"Hidden horrors" of federal budget threaten waterways, students, women, workers
Conservatives pursue deregulatory agenda by gutting environment assessment.
by Ish Theilheimer
OTTAWA, February 26, 2009, PublicValues.ca: It has become clear since the federal budget was introduced that the Conservatives are using it to sneak ideologically-driven measures through Parliament. Opposition MPs have condemned many elements of the omnibus budget bill known as C-10, but the Liberals appear unwilling to press for amendments.
Among the most contentious "hidden horrors" of the budget are the elimination of the right to make human rights complaints in pay equity cases; punitive treatment of public servants, unions and students; and opening Canada's waterways to industrial exploitation without environment assessment.
Environmentalists, anglers, boaters and paddlers are worried that changes the government is introducing will pose a threat.
The legislation, says Sierra Club of Canada executive director Stephen Hazell, will "basically gut the Navigable Waters Protection Act. This legislation is intended to ensure that any bridge or dam or other obstruction to navigation is assessed for its environmental effects before it's approved."
Hazell says politicians now "will have almost complete discretion whether or not a permitting process will be applied to a dam or bridge and whether an environmental assessment will be required."
Although the government claims to be doing this to speed up economic stimulus projects, Hazell says they are "using the convenient cover of an environmental bureaucracy as a way to pursue the government's agenda to deregulate Canada for the environment."
The government's argument that environment assessments slow down work "is really a smokescreen," says Hazell. "There are very few projects that are being held up because of their environmental assessment. Projects have mostly been slow because John Baird, as minister, has been very slow in getting money out the door."
NDP Deputy Leader Thomas Mulcair has been outspoken on the waterways act changes. "It's going to be to the detriment of the overall Canadian population," that a regulatory regime that has worked for 100 years be discarded to suit the Conservatives' anti-government views.
Mulcair says that inserting ideologically-driven elements into bigger pieces of legislation has become standard operating practice for conservatives around the world.
"It's a page stolen from the American playbook where you take something that has nothing to do with the what's being debated but if it has to do with your pet project, you stick it in," said Mulcair. "So what have they done? They've attacked women's rights, they've attacked union rights, they've attacked the environment."
Mulcair, also the NDP's finance critic, says another veiled aspect of the budget is its dependence on lower-tier governments to fund infrastructure projects. The Conservatives are "presuming provinces and municipalities match the funding. Most provinces and municipalities don't have the funds, so they're putting up large numbers" they are unlikely to achieve. "We're quite concerned the money won't actually flow."
NDP women's critic Irene Mathyssen is alarmed by changes to the pay equity system in the budget that make it almost impossible for women to appeal unfair pay. She's also upset by the intimidation of unions in the package. "If a women decides she's not satisfied with her pay equity settlement, and her union tries to help her, there's a $50,000 fine for aiding and abetting social justice," said Mathyssen. "That's in this pay equity sham of a bill."
"The clock has been rolled back," she told PublicValues.ca. "Women's rights have never meant anything to this government. They have defunded Status of Women Canada. They have defunded the organizations that fight for women's equality."
Canada's post-secondary students also received a rude surprise in the budget. Instead of enhancements to student aid or lower fees to help people through difficult times and generate new economic development, the Conservatives attacked students by bringing in a crackdown on those offering false information when applying for student loans.
The head of the Canadian Federation of Students, Katherine Giroux-Bougard, says the government's action is misguided.
"We definitely don't condone students falsifying information, but this legislation looks at the symptoms of student debt rather than the root cause," she told PublicValues.ca. "And the root cause is that there is a number of students who desperately need money to access post-secondary education at a time when it's basically a requirement for the workforce."
Students were disappointed by the budget, she says. "This budget was touted as a stimulus budget," she said. They had hoped for new funds for student loans and tuition fee reductions, "especially at a time when a number of people are being laid off and returning to university and college to retrain. What we saw was basically silence when it comes to student financial assistance."
She says the average student debt is about about $25,000. "People in lower-income brackets are much less likely to attend post-secondary institutions than people in higher brackets. People who do access student loans are much more likely to drop out than people who don't have the same large debts."
Giroux-Bougard says "The underlying problem is the underfunding of colleges and universities across Canada."
Ish Theilheimer has been Publisher of the leading, and oldest, independent Canadian online newsmagazine, StraightGoods.ca, since founding it in September 1999. He is also Managing Editor of PublicValues.ca. He lives wth his wife Kathy in Golden Lake, ON, in the Ottawa Valley.