Harper’s strategic election budget

As one would expect from Stephen Harper, he has come down with a very strategic budget and a fairly smart one at that. As with his other strategic considerations this one is aimed at achieving the goal he is obsessed with: getting a majority in the next election. Unfazed by his drop in the polls over prorogation, Harper looks at the polls and knows that most Canadian still put the economy at the top of the list – even though people also say they are still angry at shutting down Parliament.

This is an election budget, no matter when it comes this year. The real Stephen Harper will emerge – he hopes with a majority – after the next vote, having lulled people into thinking he has become just an efficient manager of the nation (something the polls already give him).

As predicted, there are no major targets for the opposition to shoot at. No big cuts to social programs like transfers for health/education/social assistance (a lump sum transfer to the provinces) or to individuals (pensions, OAS, EI, etc.).  So he isn’t about to anger provincial premiers or the elderly just yet.

His so-called “cut” to the defence budget is not a cut at all – just lowering the planned increase over the next 5 years by $2.4 billion, which still leave the military with the largest budget, relatively, since World War II. But it looks good because it is counter-intuitive for the most hawkish PM in 60 years. The $4.4 billion cut to foreign aid is extremely cynical but Harper also knows that it is not a deciding factor in how people vote.

He has also tried to pacify the science community – who aren’t effective lobbyists but are nonetheless part of the elite and have influence behind the scenes. He tossed them $222 million after cutting much more than that last time. Most of the groups cut will not see any of this new money which is narrowly targeted to nuclear and other research, not to the research-funding agencies which make arms-length decisions about research projects.

His freeze on salaries for MPs and Senators is a transparent populist ploy but it will probably work – politicians are near the bottom of the popularity list and people like to beat them up any way they can.

The sleeper in the budget is the freeze on the so-called “administrative budgets” of all departments. No new money will be made available to meet the costs of a 1.5 per cent pay increase for the public service this year and there will be no new money for the following two years as departmental operating budgets will be frozen at current levels in 2011-12 and 2012-13. That means that all departments will have to make cuts to actual programming when real increases (meeting increased need) have been about 6% annually over the past few years.

While framed as just cuts to paper-pushing (“administration”), these are in fact real and substantial program cuts – add the 1.5% cut to the loss of the anticipated 4 – 6% increase and these are major cuts, totaling close to 15% over three years. The fact that they are across the board cuts reveals once again Harper’s disinterest in actually governing. Not all departments are equal in terms of their impact on people and communities. One of the areas that will suffer is all of those departments which are responsible for the health and safety of Canadians and the environment – less money, fewer inspectors and investigations, and more “self-regulation.”

And there hints at more of the same with a promise to establish a Red Tape Reduction Commission – a euphemism for rationalizing more deregulation, likely in line with the on-going deep integration process which is “harmonizing” Canadian regulations with those in the US – almost always to our detriment.

Harper continues his culture re-engineering of the country with $2 million for a new War Memorial Program, glorifying our ugly occupation of Afghanistan.

No one should be fooled that this is the end of it. Harper’s approach to cutting things he doesn’t like is that he will do it by stealth, sneaking cuts in over time and hoping that no one will notice – the slow bleeding of the social and cultural fabric of the country. There is no law that says such cuts have to be in the budget – as the cuts to Kairos, the Arab Federation and other agencies that offend Harper’s ideology, demonstrate.

The only good news out of this budget is that it gives civil society organizations time to organize the most critical movement we need in this country right now: a movement for tax justice.

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