Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Little for B.C. in unConservative budget

Mostly, Stephen Harper’s latest budget seemed benign, a grab bag of unrelated spending plans and minor tax cuts designed to persuade people that a Conservative majority wouldn’t be so bad.
Slip a few hundred extra dollars to parents. Repair a small bit of the damage from the foolish child-care cuts. Send more cash along to the provinces, especially Quebec, with all those critical swing seats.
Not much of that old Harper talk about tax cuts and defence spending and slashing the role of government.
In fact, it practically could have been a Liberal budget.
And that’s not such a bad thing really. What’s wrong with a government that decides to cater to voters?
A couple of things, actually.
For starters, this kind of budget doesn’t really show any plan of vision for the country and doesn’t deal with the long-term challenges facing Canada. It’s about the next 12 months.
And the rush to woo the politically significant swing voter blocks — Quebec, Ontario, middle-class families - risks leaving out those who don’t count so much.
Like B.C., at least according to Revenue Minister Rick Thorpe. The government put Thorpe up to respond to the budget, a surprising choice. It is spring break, but the decision also allowed Gordon Campbell and Carole Taylor to avoid being the bad guys.
Thorpe made it clear that the government isn’t happy. If his comments weren’t the sharpest rebuke for a federal government since Campbell was elected, they were in the top few.
And they were pretty legitimate.
The budget bumped spending for the coming year by an unconservative 5.6 per cent, on top of this year’s 7.9-per-cent increase in program spending.
A large chunk of that was additional money to be sent out to provinces, as equalization payments and increased transfers for health and education and social services. The Conservatives even put back a tiny bit of the money they foolishly cut from child-care budgets, recognizing that their vague idea to have businesses open day cares for employees was just foolish. B.C. wll get $33 million a year for child care under the budget; the federal-provincial child-care deal cancelled by Harper was worth $150 million a year.
And tax cuts. A very useful move to cut taxes for the poorest of the working poor. A weird but popular move to give all parents a credit worth $310 per child. (A smarter program would recognize that we would get much greater results by at least slashing the amount going to high-income families and investing heavily where children need the most help.)
And a big business tax break aimed at manufacturers — again, Ontario and Quebec.
But not so much for B.C., as Thorpe pointed out.
The provincial government had been hoping for good news on several fronts.
The whole Pacfic Gateway idea, for one. Campbell sees the task of building roads and railways and airports and ports to improve transportation links with Asia as a national dream, St. Lawrence Seaway kind of national megaproject.
Harper, based on the budget, sees it as something less. There’s an extra $50 million a year toward the Gateway projects, far from what B.C. was seeking.
B.C. has also been looking for more serious help with the pine beetle disaster. In a few years, when the beetle wood is harvested, communities across the North and Interior face huge job losses. The timber supply - the base for up to four out of five jobs in some communities - will be slashed, possibly in half, for decades.
So far, the Conservatives have promised $100 million a year for 10 years. But much more is needed to help communities prepare to make the best of tough times. (Though the province’s lack of urgency on the threat undermines its case for more aid from Ottawa.)
And while Thorpe didn’t raise it, Campbell must be irked by that he has been unable to get the federal government to take First Nations issues seriously or honour at least the spirit of the Kelowna Accord. There’s about $20 million a year in new job training money, but nothing that reflects the Kelowna commitment, the terrible poverty and dislocation on reserves or the province’s “new relationship.”
There’s not much for B.C., especially compared with the bounty sent to Quebec and Ontario.
But the goal here is to set the stage for a Conservative majority government in the next election. And B.C.’s few seats are not all that important.
Footnote: The federal Liberals and the NDP say they oppose the budget, but the Bloc Quebecois will support it. The Bloc is afraid that, given the big jump in federal payments for Quebec in the budget, it would face a backlash if it forced an election. More critically, it fears hurting the Parti Quebecois’ chances in next week’s provincial election. Instead, the Bloc is claiming credit for delivering the cash.

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