EDMONTON - The federal government has squandered an historic opportunity to restore the health of Canada's Medicare system and build new programs to help Canadian families in the 21st century, says the president of the Alberta's largest labour organization.
AFL president Audrey Cormack says the federal Liberals had an opportunity to invest in people and build for the future - but instead they allowed themselves to be swayed by strident conservatives like Preston Manning and Conrad Black who advocate tax cuts at any cost.
"The Liberals told us that this budget would focus on health care and children," says Cormack.
"But instead of a national homecare program that could relieve pressure on our under-funded hospitals, we got a reduction to the high-income surtax. And instead of a national child care program, we got tax cuts for highly profitable high-tech corporations and tax breaks for people cashing in on stock options. These changes may be popular on Bay Street. But they are certainly not the kind of thing average Canadians have been asking for."
Cormack says the federal government did take a number of positive steps in its budget. For example, she says the decision to fully index tax brackets for inflation is "progressive and long overdue." She also applauded the decision to double the period in which workers can collect maternity and paternity benefits.
However, Cormack says the budget failed to deliver what Canadians have been asking most for: namely a long-term financial commitment to things like Medicare and a national day care program. It also failed to shore up Canada's UI system - which currently pays benefits to less than 1 in 3 unemployed Canadian workers (down from 80% a decade ago).
"The government is now predicting a $100 billion surplus over the next three years," says Cormack. "But nearly $60 billion of that is being handed out in tax cuts and only $2.5 billion of the total is going to health care through the Canada Health and Social Transfer. The Liberals want us to believe that they are taking a balanced approach to budgeting - but this is far from balanced. It's an approach that is tilted heavily towards tax cuts and away from investments in core public services."
To make matters worse, Cormack points out that the money earmarked for health care is being given to the provinces with virtually no strings attached. That means that provincial Premiers like Alberta's Ralph Klein can do almost anything they like with the money.
"There is absolutely no guarantee that this new federal money will actually be used to strengthen Medicare," says Cormack. "Given the Alberta government continued commitment to privatization, there is a good chance that at least some of this money will end up in the pockets of health care corporations and not in public hospitals. The federal government should be doing something to make sure that doesn't happen."
Now that the business community has been given what it wants in terms of lower taxes and continued restraint in terms of public spending on programs, Cormack says she and other observers will be watching for the results.
"For years now the business community has been saying that tax cuts will lead to increased investment and job creation," she says. "Now they've gotten what they asked for. So we'll be watching to see if these business people really do create jobs and increase wages for their workers. I'm not holding my breath."
For more information call:
Audrey Cormack, President @ (780) 428-9367 or (780) 499-6530