A budget of such big numbers, but with one exception, such little ambition

The pandemic has exposed extreme inequality and a torn social safety net. With the alluring exception of childcare, Monday's budget shows the Liberals have chosen to protect the billionaires rather than do something about them, writes Tom Parkin.

Tom Parkin, CNC federal politics columnist

A pandemic recession now more than a year old and the need to invest in a recovery always guaranteed Monday’s federal budget would have eye-popping numbers. A $155 billion deficit is expected this year before falling to more usual levels as broad subsidies to industries and other emergency spending pulls back and a recovery takes hold.

Except to the advocates of austerity, it’s not the numbers in the budget that should be surprising – it’s that the Liberals have chosen to have such low ambition in addressing the inequality and torn safety net exposed by the pandemic recession.

There is, however, one point of ambition that Liberals hope will shine bright amid their timidness: childcare, which the finance minister has called the centrepiece of her budget.

After almost 30 years of promises and now in their sixth year as government, the minority Liberals have resurrected childcare. That this critically important idea is back on the agenda is credit to the generations of activists in the women’s movement and labour movement. Maybe this time is it. Time to keep up the pressure and leave no room for Liberals to lose interest.

But aside from this exception, Canadians have been given a budget that chose not address the problems laid bare over the last 14 months of pandemic.

Despite an explosion of inequality, the Liberals' choice is to offer little help those who have grown poorer and no action to constrain the ultra-rich who grew ultra-richer during the pandemic.

A report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released last week showed the wealth of Canada’s 47 billionaires has skyrocketed by $78 billion since public health restrictions began closing small businesses, bringing their collective wealth to $270 billion.

Many economists and the opposition NDP have been calling for a wealth tax to both constrain run-away wealth concentration and provide revenue to invest in economic recovery. The CCPA estimated a one per cent tax on estates of more than $20 million – which would affect fewer than 15,000 elite Canadians – would bring in about $10 billion in revenues.

But rather than take that small step, Minister Freeland’s chose to protect the billionaires. The recession and recovery will be expensive – and it’s the average Canadian who’s going to pay for it, not the ultra-rich who profited so mightily as others suffered so much.

Minister Freeland chose to protect the politically-connected insiders who own and control many for-profit long-term care homes. Although private care home ownership highly correlated to deaths in this pandemic, Freeland has chosen to reward these companies with increased subsidies – with not a whisper about the need to get profit out of long-term care and integrate these care facilities into our public health system.

Minister Freeland chose to protect Big Pharma and Big Insurance rather than protect Canadians, making not one mention of pursuing the pharmacare plan they promised almost as many times as the end to the first-past-the-post voting system.

Again, economists and the opposition NDP have been pushing for a universal pharmacare plan that would ensure no Canadians ever again needs to choose between taking their medications and paying their bills.

Pharmacare would get rid of private insurance and squeeze the big pharma companies, reducing by billions the amount spent on medicines while ensuring universal coverage and lifting the burden of drug insurance from employers.

For all those reasons, pharmacare is feared and loathed by investors – and the Liberals have chosen to put their interests first. It appears pharmacare is now dead, to Liberals anyway.

And on the next crisis we need to address – the climate crisis – the Liberal have against chosen such small ambition.

While the Freeland budget claims it will invest nearly $18 billion in a green recovery, an analysis by policy researcher Seth Klein found less than $5 billion in to be invested over five years, only about $2 billion more than had been previously announced and planned.

The bulk of the Liberals' green recovery appears to be more corporate tax cuts. Companies that manufacture zero-emission technologies will have their corporate taxes cut in half. No word is offered on what technologies qualify, who will qualify them or how long this cut will last.

And despite the damage done to our health care system by this pandemic  – and the unanimous appeals of provincial premiers – the Liberal budget chose to stick with the Stephen Harper cut to health care transfers.

On issue after issue – aside from the glinting gem-stone of childcare – this is a budget that chose to do little to fix what this pandemic showed us was broken.

If this is the Liberals’ pre-election pitch, it’s not likely to address the feeling many now have that Canada can do a lot better than it has over the past 14 months -- if only its politicians would chose to protect the Canadian people rather than the ultra-rich and politically-connected industries.

 

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