Hot! Budget aims to remake Canada in Stephen Harper’s image

TheStar.com – news/canada/politics
Published On Fri Mar 30 2012.   By Thomas Walkom, National Affairs Columnist
Stephen Harper is remaking the country. That is the message of Thursday’s federal budget. That is its meaning.

It is not a convulsive remake. Like the Prime Minister himself, it is slow, relentless and inexorable.

What matters in the budget is not the immediate impact of $5.2 billion in annual spending cutbacks announced by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. Rather, it is the attempt to gradually transform Canada, from a country in which private and social needs live in uneasy balance to one where the urge for profit dominates.

To Harper, private needs must have primacy. He may not be as forthright in his language as former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who famously said that society does not exist. But he is of the same mind.

From this stems the Conservative government’s decision to gradually and quietly roll back environmental protection regulations. Such regulations get in the way of profitable private projects, like the proposed Northern Gateway oil pipeline to the British Columbia coast. So they must be trimmed back.

A younger Stephen Harper might have been shrilly triumphant in announcing these plans. But the older, savvier version knows that it’s best not to spook voters unnecessarily.

And so in this budget, deregulation is presented as simple common sense: removing duplication, shortening timelines.

A reader has to get to the back pages of the 498-page document to get a hint of what is intended. That’s where the government announces its plans to cut federal spending on the environment by 8.3 per cent. That’s also where it says it will speed up drug approvals and trim back the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, limiting in particular the food regulator’s role in monitoring dishonest labelling.

Only once does the studied mask of reasonableness slip. That’s when the budget promises to sic tax auditors on charitable organizations that engage in political activities, particularly those that receive funds from what the government likes to call foreign socialist billionaires.

We can bet that the right-of-centre Fraser Institute, which uses its charitable status to rage against social programs, won’t be affected by this. But environmental charities that oppose the Northern Gateway pipeline almost certainly will.

In the ideal world of Stephen Harper, social programs — including public pensions for the elderly — would not exist. Retirees would be expected to get by on their own savings.

In the real world of Canadian politics, where many older people vote Conservative, that is not possible. So the government is doing the next best thing, announcing its plans to scale back old-age security pensions but making sure the new rules won’t start biting until 2023.

In other words, the decision to push forward the age of eligibility for old age security from 65 to 67 won’t affect today’s older voters. But it will hit the young and middle-aged, who the government figures, aren’t yet paying attention to retirement matters.

Incidentally, the proposed old-age cuts will also push a chunk of very poor old people — those between 65 and 67 who now qualify for a federal stipend called the guaranteed income supplement — onto provincial welfare rolls.

The government calculates that Canada’s unemployment rate will continue to hover in the 7 per cent range over the next five years. The Conservative remedy, signalled in this budget, is to make it even harder for those jobless workers to get employment insurance.

In the old Canada, that would have been seen as both heartless and counterproductive. In Stephen Harper’s Canada, it’s just a sound business decision.

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