Below is an article published in the Sudbury Star on April 22, 2015. Click here to read more.
Following years of deep cuts, Joe Oliver presented on Tuesday his government’s federal budget. The minister of Finance heralded the plan as balanced and highlighted the fact it would render a $1.4-billion surplus by the end of the fiscal year.
Kenora MP Greg Rickford, the federal minister of Natural Resources, told The Star on Tuesday evening that surplus, while modest, is good news for Canadians.
“Where I come from — a small-town Canadian family — $1.4 billion is a massive amount of money,” he said. “Ask any Canadian family how they feel about the importance of balancing their budget. … This budget, if it has a major theme, is about reducing the tax burden for (taxpayers).”
The Ring of Fire got a $23-million boost on Tuesday, to be disbursed over the next five years. The money will be used to fund the development and expansion of technologies used in chromite and rare-earth-element separation.
“If you take a look at the barriers companies face in moving ahead in the Ring of Fire, they’re really due to two things: the remoteness … and the cost of separating chromite,” Rickford said.
Referencing the threat of foreign terror groups, Oliver pointed to increases for Canada’s security, police and military forces, and said the national defense budget will go up by 3% annually over the next 10 years, a doubling of past expenditures. The RCMP, CSIS and the Canada Border Services Agency received a $292.5-million boost, collectively, to support their counter-terrorism efforts.
There were also several senior-friendly announcements.
A tax credit of up to 15% for home renovations will encourage older adults, as well as those with disabilities, to remain in familiar surroundings with a measure of independence.
“This is something I heard a lot during my budget consultations across Northern Ontario, particularly in smaller towns, where services for seniors were more limited; they wanted to stay in their communities,” Rickford told The Star. “This is probably one of the biggest pieces for seniors and families.”
The EI-funded compassionate care leave got a major boost on Tuesday, going from six weeks to six months. Recognizing that Canadians are generally living longer, the government announced those in their golden years will be able to reduce their minimum withdrawals from retirement income funds.
The Canadian Association of Retired Persons was cautiously optimistic following the budget announcement.
“CARP members will welcome the proposals that will help them save and manage their savings for their retirement needs,” Susan Eng, VP of advocacy for the group, said in a release. “The extension of EI compassionate benefits will also be very welcome for people who have had to drastically reduce their work hours to look after a loved one.”
But, as Eng, pointed out, balancing the books needs to be tempered by looking toward the future.
“These changes are valuable vote-getters in an election year, but CARP members also want longer-term structural change to help their children and grandchildren,” she added.
Effective immediately, the annual tax-free savings account contribution limit has nearly doubled from $5,500 to $10,000. This will enable younger Canadians to save for big-ticket purchases, without being penalized by interest or taxes, Rickford said.
While there were no explicit announcements regarding Maley Drive, Oliver identified the Building Canada Fund as a “key priority” for the federal government. The project remains in limbo and Rickford put the onus on the provincial government, which will deliver its budget on Thursday.
“The ball rests with the province, squarely,” he said. “They have a number of projects they would like to move forward and they require federal government funding. My strongest message to them is that if they would like to do that, they should move forward in discussions with the federal government to finalize some of these projects.”
To balance the books, the federal government will reduce the country’s contingency fund from $3 billion to $1 billion.
“What’s different from governments we’ve seen prior is that it’s not at the expense of the health care system or education,” Rickford added. “In fact, health care transfer payments continue to increase.”
The Conservatives’ political adversaries were quick to challenge Oliver’s announcements.
“Obviously this is an election budget, so the government wanted to put a few goodies in there,” Carol Hughes, the NDP MP for Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing, said. She is also the northern Ontario caucus chair. “We appreciate that those goodies are actually incentives the NDP has been trying to push for some time.”
She cited the extended compassionate care leave, home-accessibility tax credit, reduced minimum withdrawals for seniors and intern labour protection as NDP ideas.
Hughes also accused the Conservatives of flip-flopping on the small-business tax reduction.
“It’s what we debated before and the Conservatives voted against,” she said. “We’ve had debates in the House on some of these issues and they voted against them. Now they’re saying it’s a good idea — as long as it’s not somebody else’s idea.”
Rickford also noted $200 million in new funding for First Nations students, to be disbursed over five years.
“This is focused squarely on Grade 12 diplomas,” Rickford said. “The single biggest barrier for entry into jobs, particularly in forestry and mining in northern Ontario, is (not graduating from grade 12). That’s the single biggest investment we can make.”
Hughes contended that funding falls short.
“If you divide that among 600 communities, it comes out to about $67,000 per year — not even enough for one teacher per community,” she argued.
Hughes noted there was no funding to launch a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women, or to establish an affordable nutrition program for remote northern communities.
Rickford mentioned that health care transfer payments to the province “continue to increase by 6%,” but Hughes countered the federal government has “short-changed” provinces and territories by $36 billion in health care funding.
Paul Lefebvre, the Liberal candidate for the Sudbury riding, accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper of pandering to the wealthy at the expense of the middle and lower classes.
“Harper’s priority is a $2-billion dollar tax break for the rich, of which 85% of Canadians will never see a dime,” he indicated in his Tuesday release. “The Liberals’ priority is clear: we must strengthen those at the heart of our economy, middle class Canadians, who have not had a decent raise in 30 years. Canadian families deserve a real and fair chance at success.”
Tuesday’s announcement marked the first time the federal government has presented a balanced budget in seven years.
Canadians will be heading to the polls later this year, as a federal election is expected to be called for October at the latest.