We expect governments to make decisions as to what programs have outlived their purpose or are deemed a waste of resources. We also expect governments to provide clear justification and to consult with us when it undertakes significant program cuts and policy shifts.
Governments will inevitably face resistance from the various interests that have benefited from the programs being cut – all the more reason to provide a clear rational for program cuts if governments are to maintain pubic support.
The most recent program cuts by the federal government were driven by Steven Harper’s commitment in the 2006 budget to “identify $1 billion in savings from Programs and activities that are no longer effective.” To some degree this appears to be a case of setting the cart before the horse. How was it possible before hand to know: 1) if there were programs that were no longer effective, and 2) that $1 billion of programs were ineffective?
There is no fiscal justification for these cuts. The government’s finances were in great shape when the Conservatives took power and they have been running high surpluses.
We haven’t been provided with a justification for the cuts except for the general objectives of efficiency, effectiveness and value for money. But how was this assessed, where is the case made for the specific cuts?
How did the Harper government come to the conclusion that the $5.5 million spent on providing citizens with access to challenging court decisions is not providing citizens with value for money? In effect the absence of the program means that only those with deep pockets have access to seeking the “language and equality rights” that are guaranteed in the Constitution.
Where is the justification for eliminating programs that improve literacy, and for not supporting non-profit organizations engaged in social and economic development in low income communities? What criteria were used to determine that it is no longer effective to provide support for museums and internet access in community centres?
Rather than the pragmatic and accountable approach we would hope for from a government, especially in a minority situation, the cuts indicate conservative ideology and politics dressed in the rhetoric of fiscal responsibility.
Take for example the 40% ($5 million) cut to the administrative budget of Status of Women. The budget cut is justified by the Treasury Board as savings that will come about through increased “efficiencies” but again no evidence is provided. Perhaps efficiencies can be found, but a 40% cut is clearly designed to decrease the organization’s capacity. The cuts were made with no public consultation and in spite of a federal government “Expert Panel” and an all-party Parliamentary Committee recommendation that support for gender equality be increased. Rather than take this advice, the Harper government appears to have caved into pressure from socially conservative pressure groups and lobbyists.
The cuts were accompanied by new conditions for Status of Women’s funding of non-governmental women’s organizations. The Status of Women’s two pronged approach of promoting women’s equality and full participation in society has been reduced to an exclusive focus on participation. The change removed the more controversial view, at least for social conservatives, that there is a systemic bias against the equal participation of women and thus social and political changes are required.
What are we to make of a program that abandons the struggle for a more equal society and focuses on providing women with services so that they can better participate within the terms of gender-biased political and economic institutions?
The changes go further. For-profit organizations are now eligible for funding and there will no longer be funding for projects that include advocacy. That’s right, organizations will no longer be able to use the women’s program funding to advocate in the interests of women. This is a big concern.
Advocacy work in general is a key component of a vibrant civil society and healthy democracy. The problem is that the advocacy work that is well resourced and connected has the greatest impact. Not surprisingly the policies and structures of our society tend to reflect the interests of the powerful through, for example, their access to media and government. The less powerful, such as the poor, within our society have a much more difficult time getting their message out and influencing public debate and pubic policy.
Government funding that enables community organizations to advocate is fundamental to ensuring non-governmental organizations can prioritize their members and constituencies’ interests. The curtailment of advocacy undermines organizations’ ability to critique and challenge governments, and to hold them accountable.
Without the option of advocacy, organizations receiving public funding become, in effect, government service delivery agencies rather than catalysts for change.
The cuts implemented provide an indication of Harper’s plans for remaking Canada. What Harper is reluctant to do is openly debate these changes and visions for the future, especially in the context of a minority government.
The Conservatives have prioritized tax cuts over maintaining valuable programs. And, as tax cuts deplete the federal government’s revenue we can expect more claims that we have no choice but to cut social programs and public services further.
John Jacobs is director of the Nova Scotia office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (www.policyalternatives.ca), an independent public policy research institute.