Budget sends mixed signals, says Algoma-Manitoulin Kapuskasing MP Hughes

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OTTAWA – With pandemic concerns growing amidst the third and strongest wave yet, Monday’s federal government budget offered a mixed bag of measures and highlighted the government’s reticence to ask Canada’s wealthiest to contribute a little more to their country, according to Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Carol Hughes. 

Federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland tabled the 2021 budget on Monday. The federal spending plan includes more than $101 billion to kickstart post-pandemic recovery. Some of the highlights include $101.4 billion in new spending over three years to fuel the recovery and kickstart the transition to a green economy as well as $30 billion over five years and $8.3 billion per year thereafter to create and sustain a national childcare program with the goal of offering $10 per day childcare by 2025-2026.

Inequalities have increased over the course of the pandemic and the ultra-rich are becoming wealthier while many people who need help continue to struggle, MP Hughes said. “This is why we continue to call for a pandemic profiteer’s tax to ensure that those becoming wealthy because of the pandemic are forced to contribute a little more. Compared to our proposals, the government’s timid step in this budget amounts to a penny for every dollar our proposal would raise. Their luxury tax and plan for web giants will only deliver $4 billion over four years while the one we have been pushing for would raise $5.1 billion a year. This illustrates why we say budgets are about choices. It clearly shows they are choosing to protect the fortunes of the wealthy even in a time of crisis.”

Winding down benefit programs like Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) without knowing conditions will improve and jobs will return may be short-sighted, said MP Hughes. “Before we consider any good items in the budget it is worth recalling that the Liberal track record on key promises like electoral reform have never materialized. Another promise, for pharmacare, which featured heavily in the last Liberal election campaign and during the Throne Speech, received nothing in the budget. More worrisome is how they haven’t even enforced their own commissioned report which calls for universal pharmacare.”

The Liberal pharmacare program is not even close to the program proposed by the NDP, which the parliamentary budget officer has confirmed would result in billions of dollars of savings, she noted. “By refusing to act on the recommendation they are actually choosing to protect the profits of their friends in the pharmaceutical and insurance sectors. We need to see some real details before getting too excited about some of the promises in the budget,” MP Hughes said. “In addition, they are not responding to growing demands to increase federal health transfers to provinces and territories struggling to meet growing healthcare costs.”

MP Hughes thinks childcare is one area where the government is listening. “We know that an investment like this only builds a stronger and more resilient economy, so we are going to hold them to this promise and want to make sure any dollars aren’t going to for-profit childcare. The issue is whether it is going to be publicly delivered. This is something we will be pushing for, especially at this time with women having to stay at home instead of returning to work during the pandemic.”

“I’ve always said budgets are about choices,” MP Hughes told The Recorder. “There are incentives to vote for it because we had pushed for these measures.”

She noted that FedNor will be a standalone agency. “It used to be, and at one time had 120 employees but then were down to 80 plus. NDP MP Charlie Angus tabled a private member’s bill a few years ago asking for this. He asked for more transparency, accountability and for it to be more responsive to the North.”

The new proposed $15 federal minimum wage “will benefit 26,000 workers and is something we’ve been asking for, for a number of years,” she said. 

The NDP will also ensure a national autism strategy moves forward. “They are providing $15.4 million over two years. This is something we have been asking for and we will be following this closely.”

The government is proposing to provide $29.8 million for palliative care, long-term care and supportive care over six years. “We have seen what has happened in LTC during COVID-19,” said MP Hughes. “That is not a lot of money, especially given the fact that long-term care facilities were hardest hit during the pandemic.”

The home retrofit program is back with $4.4 billion over five years in this budget; this is another item the NDP has been asking for since Jack Layton’s time, Ms. Hughes noted. The popular program covers retrofits for furnaces, insulation, doors and windows and will start this summer, stimulating local contractor work and improving energy efficiency in homes.

“Seniors have been asking for an increase in old age security (OAS) and the government is creating senior seniors and junior seniors levels,” MP Hughes said. OAS pensioners 75 years and older in August 2021 will receive a one-time, taxable grant payment of $500 as well as a 10 percent boost to maximum OAS benefits for pensioners 75 years or older starting July 1, 2022. “We feel this is problematic, putting in place two classes of seniors. We believe all seniors are seniors.” Low income individuals who rely on OAS the most tend not to have the same life expectancy as those who don’t need the subsidy, which means fewer seniors will be helped than this sounds like, she noted.

The $18 billion allocated to build safer, healthier Indigenous communities is “far below what is needed,” MP Hughes continued. “As for improvements and funding for climate infrastructure, there is not enough provided. We see no advancement on that. The amount for housing and communities is not enough.” Housing funds provided in the budget are limited and the additional $1.5 billion for the Rapid Housing Initiative will only add 4,500 units across Canada while at least 5,490 units are needed now.

“The budget delivers a mixed bag of measures, including some items the NDP has been calling for, but also ignores how the pandemic has left many Canadians unemployed and struggling to make ends meet,” she said. The CERB will eventually be reduced to $300 from $500, and the two weeks EI sick leave benefits in the budget is not the measure negotiated by New Democrats in the absence of provincially mandated sick days. In the budget, the government said it will increase the period for these benefits from the current 15 weeks to 26 weeks; however, the NDP were calling for 50 weeks as people with serious illnesses such as cancer need to be off work for longer periods, MP Hughes said. 

The budget is a 700-page document. “There are going to be more details revealed as we study it more,” concluded MP Hughes. “We waited almost two years for this so it’s not unreasonable to take some time unpacking it. “Overall, she feels there is good and bad in the budget but “it’s not at the level we had recommended. We need to see if they are serious.”