they deem unnecessary or troublesome, while fostering conditions for the advancement of others.
What we have today is a government that is widely regarded as being in partnership with big business and free market capitalists at the expense of the falling middle class and the always threatened poorer and working classes.
Our more regulated banking system, in place before the Harper government took the reins and the Bank of Canada holding to its low interest rates are essentially the centerpieces of our current economic pride. That rate has meant that Vancouver and Toronto real estate markets, for example, have been economic drivers for quite some time. Yet, employment and growth in other areas remain lukewarm at best. Unstable, minimum or below minimum wage or under the table jobs with no benefits are on the rise.
Harper likes to boast that our economy is doing just fine. Yet, we all know people who are struggling to find decent employment.
The question is this, while Harper glows in self-congratulation for keeping the Canadian economy above water, taking credit for, if not building on, Martin’s austere deficit reductions, and playing to the interests of big business – what exactly is being done to ensure opportunities for ordinary Canadians?