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Budget 2018: Liberals spend billions to close gaps for working women, Indigenous families

If it’s good for women, it’s good for Canada’s economy.

That’s the overarching theme of Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s 2018 federal spending plan, which aims to boost productivity and offset an aging population by bringing more women into the workforce in sectors ranging from science to skilled trades.

Titled “Equality + Growth, A Strong Middle Class,” the 367-page budget document offers new cash to tackle the opioid crisis, cope with a surge in asylum seekers crossing the border from the United States and improve living conditions for Indigenous people.

But women are the big winners, with money targeting new parental supports, gender equality and anti-harassment initiatives, as well as measures to promote pay equity.

Morneau said the goal isn’t simply fairness — it’s also to shield Canada’s long-term growth and labour market from the effects of a changing demographic.

“We believe that Canada’s future success rests on making sure that every Canadian has an opportunity to work, and to earn a good living from that work,” he said in a speech prepared for delivery in the House of Commons. “And that includes Canada’s talented, ambitious and hard-working women.”

‘We’re talking very much about the long term’7:15

The budget is designed to attract women to jobs traditionally dominated by men, such as high-quality, well-paid jobs in the skilled trades.

Strong economic growth and deferred infrastructure spending have cleared room in Morneau’s budget for new spending — on programs, on hiring new judges, even on new prison farms.

Indigenous communities will see an investment of nearly $ 5 billion over five years, in addition to dollars already earmarked in the 2016 budget. That money will be used to tackle long-standing problems with infrastructure and social services through investments in new housing and improved child welfare and health programs.

Pharmacare, parental leave and pay equity

There’s also a pledge for a new national pharmacare program — but the budget says nothing about what that might cost. Eric Hoskins, who resigned as Ontario’s health minister Monday, was officially named today as the chair of a new council that will hold nationwide consultations on how to proceed with a national program.

The budget also invests millions more to crack down on offshore tax havens — which, like pharmacare, is a key policy plank being pushed by the NDP.

Women around the world will also benefit from today’s budget, which adds an extra $ 2 billion over five years to the Feminist International Assistance Policy envelope. Details about the funding are to be announced in the coming year, but recent projects have focused on girls’ education, improved access to family planning and supports for local women’s organizations.

The feminist-focused aid policy was launched last year. By 2021-22, at least 80 per cent of Canada’s international assistance will be aimed at reducing poverty through programs that advance gender equality and empower women and girls.

‘Never has a government spent so much and achieved so little’7:18

The budget also unveils details of a proposed new five-week “use-it-or-lose-it” parental leave benefit, pegged at a cost of $ 1.2 billion over five years starting this year, and another $ 345 million each year after.

Styled after a popular Quebec provincial program, it will give fathers or non-birth parents, including adoptive and same-sex partners, five weeks of leave.

The incentive is to become available in June 2019 — just months before the next federal election.

Promised legislation on pay equity for federal and federally regulated employees isn’t costed in the budget, but the document says it will be included in budget implementation legislation. The budget estimates the move could reduce the gender wage gap by about 2.7 cents on the dollar for the core public administration.

The budget also commits $ 3 million to implementing enhanced pay transparency requirements, aimed at shining a light on public sector employers who lead in equitable pay practices — and holding those lagging behind to account.

‘Symbolic’ measures sidestep childcare

Former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon agrees with the concept of growing Canada’s productivity by encouraging more women to join the workplace, but said the measures included in the budget are “small and symbolic.”

She said the budget’s measures won’t be enough to have any influence on whether women work or stay home.

“The sorts of things that are going to change that decision are what happened in Quebec —  billions of dollars spent to make daycare affordable and available,” she said.

MacKinnon said women make decisions about entering the workforce on the basis of different criteria than men; they’re more likely to look at work-life balance than salary, for example.

With the #MeToo movement fighting sexual harassment and assault against women building in strength, the 2018 budget adds an additional $ 86 million over five years to a gender-based violence prevention program. It also offers $ 10 million to create a new national unit of the RCMP to review sexual assault cases that were deemed by investigators to be “unfounded.”

Funds to address opioid crisis

The budget commits $ 231.4 million over five years to fight the opioid crisis that has claimed thousands of lives — including a $ 150-million emergency fund for provinces to launch treatment programs. The budget also has set aside money for First Nations communities to address substance abuse, including opioids.

‘What the government is proposing is not actually implementing pharmacare’6:27

The budget offers new money to improve the administration of justice through expanded unified family courts, and $ 17.1 million over five years for six new judicial positions for Ontario and one in Saskatchewan.

The budget forecasts an $ 18.1-billion deficit in the 2018-2019 fiscal year, which gradually will decline to $ 12.3 billion by 2022-2023.

Morneau: ‘Make sure we get it right’ on competitiveness

During the 2015 election campaign the Liberals promised to eliminate the deficit by 2019. Today, Morneau defended the decision to run successive deficits as a strategy to realize long-term economic gains and leave lasting positive impacts for women and Indigenous people, and on innovation and the fight against climate change.

The budget is being tabled in a climate of deep global economic uncertainty, with North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) negotiations still underway and the U.S. ushering in an aggressive tax reduction plan.

Asked why the budget did not include any measures to reassure the domestic business community, Morneau insisted Canada’s tax rates are comparatively low already.

“We are in a competitive position. It’s not news to me that business is asking for lower tax rates. I was in business, it’s a pretty common refrain,” he told reporters during a news conference.

“But what we need to do is make sure we get it right, that we stay competitive.”

No NAFTA contingency plan

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said the budget is the work of an “irresponsible government” and criticized the spending plan for not including measures to prepare for the possibility that NAFTA “hits the rocks.”

“Not only have they failed to manage this budget in terms of deficit priorities, but there are actually things in here that they should have contingency for, and they’re not,” he said.

The budget document acknowledges that NAFTA uncertainty and ongoing market volatility could weigh on Canada’s growth prospects, but says “growth-generating investments,” the downward deficit track and a declining debt-to-GDP ratio will preserve flexibility to “face future challenges and shocks.”

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh praised the policies to implement pay equity and encourage more women to enter the workforce, but said he was concerned that no dollars were attached to the measures, or for pharmacare.

Power Panel: Budget 2018 – financial plan or political document?6:40

A national program is “critically important” as Canadians are skipping dosages or cutting pills in half because they can’t afford medication, Singh said, yet without a budget line for pharmacare the Liberals are not showing they truly are committed to it.

“We need a government to have courage, to take actions needed to address income inequality and lift people up with programs like pharmacare,” he said.

Missed opportunity

Former Conservative industry minister James Moore called the budget a missed opportunity to signal to the business community that the government will step in to keep Canada competitive and to soften the economic blow if NAFTA talks fail.

Canada is becoming less attractive for investors, he said.

“This budget doesn’t recognize the reality of the Trump presidency and the shift that has happened in fiscal and trade policy. Canada has to be prepared for it and this budget doesn’t prepare Canada for that new reality,” he said.

In his budget speech, Morneau said Liberal policies are reaping strong results for Canada’s economy, with 600,000 new jobs created in the past two years and unemployment rates at the lowest level in more than 40 years.

CBC | Business News