A federal budget wish list

Lana
Lana Payne
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Stephen Harper, the economist, has finally woken up to the economic crisis that has gripped the planet.

It took him long enough.

During this fall's election, he downplayed disastrous economic news around the globe by telling Canadians the fundamentals of our economy were sound and by insensitively offering really bad stock market advice.

Stephen Harper, the economist, has finally woken up to the economic crisis that has gripped the planet.

It took him long enough.

During this fall's election, he downplayed disastrous economic news around the globe by telling Canadians the fundamentals of our economy were sound and by insensitively offering really bad stock market advice.

His failure to recognize the hardship many Canadians were experiencing and to take action almost cost him his job. One could argue that it has certainly cost untold numbers of Canadians their jobs.

For someone who is supposed to be so smart, he's been terribly slow to grasp the economic deepfreeze the rest of the world has been responding to for months now.

That suddenly changed last week, when he finally admitted in news reports that the economic crisis was not to be underestimated, predicting a recession or worse, and saying he is very worried about the Canadian economy.

But then the prime minister seemed to grasp the extent of the global economic crisis when the G20 nations met in November. Instead of taking action, the Conservatives delivered the now-infamous non-economic statement that included no stimulus for the economy. Instead, it was like a poke in the eye to those Canadians being handed pinkslips or watching their retirement savings vanish before their eyes.

Could it be that a slightly chastened prime minister has had his behind kicked into gear?

What that will mean for January's budget is anyone's guess, but there are a few obvious steps the federal government could take to lessen the pain of what many are calling the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Spend money on jobs

The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) has outlined a number of areas where action is needed, including investing in infrastructure, such as roads, water and sewer, health and educational facilities, transit, affordable housing and retrofits - all of which will create jobs and put money back into the economy.

In addition, the federal government should immediately move to improve the country's employment insurance program by increasing benefits, lowering the number of hours to qualify for EI and increasing money for retraining.

Protecting pensions, saving good manufacturing, forestry and fishing jobs, and expanding the public services needed by Canadians will help families through the tough days ahead and give communities a chance to make it.

Investing in a national child-care and early-learning system - no matter how much the prime minister is personally opposed to it - also makes good sense for the economy, for working mothers and, just as importantly, for our kids. And if it is done right, as in Quebec, investing in affordable child care and early learning now will not only create jobs, but free up extra cash for Canadian families, especially young families, as they struggle.

And, given the latest international report condemning Canada's record on child care and early learning, there is no better time to start getting this right.

Give children a good headstart

The latest criticism came from UNICEF, which looked at the world's more affluent nations and how they handle child supports. Canada languished at the bottom of the list, meeting just one of the 10 standards determined by the United Nations agency as necessary for children to get the best possible start in life.

Maybe this economic crisis is just what child-care advocates have needed to press their case. But they will need to ensure their voices are not drowned out by those crying for more tax cuts as the answer to what ails the nation.

Take the banks that are blatantly using the economic slowdown to call for even more corporate tax cuts in the province of Ontario. The Canadian Bankers' Association tried out its tired refrain in a submission to the Ontario government - cut our taxes or lose jobs. Tax cuts, says banking executive Nancy Hughes Anthony, will increase productivity and ensure banks keep jobs in Ontario.

That is their answer to everything that ails the economy. I guess the billions and billions of dollars Ottawa has already delivered in corporate tax cuts to the banks and other corporations didn't quite do the trick. Obviously, the $75 billion Ottawa recently made available to help banks buy up mortgages was not enough, either. It never is.

Social fundamentals missing

Then, there is the other side of this economic crisis. How do we help people, especially the most vulnerable?

The Caledon Institute, in a recent report, noted the idea of "social fundamentals" has been missing in the ongoing economic debate. In tough economic times, noted the institute, social programs can act as fundamental support for both the economy and society.

Social programs, the report concluded, puts money into the hands of Canadians whose collective spending can restart the economic motor.

Here's hoping the Canadian government gets the economic stimulus package right - for all our sakes - by investing in people, public services and industry, including green projects, and by strengthening the nation's social safety net after years of decay.

Maybe Harper got a big enough scare that he will do the right thing. Like many people at this time of year, I find myself hoping as never before. Children and their belief in Santa Claus and the magic of Christmas will do that to a person. Maybe some of it will rub off on our normally im-movable prime minister.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all!

Lana Payne is president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. She can be reached by e-mail at lanapayne@nl.rogers.com. Her column returns Jan. 3, 2009.

Organizations: Canadian Labour Congress, Conservatives, UNICEF United Nations agency Caledon Institute Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour

Geographic location: Ontario, Canada, Ottawa Quebec

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