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Lana Payne: Budgets, expectations, feminism and persistence

Finance Minister Bill Morneau delivers the federal budget in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Tuesday, Feb.27, 2018. Sean Kilpatrick/
Finance Minister Bill Morneau delivers the federal budget in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Feb. 27. — CP file photo

I found myself analyzing budget 2018 with two internal voices competing with each other.

Lana Payne
Lana Payne

 

One voice had me thinking about 10 years of Conservative budgets and the lack of progress for women’s equality over that entire lost decade. It had me considering the progress made in just three years and in this budget. A budget committed to gender-based analysis and delivering on that, a budget that talks about the importance of women’s equality and a budget that delivers some equality.

There were many measures in this budget to take note of. The commitment to proactive pay equity legislation in the federal sector is huge and a longtime demand of women’s equality advocates, including union women. Federal employers and contractors will have to prove they are not underpaying women for their work.

This is huge, considering a study in 2017 found that women’s inequality is costing the Canadian economy about $150 billion a year. The report by the McKinsey Global Institute also found women with higher education and better skills are still being paid less than their male counterparts. Sexist pay discrimination is a real thing and it has big economic costs.

Then there was paid leave for victims of domestic violence, funding for women’s organizations dealing with violence against women, an additional five weeks of paid parental leave for the second parent, grants for women in the trades. There were many advances and improvements.

It was a good night for women’s equality.

As economist Armine Yalnizyan noted: “Budget 2018 didn’t get us all the way there. Budget 2019 will have to deliver even more. So will all the parties in campaign 2019. The gender equality train has left the station, heading down the equality and growth track, and is gaining speed.”

My other voice was disappointed; disappointed because some important women’s equality and therefore economic measures were missed. It’s a given now. Women’s equality is good for the economy and good for future economic growth. So let’s get on with it.

Child care was the night’s big loser, and with economic consensus on the benefits of affordable child care and how the lack of it acts as the single biggest barrier to women’s economic advancement, it was an unfortunate and disappointing to see the government fail to deliver on something nation-changing and meaningful.

The federal Liberals point to last year’s funding for child care to be spent over the next 10 years, but it is too little over too long a period to make the kind of substantial change required.

As Yalnizyan notes, there are about 700,000 fewer child care spaces than required. The federal funding announced last year will help create just 40,000 spaces. Let’s talk about that deficit.

As one dad said to me in a Twitter exchange: “It’s too bad about child care. My wife would have had to make big bucks to justify daycare for three kids. Her entire wage would have gone into that. So she stayed home and we (very leanly) run a house of five on one income.”

And that sums up the problem. A woman who wants to work, but can’t afford to do so, the cost of child care keeping her out of the labour market. Economic growth suffers because too many women are forced to stop working or take work that doesn’t match their skills.

And until we do something big on child care in this country, closing the gender gap is going to get tougher.

In order to catch up after years of inaction, Canada needs to spend about one per cent of its gross domestic product on child care. Last year’s budget didn’t get us anywhere near that, and this year’s got us no further.

Kate McInturff, an economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), which billed the budget as “an ambition-constrained budget,” had this to say: the government promised a budget guided by gender analysis this year, and they delivered, but did not deliver on the giant leap that was needed. Progress, but not enough.
Her analysis noted that “women won’t be seeing a great deal of job growth in the sectors where they work now. Women living in low income will continue to struggle. Indigenous and racialized women and women with disabilities will still see bigger gaps in pay and employment than white women.
“One thing is for sure: the government can’t say they didn’t know. This budget includes the most thorough gender analysis we have yet to see in a public budget in Canada. It also sets benchmarks for progress. That means we can all see where the gaps are closing and where they are not. Which truly is a big step forward.”

This budget moved the needle, perhaps more than any other.

But it left a major barrier firmly standing. And until we do something big on child care in this country, closing the gender gap is going to get tougher.

As we head into International Women’s Day on March 8th, the federal government has made “feminism matters” its theme.

This budget showed that it sure does matter. It could have and should have shown more action, but progress was made and for that we owe much thanks to the activists, advocates, unionists and feminists who laid the groundwork, fought in the trenches and, during some pretty dark days, never gave up.

Persistence also matters.

Lana Payne is the Atlantic director for Unifor. She can be reached by email at lanapaynenl@gmail.com. Twitter: @lanampayne Her column returns in two weeks.

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