Feds release final budget before next election

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OTTAWA—Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau released his fourth budget on March 19, the last before the next federal budget, and as an election budget it has met with mixed reviews on all fronts.

The finance minister was faced by a raucous opposition, as the Conservatives shouted down the speech in protest over the ongoing SNC-Lavalin dispute. The Conservatives are demanding that former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Reybould be returned to the Justice committee in order to reply to statements she made to the committee following her resignation from cabinet—allegedly over her transfer to the Veteran’s Affairs ministry, a move she categorized as a demotion not intervening in the criminal case against the massive Quebec engineering corporation.

“Today, I am happy to share our government’s fourth budget: ‘Investing in the Middle Class’,” said Minister Morneau as he began to address the House. “The title should come as no surprise, Mr. Speaker, because investing in the middle class began with our first day in office… and it’s what we’ve been doing every single day since.”

Leader of the Official Opposition Conservatives, Andrew Scheer, derided the Liberal budget as a prop to deflect attention away from the SNC-Lavalin controversy. But it has become a regular function of all federal governments in recent years to release a budget in the early spring.

“This budget shows how disconnected Trudeau’s Liberals are from Canadians’ everyday reality,” said NDP leader Jagmeet Singh in response to the budget. “There is no sense of urgency to act on skyrocketing housing costs, unaffordable childcare, expensive prescription drug costs and senior poverty rates. Canadians were counting on this Liberal government to meet their basic needs, and sadly, they were let down. We will have the courage to make different choices.”

“This is a disappointing budget for Canadians who need help right now to make ends meet,” said Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing NDP MP Carol Hughes. “This budget is disconnected from most people’s reality and the challenges we are facing together.”

“There are lots of half-measures and nice words, but the money being spent isn’t enough,” continued Ms. Hughes. “The money going into broadband is a good example. The dollar amount sounds great until you realize it’s being rolled out over the next 13 years. The North needs that infrastructure now.”

The NDP maintains that the federal budget also does not address critical issues facing the First Nations, essentially pushing off dealing with them until further down the road. 

“‘Investing in the Middle Class’ has demonstrated the important strides the Liberal government has taken to remedy First Nations historical inequity,” reads a statement from the Anishinabek Nation. “I am pleased to see funding committed towards post-secondary education and skills development and training, with a particular focus on supporting our youth. This all aids in unhinging the First Nations labour market,” said Acting Ontario Regional Chief Glen Hare (speaking in that capacity on the federal level, as opposed to his role as Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief). Critical funding was left unaddressed, the release goes on to qualify, specifically regarding child welfare and additional housing and infrastructure supports. “This is a missed opportunity for the Trudeau government,” said Acting Ontario Regional Chief Hare, “and something the Chiefs of Ontario will continue to advocate to rectify, especially given the current crises in Ontario communities, such as in Cat Lake First Nation. When the chiefs see children covered in rashes and people dying because of inadequate housing and infrastructure quality, we expect the federal government to do the right thing and rectify these immediate issues.” 

Among the budget measures impacting First Nations is $1.2 billion over three years to continue to implement Jordan’s Principle and help ensure that all First Nations children can access the health, social and educational services; $327.5 million over five years to enhance the Post-Secondary Student Support Program while the government engages with First Nations on long-term First Nation-led post-secondary education models; more than $1 billion over five years to improve essential services on-reserve, such as clean drinking water, fire protection, emergency response and supports for residents with disabilities or chronic illnesses; $40 million over five years to help First Nations research and develop their Specific Claims and a commitment to renew and replenish funding for the specific claims Settlement Fund for a further three years; and up to $100 million to establish an Indigenous Growth Fund to further encourage investments in Indigenous-led businesses by aboriginal financial institutions (such as Waubetek Business Development Corporation), including for First Nations entrepreneurs.

“While there was no mention in the budget of child welfare funding commitments,” noted Acting Ontario Regional Chief Hare, “we see hope through the funding commitment to implement Jordan’s Principle over the next three years.”

Budget 2019 proposes to invest an additional $739 million over five years to continue to tackle boil water advisories, beginning in 2019/2020, with $184.9 million per year ongoing. This investment will support ongoing efforts to eliminate and prevent long-term drinking water advisories, funding urgent repairs to vulnerable water systems and providing water operator training and support programs notes the Anishinabek Nation release.

“There is no doubt that the work done to end boil water advisories is a reflection of the legacy of former (Indigenous Services) Minister (Jane) Philpott’s commitment to systematic change in Canada’s approach to First Nations’ service delivery,” he continued. “There is still much work ahead. Though Minister O’Regan has only held the portfolio a short while, he has picked up where Minister Philpott has left off. While Budget 2019 is short on specifics, I was encouraged by the proposed investment in economic development through the Indigenous Growth Fund. With proper input from First Nations, such a venture should provide more opportunity to create sustainable revenue and business ventures for First Nations in Ontario. I look forward to working with this government and chiefs in Ontario to ensure commitments made will be properly implemented.”

“CARP (Canada’s largest advocacy organization for older adults) has been calling for significant changes to safeguard Canadians as we age—the government has listened,” said Laura Tamblyn Watts, CARP’s chief public policy officer. “CARP applauds the federal government for taking decisive action in reducing the GIS claw-back, increasing federal pension protections, supporting deferred annuities for seniors, a new EI caregiving benefit and housing supports for low income seniors.”

“We also are very pleased to see some funding for a National Dementia Strategy, increases to the New Horizons for Seniors Program and automatic enrolment in CPP for adults over 70. Investments in digital connections and municipalities will also reduce social isolation and improve aging in place.” 

On the senior front, the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) weighed in on a positive note. “Canadian workers, their families and their communities will benefit from new budgetary measures that lay the groundwork for curbing exorbitant medicine prices, income inequality, and climate change,” said CLC President Hassan Yussuff. “We are pleased to see a budget that acknowledges some of the most pressing issues facing Canadians, because these are the issues that voters will be taking to the ballot box in the federal election.”

The Royal Canadian Legion announced itself “pleased to see a range of investments for veterans and families but awaits additional information on the mechanisms to be used and the programs the funding will support.”

In highlights, the budget also includes: $22.8 billion in new spending over six fiscal years; a 2018-19 deficit projection of $14.9 billion, down slightly from the fall; a 2019-20 deficit projection of $19.8 billion (with a $3 billion risk adjustment); With debt of $685.6 billion, projected to rise to $761.7 billion by 2023-24. This will bring the debt-to-GDP ratio to a projected 30.8 per cent, falling to 28.6 per cent by 2023-24.

As an election goodies budget, the plan includes some $1.25 billion over three years on a shared-equity mortgage program for first-time home buyers; a RRSP withdrawal limit for first-time home buyers rise to $35,000 from $25,000; $3.25 billion to Indigenous Services for water quality, child welfare, education and other supports; $2.2 billion for one-time doubling of Gas Tax cash for cities’ infrastructure spending; $1.2 billion over five years for border security and modernization, and for the asylum system; a Personalized Canada Training Credit of $250 a year (up to $5,000 lifetime) for job retraining; a credit of up to $5,000 for purchases of electric vehicles; the interest rate on Canada Student Loans will be lowered to prime and will be interest-free for six months after graduation; the creation of a Canadian Drug Agency for bulk-buying of drugs and a national strategy on high-cost drugs; the airport security screening agency CATSA will become an arm’s-length agency, with additional funding of $597 million over two years; $553 million more over the next three years—$374 million of it by next April—to fix the failed Phoenix pay system; low-income working seniors will be able to earn more without giving up GIS benefits and $595 million will go to support journalism (including a 15 percent tax credit for digital news subscriptions).

Also included in the budget is a promise of high-speed internet for all Canadians by 2030.