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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Equalization for uncertain times

From MetroNews, Wednesday February 18 (

How many times must Premier Danny Williams verbally explode about “equalization” before the Harper government abandons its hyper-partisan approach to serious matters of national interest?

Equalization is a very serious matter, which, together with other federal-provincial transfers for health, education and social services, plays a critical role in promoting equality of opportunity and comparable levels of services across Canada. This commitment defines a great nation.

Regrettably, we can no longer measure how well the myriad of federal contributions to the provinces, including equalization, helps to ensure comparable public services across Canada.

No amount of tinkering with the arcane equalization formula will fix this fundamental problem, especially since too many other federal programs incorporate confusing equalizing elements that exacerbate inequities among Canadians. The best example is employment insurance, which is structured to benefit the unemployed who live in weaker areas of the country.

There is urgent need to bring coherence, consistency and accountability to the jumble of federal contributions to provinces, especially with Ontario qualifying for equalization.

Unfortunately, the Harper government has no interest in promoting comparable public services — the recent manifestation of this being the elimination of all federal funds for child-care operations. Harper’s seemingly real agenda is to downsize the national government, download responsibilities and fiscal room, permanently eliminating Ottawa’s ability to pursue national standards and objectives in most public services and programs.

With every month in power, Harper draws closer to achieving his goal.

Harper’s signature step — the GST cut — reducing national revenue by $60 billion over five years, was a bad step in the best of times, universally condemned by economists, and now cripples the national government’s ability to respond in this, the worst of times. Yet Harper refuses to reconsider.

Opposition parties must directly challenge this agenda. Explain to Canadians why we must stop weakening the fiscal position of the federal government — taking care not to turn national politics into a complex and excruciatingly boring accounting problem. Propose the establishment of a permanent non-partisan advisory commission to make the system of federal contributions to provinces more transparent and subject to public scrutiny.

And ensure that, through the commission, decisions relating to federal-provincial fiscal relations are based on intelligent debate and reflect longer-term national objectives to build stronger ties among Canadians rather than weakening them.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Budgeting Backwards

From Metro News on Wednesday, February 4 (

As the dust settles after the much-anticipated delivery of Budget 2009, one troubling feature is emerging:

Despite the fact that women constitute 47.4 per cent — almost half — of the national workforce, the vast majority of the billions of stimulus dollars targeted for job creation favours men. And the margin is huge — whether in housing, construction, forestry, autos, or manufacturing.

But it’s not just women who should be concerned: By failing to address the worst economic crisis in decades within a fair and equitable framework, the budget illustrates a serious lack of forward-thinking at a time when we need to restructure the Canadian economy around industries based on innovative technological advances and our vibrant service sectors — major employers of women.

Budget 2009 has been called everything from “historic” to “inadequate” to “excessive” to “the end of conservatism.” It is none of these things. It is vintage Stephen Harper: A mishmash of mainly short-term job creation and credit-easing initiatives aimed at holding onto power and responding to the most basic expectations of frustrated Canadians who most certainly did not want an election or a repetition of the pre-Christmas hysterics.

To the extent the budget even considers the future, it does so through a rearview mirror: Shortsightedly subsidizing — rather than transforming -- declining sectors like the auto industry; failing to adequately adapt employment insurance and other social security provisions to the current challenging environment; and concentrating the stimulus spending primarily on physical infrastructure, however important.

Yet our social infrastructure — underpinning our all-important service sector where the vast majority of women (and Canadians) work — requires just as much attention as our decaying physical infrastructure.

At a minimum, significant new long-term public investment is required in scientific ­innovation and basic research, in education at all levels, in child care, geriatric care, community and social services. This will go far to support our most important national asset — our human capital — and ensure that we pull out of this crisis with a greener, more sustainable economy, and an educated, more productive workforce employed in 21st-century industries. Moreover, investing in women is smart economics according to participants at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, from Nike’s chief executive, to the head of UNICEF, to Melinda Gates. This holds true as much for developed countries like Canada as it does for developing countries.

Let us hope the women of Canada, who represent not only half the workforce but also half of the electorate, remember the inadequacies of this budget and this government at the next election.