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Hill Dispatches: An 'omnibus' budget that confirms the Conservatives' authoritarian tendencies

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Senator Hugh Segal -- one of the few red Tories still around -- is a passionate advocate for a guaranteed annual income.

Segal points out that, as a society, we have come close to eliminating poverty among the elderly with a combination of pensions that include the Canada Pension Plan and the OAS or Old Age Security. Now, he argues, let's provide that guaranteed income for everyone.

Well, Jim Flaherty would rather go in the other direction.

Rather than work toward getting rid of poverty among people not yet old, he plans to increase poverty for elderly people.

That will be one of the undeniable consequences of last Thursday's budget.

When the age for receiving the OAS goes up from 65 to 67, Canadian seniors will be losing about $12,000 each, the two-year value of the OAS -- as Tom Mulcair has pointed out.

But poor seniors will also lose the greater amount -- over $7,000 -- that comes with the federal seniors' Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS). This payment is only available to poor seniors, and has had the effect, if you believe Conservative Senator Segal, of lifting them out of poverty

What the budget does NOT do

The recent federal budget may be "moderate" compared to what some predicted -- and compared to what the Tea Party Republicans are pushing south of the border.

However, it makes zero effort to address such fundamental challenges as growing inequality. The nearly 500 pages of the budget document do not even utter that word once.

And, make no mistake about it, while the Conservatives try to sound soothing, and argue that theirs is a pragmatic, steady-as-she-goes plan, the budget aims to achieve some fairly fundamental changes.

In fact, the 2012 budget is not only a budget, in the classic sense -- that is, a fiscal document dealing with taxes, other revenues, spending and debt and deficits. This one is, also, a much broader policy announcement.

There is a broad overall thrust, economically, which includes a strong favourable bias towards resource exports.

But the budget also announces fundamental policy shifts in a number of key areas that are not normally lumped in with the government's major annual fiscal statement.

Among those are: immigration, the environment, and relations with the voluntary and charitable sector.

A budget or another omnibus bill?

Canadians should be familiar with this tactic of bundling diverse measures together into a single piece of omnibus legislation.

The Conservatives just did it, famously, in the so-called "crime bill," C-10.

They did it again with their re-write of a compromise refugee reform bill that passed with opposition support in the previous parliament.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Amnesty International and other groups believe this new, more draconian reform (Bill C-31) contains so many constitutional clinkers that parts of it are almost sure to get struck down by the courts.

Among its many unprecedented measures, Bill C-31 would create a new, independent "Refugee Appeals Division," to give would-be refugees who are turned down at first a second chance. But it would be a two-tier system. Refugee claimants coming from countries the Minister -- and the Minister alone! -- decides are "safe" will not have access to appeal!

Those who can remember way back to 2008 will recall Flaherty's effort to cram a change in the public funding of political parties into the annual, pre-budget fiscal update -- and then make that change a matter of confidence in parliament.

Vote this down and the government falls, Flaherty said, double-daring the opposition to try that. In the fall of 2008, the Conservatives thought they had the badly defeated Liberals over a barrel and could get away with pretty much anything.

The Opposition, however, didn't blink that time.

Instead, it promised to defeat the Government and form a coalition to avoid a new election. (While that coalition plan did not quite come to pass, the Conservatives did have to beat a retreat on political party financing -- a temporary retreat, it turns out.)

Majority government means bundled legislation writ large

All of that has been prologue.

Now we have a majority, and the government is free to use this bundling tactic to its heart's content.

Rather than deal with environmental and immigration policies on their own merit, they cosset them inside a budget and push them through with very little discussion or debate.

Before we know it, Canadian policy in key areas is radically changed -- while too many of us are still musing about the meaning of no more pennies!

The new immigration policy is found on page 151 of the budget in the section on "Investing in Training, Infrastructure and Opportunity."

At first glance it seems, like much of the budget, fairly anodyne.

There is a pledge to reduce wait times for prospective immigrants, and to match immigrants more closely with economic needs. There is also a commitment to recruit more young immigrants, preferably with Canadian experience and advanced training -- in other words job-ready immigrants.

None of this is shocking. But on closer reading one is stuck not so much by what is there as by what is missing: families, resettlement programs, humanitarian concerns, building a sense of community. In this new policy, immigrants are regarded not so much as people (and prospective citizens), but simply as economic assets.

Taken together with C-31's effort to discourage many would-be refugees, we get a picture of a harder-edged, more business-oriented and self-serving immigration policy.

Environmental policy that seems written by oil companies

The budget's new environmental policy is slipped into the section on "Improving Conditions for Business Development."

The word "environment" is barely uttered. Instead, this new plan is characterized as "modernizing the regulatory system for project reviews."

The budget says the government will introduce legislation that will "establish clear timelines, reduce duplication and regulatory burdens and focus resources on large projects..."

In a table listing "key improvements," the government promises to fix "beginning-to-end timelines" for environmental reviews from a "short review" of 12 months to a longer one of 24.

The budget also says the federal government will "recognize provincial environmental assessments as substitute for federal assessments..." In other words, Harper's government says, if a province okays a project, that's good enough for us.

This new, streamlined, "environmental" process complements the existing Major Projects Initiative. The budget even takes the pains to list six mining, pipeline or oil development projects that have benefited from that Initiative.

Again, what is missing is what is most significant.

The government proposes an environmental review process the purpose of which would be to get non-renewable resources out of the ground and to market, as quickly as possible. In a great many cases, foreign companies are in charge of those resource projects, and stand to reap most of the profits.

The objectives of the new environmental review process are all economic.

The government has not set any environmental targets.

In essence, the environment, in this new system, is guilty until proven innocent. The bias is entirely with getting on with massive resource projects.

Going after charities

One of the most ominous new undertakings in this budget is buried in the "Sustainable Social Programs and a Secure Retirement" chapter. It is on page 204 of the budget document and is called, innocently enough, "Enhancing Transparency and Accountability for Charities."

Charities do not pay tax on their income and may issue tax receipts to their donors. In exchange for that privilege there are rules, one of which is that charities may not devote more than 10 per cent of their activity to advocacy work.

For the past few months the Conservatives have been on the warpath against environmental charities and the foundations that fund them.

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver issued a well-reported rant against "radicals" working against the oil sands last January, and, more recently, Senator Nicole Eaton has been leading a Senate Inquiry into foreign financial support for and advocacy activities of Canadian environmental charities.

The budget promises to amend the Income Tax Act to "restrict the extent to which charities may fund the political activities of other qualified donees, and to introduce new sanctions for charities that exceed the limits on political activities..."

The first part of that amendment is squarely aimed at groups such as the Tides Foundation that support the work of environmental organizations which themselves have charitable status.

The second part is aimed at any group with charitable status that engages in advocacy (the budget document, curiously, uses the more loaded term "political activities").

The impact of all this will be that government officials will have the power to more closely -- and invasively -- investigate charities, especially those that do not toe the Conservative line.

Advocacy and "political activities" are not clearly defined concepts.

It appears that this government wants to conflate the two -- and define as "political" any position a charity might take that is at variance with its own.

The new "Authoritarian Conservative Party"...?

All of this fits into a Conservative plan -- even, perhaps, master plan -- to remake Canadian society.

Since the 1990s, ideologues on the right such as Tom Flanagan and Tasha Kheiriddin have been proposing that it is in the interests of Conservatives that they find ways to de-fund the "Liberal and NDP friends" in the voluntary and non-governmental sector.

This plan started to take concrete shape when the Conservatives ended government funding for many organizations they considered to be unfriendly.

The trouble is, the Conservatives have discovered that many organizations have access to funding other than government dollars.

So now, with this budget, the Conservatives going after that money, too. Or, at least, if people want to give money to organizations that differ with the government, that's their business. They just should not expect tax receipts.

All in all, this budget -- when taken together with the rest of this government's agenda, and its attitude toward parliament -- reveals a political philosophy that you could call authoritarian conservatism.

We used to have Progressive Conservatives; the current crop is a different breed.

This government is deeply committed to free economic markets.

That is no surprise.

Where it is out of line with the more libertarian forms of conservatism is in its almost fanatical belief in the value of punishment and imprisonment (despite evidence to the contrary), its distrust of parliamentary debate and discussion, and, most of all, its very obvious lack of commitment to the free market of ideas.

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