MP Stetski column: Budget 2019 fails to put people and the planet first

Kootenay–Columbia MP Wayne Stetski weights in on the federal budget.

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Kootenay–Columbia NDP MP Wayne Stetski. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer

By Wayne Stetski, Member of Parliament for Kootenay – Columbia and the federal NDP’s B.C. Caucus Chair.

The 2019 federal budget has been framed as focusing on the anxieties of Canadians.

Unfortunately, the government has failed to take the bold actions Canadians want to build a more secure, sustainable, and equitable future. I have detailed some highlights below and welcome my constituents to let me know what you think about this year’s budget.

Housing and affordability for young Canadians

Young Canadians across the country are grappling with sky high housing costs in a time of stagnant wages and precarious work. The dream of owning a home of their own and being able to retire feel like they are slipping out of reach for many. The budget includes measures targeting millennials who want to buy their first home, but these miss the mark. One proposal is to increase the amount first-time homebuyers can borrow from their Registered Retirement Savings Plan to $35,000. However, Abacus Data reports their research found only 36% of millennials even have an RRSP.

Many young Canadians are struggling to save for a home or their retirement because of high student debt and astronomical child care fees but the budget does little to address these issues.

In British Columbia, the $10 a day daycare pilot project introduced by the NDP government has been a game changer for the 2,500 young families selected to participate. Unfortunately, the federal budget provides no new funding to make affordable child care a reality for more families.

I was also disappointed to see the budget takes the half measure of reducing interest rates on student loans, instead of eliminating interest entirely. Recently I wrote to the Minister of Finance to request he follow B.C.’s lead which stopped charging interest on provincial student loans this February.

Climate change action

Young Canadians are also deeply worried about climate change and students across the riding, country, and world have been walking out of class to demand real action to avert a climate catastrophe. A decade ago, Canada made an international commitment on phasing out fossil fuel subsidies by 2025. Instead of taking real action to end these subsidies, the budget proposes to continue to study them and points to a peer review process announced last June.

The government plans to create a list of fossil fuel subsidies and their annual costs, analyze whether they are “inefficient,” and then consider whether to reform them. Canada’s self-report from this study process would only be made public after an international expert review panel has provided recommendations. Canadians deserve transparency now on subsidies which are imperiling our ability to transition to a green economy before it is too late. The time is now to shift investment to renewable energy, public transit, and energy efficient buildings.

Pharmacare

Too many Canadians of all ages are also anxious about how they will afford the medications they need, and the health of our nation is suffering. Instead of acting with a sense of urgency to establish a national public Pharmacare program that would lower drug costs and cover everyone, the budget delays this important work and leaves the door open to a U.S. style patchwork system. The budget proposes funding over four years for the establishment of a new drug agency while not taking steps to deal with inadequate and unequal coverage across the country. There’s been many studies showing Pharmacare would save Canada money and improve health outcomes, and most Canadians want us to fill this critical gap in our medicare system. The time for talk and study is over, it is time to act.

Pension protection

Another anxiety many retirees and workers have is whether the pensions they have earned from years of hard work will be secure and not stolen if their company goes bankrupt, as happened with Sears Canada. Instead of moving forward with overdue changes to bankruptcy laws to protect workers and pensioners as suggested by my colleague MP Scott Duvall (Hamilton Mountain), the budget asks them to rely on the “good faith” of corporate executives. This is out of touch with the experiences of retirees who saw their pensions cut while executives got bonuses and shareholders got dividend payments. Pensions are deferred wages and need to be given super priority status in bankruptcy.

Final thoughts

The budget does contain some positive measures such as increasing federal investment in broadband and setting a target for achieving high-speed internet connectivity across the country by 2030. In February I gave a speech in Parliament about the digital divide between rural and urban Canada and urged the government to make funding this issue a priority in the budget. I am pleased to see the government is acting on this issue, but 2030 does not show urgency.

Rural cell phone coverage and affordability of cell and internet service also remain pressing concerns.

The budget also provides a one time top up of the Federal Gas Tax Fund this year, which will lead to an estimated $280 million in extra funding for local governments in B.C. I am also pleased to see funding for the Green Municipal Fund to support energy efficiency initiatives for residential, commercial, and community buildings. Further, the budget proposes a $5,000 purchase incentive for certain zero emission vehicles, however no Canadian-made vehicles qualify under the program.

Overall though, there is very little in the budget that will benefit my constituents while adding $19.8 billion in debt for our children and grandchildren to pay off. With this budget, the government has missed another opportunity to put people before corporations. The NDP would make different choices and put people and our planet at the centre of policies.