Canada’s Austerity Budget Wonderland

Canada’s federal and provincial governments are falling in with other Western countries in delivering austerity budgets that foist costs of the global capitalist crisis onto the backs of workers and the poor.  Canada’s federal government is trying to package its latest austerity budget as something that must be done to reduce government debts and deficits but really won’t hurt too bad.  Listening to the spin put on this is much like a trip through Alice’s surreal Wonderland.1

Before Canada’s federal budget was released, Canada’s Finance Minister Jim Flaherty tried to reassure Canadians that his government was out to create jobs and sustainable social programs, and that job and program cuts would be “moderate.”2  The March 29, 2012 budget announcement itself was that $5.2 billion per year would be cut from federal programs, and 19,200 federal jobs would be slashed over three years, along with further cuts and privatization of public programs over the longer term.  Minister Flaherty still asserts that his budget cuts are “modest” and not “draconian.”3  He obviously shares with Humpty Dumpty the notion that a word can mean whatever he wants it to.  While doing the opposite of what most people want and need, the Tories are trying to convince us that what they are doing is in everyone’s best interests.

Conservative media join in the selling of the austerity budget, with a March 30, 2012 headline in the Globe and Mail saluting “Harper’s Modest Revolution,” ostensibly putting Canadians on a path to less government and more self-reliance.4  Harper was obviously chomping at the bit, and having finally gained a majority government, perhaps illegitimately,5 in May 2011, he has been promoting what another Globe and Mail headline called “Harper’s Grand Plan.”6  Harper’s plan was announced to the 2012 World Economic Forum meetings in Davos, Switzerland, where he showed his devotion to Adam Smith’s 18th century vision of capitalism,7 while other officials at the Davos meetings were calling for a new capitalism for the 21st century, ostensibly paying more attention to social concerns.  Clearly, for Harper, all that is needed is to free Smith’s invisible hand of the market, promote economic growth, and not concern ourselves with social issues.  Such concerns would, in fact, impede economic growth.

So, the latest Tory budget contains a promise to streamline environmental approval for projects like oil pipeline construction and attack environmentalists who oppose such projects.  The Harper government has gone so far as to label such environmental groups as terrorists instigated by foreign radicals.  The Tories’ list of terrorists includes anyone promoting “anti-capitalism.”8  For Harper, as for the Queen of Hearts, it’s apparently “off with their heads!”  Harper was not happy when US President Barack Obama put a halt to the Keystone XL Pipeline, so has been busy trying to push through construction of the Northern Gateway Pipeline to facilitate shipment of oil from northern Canada to Asia.  Aside from the environmental concerns, federal and provincial governments are clearly afflicted with the old Canadian disease of seeing us as hewers of wood and drawers of water, selling off our resources while manufacturing employment has declined considerably in Canada in recent years.

Along with established environmental organizations, most Aboriginal groups in Canada’s north also oppose the Northern Gateway Pipeline on environmental grounds.  In offering something for everyone, the federal budget promises to increase educational programming for Aboriginal Canadians.  Aboriginal education opportunities certainly need improvement in Canada, but the Harper Tories have already shown that their motives are mainly economic: to cultivate individualistic labor market attachment among Aboriginal Canadians; break down historical impediments to privatization of their remaining lands; and generally further the colonial project of assimilation.9

Critics have noted that the budget offers little for Canadian youth who have an official unemployment rate twice the national average, with considerable underemployment as well.  In fact, the Tories recently cancelled the federal government program of youth summer employment centers.  The government, its mainstream media allies, and conservative pundits have also been working hard to pit youth against older Canadians.  As in other countries, we are being told that pensions in Canada are unsustainable and that younger workers will have to subsidize the retirement of seniors, particularly baby boomers.  This is the old divide and conquer tactic, meant to keep younger and older Canadians from uniting on what they face in common.  The budget fulfills a recent Tory promise to raise the retirement age from 65 to 67 and reduce funding to Old Age Security.  So here we find another contradiction, with older workers forced to delay retirement and stay in the labor market longer, thus keeping job opportunities away from younger Canadians.

The Tories are also using trivial smoke and mirror tactics in trying to keep Canadians from focusing on austerity, such as playing up the budget announcement of doing away with the one cent piece, with mainstream journalists joking about being “penny pinched,” etc.  But indications are that many Canadians will not be so easily fooled, especially as their circumstances deteriorate.  The majority of Canadian voters did not vote for and do not support the Harper Tories.  Strikes and other trade union actions are on the rise in Canada, Aboriginal peoples are becoming more vocal, Canadian youth have been participating in the Occupy Movement, and students in Quebec have risen up to oppose postsecondary tuition increases.  Conservatives are quick to chant that Quebec has the lowest tuition in Canada, not wanting us to consider that perhaps postsecondary education should be free for all.  Conservatives are also working to vilify all youth activists, using youth “riots” as an excuse, denying that such “riots” are not simply senseless vandalism but only understandable as the frustrations of discouraged young people who see a society that has little future for them.  Trade unions are also under attack by governments and employers and, unfortunately, unions are not well united on the need to take militant action in opposing austerity budgeting and neoliberal capitalism in general.  But there is reason for optimism.  Looking at current youth and labor uprisings globally, it appears that the Red Mole is still burrowing, and perhaps will bump into the White Rabbit on her way up out of Wonderland.


1  Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland & Through The Looking-Glass.  New York: Bantam Books, 1865/1871.

2  Shawn McCarthy, “Budget Cuts Are About Growth Not Austerity, Conservatives Say,” Globe and Mail, March 27, 2012.

3  Bill Curry and Steven Chase, “Conservatives’ Budget to Reset Retirement at Age 67,” Globe and Mail, March 29, 2012.

4  Bill Curry and Jeremy Torobin, “From Harper’s Tories, A Budget That Dials Back the Role of Government,” The Globe and Mail, March 30, 2012.

5  Daniel LeBlanc, “Robo-call Complaints Received From About 200 Ridings, Elections Canada,” Globe and Mail, March 29, 2012.

6  Joe Friesen and Bill Curry, “Prime Minister Harper Unveils Grand Plan to Reshape Canada,” Globe and Mail, January 27, 2012.

7  Adam Smith, The Wealth Of Nations.  London: Penguin Books, 1776.

8  Shawn McCarthy, “Ottawa’s New Anti-terrorism Strategy Lists Eco-extremists As Threats,” Globe and Mail, February 10, 2012.

9  Bill Curry, “Ottawa Proposes First Nations Property Ownership,” Globe and Mail, December 15, 2011.

Dave Broad is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.  His publications include Dave Broad, Hollow Work, Hollow Society? Globalization and the Casual Labour Problem; Dave Broad and Wayne Antony (eds.), Capitalism Rebooted? Work, Welfare and the New Economy (both Fernwood Publishing); and Dave Broad, “The Productivity Mantra,” Socialist Studies, Vol 7, No. ½ (Spring/Fall 2011).

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