Want to know if the budget will help close the gender gap? Good luck

TheStar.com – Business/Opinion – Gender-based budgeting sounds like a great idea, but the Liberals will have to finally show if it’s actually working, writes Jennifer Wells.
Feb. 23, 2018.   By

Joe, Ralph, Walter, Charles (three of those), Samuel, Alexander, Richard, Donald, Douglas, James . . . and Bill.

That’s not a comprehensive list, but serves to make the historically accurate point that Canada has never had a female finance minister. So if it is gender parity we want to talk about, we could start by remembering that the powers of governance exercised through federal resource allocation have never rested with a woman.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau might keep this in mind as he rises in the House Tuesday to lay down his third budget, one that has been pre-framed in the public consciousness as a document that will examine the levers of finance — monies in; monies out — through the lens of gender.

The cynic would say that in past weeks the Liberals have laid intentionally exhaustive groundwork in gender responsive budgeting to distract from a poverty of new ideas.

A more open-minded examination would attempt to assess the merits of what has been called “gender mainstreaming,” which has been around since the mid-1980s — with varying degrees of success — and has gained traction in the last decade or so.

Well good luck with that.

Advancing gender equality through federal legislation, policies and programs isn’t new to Canada. One time-stamp is the Beijing Declaration and its 1995 pledge to advance the goals of equality for all women. Canada did adopt as a consequence the practice of gender analysis of policies and programs.

But the language of the Trudeau Liberals tied budgets to gender and promised to fill gaps in measurement and results. In its 2016 fall economic statement, the government announced that to ensure — not help ensure, but ensure — the delivery of “real and meaningful change for all Canadians,” it would subject future budgets to more rigorous scrutiny “by completing and publishing a gender-based analysis of budgetary measures.”

The 2017 budget included the government’s first “Gender Statement,” which highlighted the obvious — the wage gap, gender imbalances in innovation and public infrastructure, the under-representation of women on corporate boards, the need for more women in STEM, etc. — and included modest expenditures such as the $7-billion, 11-year investment in early learning and child care as a way to lever more labour force participation from women.

According to the International Monetary Fund, Canada is one of only three G7 countries to publish such a gender budget statement. As the IMF points out, “statement” in Canada’s case is a misnomer. This wasn’t a mission statement, as in, a pledge to eliminate the gender gap by 2030, or institute national daycare faster than that. Rather it filled an entire 25-page chapter on skills, market-based challenges, policies aimed at addressing poverty and violence, and much more.

It’s when we come to the analysis of the commitment that we run into trouble. In an IMF survey of G7 and non-G7 nations that have adopted gender budgeting, Canada rates only a “limited application” grade across such measures as “existence of fiscal data disaggregated by gender” and “specific arrangements for coordinating policy decisions on gender related issues.” Translation: at least as of last year’s budget there wasn’t the tracking data to prove whether or not the outcomes matched even modest objectives.

The Australians had gender-based budgeting in place for years, but the Conservative government of Tony Abbott tossed it in 2014, assessing the measure, according to the Economist, as “left-leaning and anti-austerity.”

Austria, on the other hand, went so far as to change its constitution, declaring that the country would “strive for equality of women and men in their budget management.” In adopting the budgetary principle, the government demands that each ministry include a gender-responsive objective in its budget. Gender is the only indicator that applies across all ministries. A so-called court of audit is meant to assess if outcomes are met. An annual gender performance report is prepared for Parliament.

Yet a presentation by Austria’s Parliamentary Budget Office last spring didn’t disguise the program’s growing pains. Ill-defined objectives, a lack of oversight, poor inter-ministerial co-ordination and a lack of gender-related data were just some of the issues raised.

What are the effects? It will bring little comfort to read that a report on OECD countries found that of 12 countries with some form of gender budgeting, only half could point to “specific examples where the gender-budgeting tool had brought about significant changes in policy design and/or outcomes.”

Canadians will want to know how this gender-based budgeting is working for them. Like many of the current government’s promises, it sounded great in theory on first and second reference. With Budget 2018, the government needs to demonstrate that it’s now working in practice.


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