By Roger Annis, A Socialist In Canada, March 2, 2018
Two years and four months ago, the Liberal Party was elected to national government in Canada on a platform of increasing government spending and tackling some of the country’s most glaring social injustices. On February 27, 2018, the government presented a national budget to Parliament.
The budget provides a useful measure of the 2015 election promises, which, it turns out, very much resemble mirages. It also provides a forward look of the rhetorical themes which the Liberals will bring to the next national election, 20 months away.
An austerity budget by any other name
The budget continues some 25 years of economic austerity waged by successive Liberal and Conservative party governments. The federal government’s budgetary balance as a percentage of GDP is projected to decline significantly from 2018 to 2023 (see the accompanying chart). The two large social program promises made by the Liberals during the 2015 election—a national pharmacare program (covering the cost of prescription drugs) and a national child care program have been left high and dry.
A writer in the Globe and Mail daily described the budget as, “social justice spending on a Liberal shoestring”.
In the October 2015 national election, the Liberals cleverly outmaneuvered the social democratic New Democratic Party by trumpeting child care and making “prescripton drugs more affordable”. They promised more spending to improve the status of Canada’s First Nations and dismissed the economic dogma saying government budget deficits are very bad.
Concerning pharmacare, the budget committed to ‘do something’ about it. The government has appointed an Advisory Council on the Implementation of National Pharmacare, the operative word being ‘implementation’. But Finance Minister Bill Morneau told a business crowd in Ottawa one day after his budget speech that he opposes universal prescription drug coverage. “We need a strategy to deal with the fact not everyone has access, and we need to do it in a way that’s responsible, that deals with the gaps, but doesn’t throw out the system that we currently have,” he said.
Morneau is playing with words, saying he favours a “national pharmacare strategy” but not a “national pharmacare plan”.
The cost of medications while in hospital is covered by Canada’s public hospital system. But once an individual leaves the hospital, he or she becomes responsible. The patchwork of provincial medical services covers most costs for poor people and for retirees, though not for many catastrophic drug treatments. Drug costs are escalating fast in Canada’s mixed for-profit/for-salaries health care system. In 2016, they accounted for 16.5 per cent of all medical expenses (hospitals ate up 28 per cent).
Work-based medical plans only cover some 36 per cent of drug costs, according to the Canadian Medical Association. The CMA reports on February 26 that a national pharmacare plan would significantly reduce overall spending on prescription drugs.
According to the Globe and Mail‘s health reporter André Picard:
Drug coverage in Canada is a patchwork of private and public insurance programs. About 26 million Canadians have private drug benefits, largely through employers. There are 102 public drug insurance programs, but that still leaves 700,000 people with no drug coverage, and an estimated 3.6 million with inadequate coverage, according to the Parliamentary Budget Officer. An analysis by the Conference Board of Canada found far fewer people lacked coverage.
Way back in 2002, former NDP premier of Saskatchewan Roy Romanow issued a landmark study on health care in Canada. The report was commissioned by the Liberal Party government of Prime Minister Jean Chretien. Romanow’s report also declined to recommend a full pharmacare program. It made suggestions similar to Morneau’s musings 17 years later.
The Canadian Federation of Nurses, Canadian Doctors for Medicare and the Canadian Labour Congress have issued an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling for Morneau to be kept away from the deliberations of the pharmacare advisory council.
Concerning child care, Globe and Mail columnist Gloria Galloway explained on February 27, “The Liberal government’s new economic plan extols the need to create more space for women in the Canadian work force but offers little financial assistance to make that happen…
“The biggest incentive the government could have offered to help women enter and stay in the work force – increased availability to affordable child care – was not in this budget.”
Budget glitter consists of two sets of modest increases in social spending.
One set aims to facilitate women entering the work force (though not including a national daycare program). The government proudly calls its budget a ‘feminist’ document. But a writer on the state-run broadcaster the CBC writes, “As per usual with this government, what we get is a lot of showy prayer, but no piety. It all sounds lovely, and focus grouped to appeal to the targeted voting demographic.
“But if anyone suffered the illusion that the Liberals were here to provide some kind of transformative government — one that will substantially improve the lives of women between the ages of 18-45 who are voting decision-makers in key suburban ridings — well, at least this budget will make us feel better, right?”
The other set is spending to alleviate some of the harsh social conditions in which most of Canada’s estimated population of 1.5 million Indigenous people live. The spending is supposed to improve access to clean drinking water, fund housing construction, and provide improved child welfare.
In June 2017, some 153 First Nations communities in Canada, out of the total of more than 600, were obliged to boil water before drinking it. According to Canada’s national census in 2016, 19.4 per cent of Aboriginal people lived in a dwelling that was in need of major repairs while 18.3 per cent of Aboriginal people lived in housing deemed overcrowded. (See the appendix of this article for further social indicators of Canada’s First Nations people.
Another ignored social right: housing
A vital area of social rights that was entirely absent from the budget was provision of housing.
Canada is undergoing a severe house price escalation, caused by capitalist market speculation and the abandonment decades ago by federal and provincial governments of the responsibility to build and manage quality social housing. Under pressure, a few provincial governments, notably British Columbia, have begun to tinker with taxation measures in order to bring down the price of some houses for home buyers. But there is nothing on the horizon that would see either level of government undertake the most meaningful measures by far to alleviate the country’s housing crisis and its poverty-level wages for millions of minimum wage or low wage earners—build and manage quality social housing.
In October 2017, the Liberal government announced a ‘national housing strategy’ that would see it spend $40 billion over the next ten years. Two housing rights activists in Vancouver–Jean Swanson and Sara Sagaii—released a six-point critique of that strategy, writing, “To get us out of the housing crisis and to implement a ‘housing as a right’ policy, we should be using government money to get land and housing out of the private market where it is a commodity, not help developers get control of more land and market housing.” (Read the two-page statement here: Six points on Canadian gov’t housing strategy, by Swanson and Sigalii, Nov 25, 2017.)
Military? What military?
Disturbingly, there is nary a word of reporting or commentary across the media spectrum–including in left wing media–on Canadian government plans to massively increase military spending.
Those plans were announced in June 2017. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said military spending would jump by 73 per cent in the coming ten years, from C$18.9 billion in 2016 to C$32.7 billion by 2027.
The new Liberal budget adds to those figures by projecting spending in the coming years of hundreds of millions of dollars, maybe billions, on what is called ‘cybersecurity’. That’s the new buzzword to describe domestic and international spying and disruption. And incredibly, the government says it plans to spend $600 million (!) to host a summit meeting of the G7 group of imperialist countries in Ottawa in June of this year.
Such are the times and such is the decline of antiwar protest in Canada that military spending is going largely unchallenged. It seems it is not even up for discussion any longer.
The reasons for the antiwar decline are complex. Trade unions have bought into the military-industrial-fossil fuel complex in the name of ‘jobs’ (see Arms sales to Saudi Arabia: The blood on Canada’s hands, news compilation by New Cold War.org, Jan 3, 2016). The mainstream media’s pro-war barrage concerning the points of conflict in Ukraine, Syria and Korea confuses and disorients many.
Much of the decline is due to the political left’s reluctance to face up to the new cold war being waged by imperialism against Russia and increasingly against China. Leftists succumb to superficial theories holding that Russia and China are ‘imperialist’; there no good side to choose when it comes to NATO’s military threats and arms escalation.
Canadian military and political interventions abroad go unchallenged for these reasons. And while President Obama and now Donald Trump are escalating nuclear war threats with massive increases in nuclear spending, action in favour of nuclear disarmament is at a low ebb.
Canada and most other developed capitalist countries abstained in the historic vote of the UN General Assembly on July 7, 2017 in favour of the abolition of nuclear weapons. The shameful vote by Canada’s self-declared ‘feminist’ government was barely reported and not at all protested.
It’s difficult to pinpoint which of the many transgressions of the Liberal Party government of Canada ranks highest on the scale of danger and folly. Perhaps top prize goes to its continued commitment to policies that are warming the planet and threatening a sixth mass extinction of species (including the humans). Canada possesses the third-largest proven reserves of fossil fuels in the form of the tar sands of Alberta. The Liberal government in Ottawa and its best-of-friends NDP government ally in Alberta all hell bent to tear up and sell those reserves to the highest bidder.
Last year, in a groundbreaking study, Oil Change International estimated that Canada provides some $3 billion in annual tax breaks and other subsidies to keep the tar sands extraction machine running. For its part, the Alberta government has just announced $1 billion in loans and grants to the industry as part of the government’s stated intent to foster a 50 per cent expansion in tar sands production in the coming years.
New left-wing ideas and strategies needed
Canada desperately needs genuine parties of the political left which can offer alternatives to the country’s downward spiral. But for a host of reasons, the left refuses to embark on that path. Much of it is hoping against hope that the moribund NDP will somehow spring to life.
But nothing in the party’s history or present-day actions suggests this will happen. The recent national party convention which took place in Ottawa from February 16 to 18 saw the party’s conservative establishment firmly retain control and push back against any and all left-wing challenges.
Notwithstanding, left-wing writer Nora Loreto wrote hopefully in the February 23 Globe and Mail daily, “The [NDP’ establishment has to figure out how to decentralize their operations and strategy to make space for them [young, left-wing activists joining the NDP], too. Critically, to make space for dissent and to do things a different way.”
Rabble.ca columnist Karl Nerenburg described the convention in these words: “Delegates listened to NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s speech at the party’s biannual convention on Saturday [February 17] and felt inspired in a way they haven’t in a long time.” But then he contradicted that claim with, “… By contrast, on other matters such as climate change, the NDP leader seemed almost deliberately non-specific. On global warming, he promised only to do better than the Liberals, without telling us what he would do. The word pipeline did not pass his lips.
“Similarly, the NDP leader evoked the situation of Indigenous Canadians, anti-Black racism, equal pay for equal work, universal internet connectivity and the need to make the wealthiest pay their fair share without enunciating any specific policy proposals.
“The speech represents more of a shift in tone and rhetoric for New Democrats than a lurch leftward in political ideology…”
In other words, the NDP remains mired in the same conservative and right-wing polices (on the social-democratic spectrum) which lost it the 2015 election. Meanwhile, and since that time, the pro-fossil fuel and timid social policy records of two provincial NDP governments–in Alberta and British Columbia–underline the point.
What is needed in Canada is much more than ‘dissent’. A new vision of a society founded on social and environmental justice is needed. Forms of political organization are needed to achieve a government that can lead societal transformation. How much longer can we afford not to act?
Roger Annis publishes his writings on his website ‘A Socialist In Canada’, along with selections of writings by others. The website also contains daily news notifications in three subject pages: World news, Canada newsroll, and Ecology newsroll. He can be reached at [email protected].
 Western media is expressing dismay at Vladimir Putin’s announcement on March 1, 2018 that Russia is successfully keeping pace with the new generations of weapons that the U.S. has been researching and developing, including ‘hyper-sonic’ missiles and drone submarines. See: In interview with NBC, Vladimir Putin says new arms race began in 2002 when U.S. pulled out of 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, RT.com, March 2, 2018. For background on the U.S.-driven nuclear arms race, see: The new nuclear race: Why North Korea isn’t the real story, by Debora MacKenzie, New Scientist, Sept 20, 2017, plus related materials, published on New Cold War.org, September 2017.
Appendix: Grim social indicators for First Nations people in Canada
From a report in the Globe and Mail on Jan 24, 2018 (additional sources indicated)
- Forty four per cent of children from First Nations reserves graduate from high school, compared with 88 per cent of other young Canadians
- Life expectancy of Indigenous people is 15 years shorter than the Canadian average
- Inuit people [in Canada’s far north] are 270 times as likely to have tuberculosis
- About seven per cent of Canadian children under 14 are Indigenous, but about 52 per cent of those in foster care are Indigenous.
- In June 2017, there were some 153 First Nations communities with boil water advisories [there are more than 600 First Nations communities in Canada]. Some of those advisories were several decades old. The Liberal Party government in Ottawa has lifted 40 boil-water advisories since it was elected in October 2015, but 26 more have been added.
- Suicide rates are six-to-seven times the rates of non-Indigenous people (see chart, source CTV News, April 2016)
- Indigenous people make up approximately five per cent of the population of Canada. Indigenous men comprise 25.2 per cent of all in-custody males in prison, while Indigenous women comprise 36.1 per cent of all females behind bars (source: CBC News, Sept 15, 2017). The Indigenous incarceration rate is ten times higher than the non-Indigenous population. In the U.S. Black people are six times more likely to be imprisoned compared to those of Caucasians descent (source: Canada’s prisons are the ‘new residential schools’ for First Nations people, by Nancy Macdonald, MacLean’s Magazine, Feb 18, 2016).