Budget’s compassionate tone not matched by substance

Originally published by Canadian Press 23rd, 2011. To go to the Canadian Press website please click here

OTTAWA — The Tories’ attempt to brand their fiscal plan as compassionate conservatism failed with one of their target audiences — New Democrat MPs.

Conservatives will almost certainly get a chance within days to sell that brand to a larger audience: the electorate.

The government’s 2011 financial blueprint features a modest package of aid for seniors, tax breaks for caregivers and money for volunteers, students, doctors and nurses — almost all of which was driven by opposition demands or platforms.

Indeed, the NDP says some of the budget’s phrasing was almost word-for-word what the party had been proposing.

But the tone was not matched with substance, says NDP health critic Megan Leslie, the MP for Halifax.

“Those words are in the document, but they don’t actually do anything,” Leslie said after all three opposition parties announced they would not support the budget.

“You can’t settle for scraps.”

With a spring federal election now a near-certainty, Leslie said the budget sets the stage nicely for a campaign on how to deal properly with the future of healthcare, poverty, seniors, and caregivers.

Where the NDP wanted $700 million a year to alleviate poverty among seniors, the federal budget allocates about $300 million a year to increase the Guaranteed Income Supplement targeted at the very poorest of poor seniors.

Where the Liberals have been touting $1 billion a year to subsidize the incomes of caregivers, the budget introduces a new tax credit that will cost the treasury $160 million a year and put $300 extra in the pockets of caregivers themselves.

Where the NDP wanted the government to take a central role in training new doctors and nurses, the budget dedicates $9 million a year for student-loan forgiveness for medical personnel who practice in rural areas.

That’s less than what they’re giving to keep Canadian magazines afloat or what they’re dedicating to the health of pigs.

“They’ve touched on all the major things we talked about, but in each case it doesn’t amount to a lot,” said Susan Eng, vice-president of advocacy for CARP, a large seniors’ lobby group whose membership is generally conservative.

She hopes an election campaign will deal with poverty among seniors in a serious way.

The group representing Canada’s doctors sees a nice gesture in the Tories’ move to lure health practitioners to rural areas, but it wants to have a more meaningful discussion on the future of health care.

“We need to see a much broader effort,” said Jeff Turnbull, president of the Canadian Medical Association.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty counters that large new social programs are exactly what he’s trying to avoid.

“Canadian experience with large untargeted social programs create large bureaucracies, excessive costs, excessive spending and higher taxation,” the minister told reporters. “That’s not what we’re going to do.”

The budget would top up the Guaranteed Income Supplement amounts that go to elderly couples or single seniors who have no pension or other extra income. The main beneficiaries would be widows who didn’t work outside the home.