The weight of 100,000 (and growing) newly unemployed Canadians was on the shoulders of our federal minority government as they unveiled their budget response to Canada's recession today.
Core to the challenge: given a massive wave of unemployment hitting Canada, and the fact that six out of 10 Canadians don't get Employment Insurance (EI), would our government do the right thing and make our troubled EI system recession ready?
The answer is a cold hard no.
Remarkably, Budget 2009 doesn't expand EI so that the majority of laid-off workers actually qualify for the benefits that will keep them afloat while they look for a new job pouring coffee at Timmy's.
Instead, they're left out in the cold dreaming of the days when they were once able to take advantage of our government's favourite past time: tax cuts.
That's right, at 4 pm today our Finance Minister stood up in the House of Commons and did what he always does on budget day. He promised tax cuts.
Not just any old tax cuts. Middle-class tax cuts. Low-income tax cuts. Kitchen reno tax cuts. Tax cuts of every shape, size, flavour and variety were on parade on what was supposed to be a somber, reflective occasion.
We got Christmas in January: A little something for everyone, especially all the good little boys and girls who still have a job. And would you like that gift wrapped as stimulus for an ailing economy?
But for the poorest of the poor or for the working schlep who just came home with a pink slip, Budget 2009 is the Christmas equivalent of a lump of coal.
Actually, coal would have kept them warmer than the promise of tax cuts that are meaningless if you go through 2009 without a job to give you income.
Sure, if you manage to keep your job in 2009 you might be eligible for an average of $300 in tax cuts next year. Santa Harper will be good to you.
But making comfortable Canadians happy wasn't the challenge in this budget. The challenge before our government was to stimulate an economy that is showing all the signs of recession slump.
Tax cuts will not save our economy. That $300 will most likely go on the Visa bill or be used by worried Canadians to put an extra payment on the mortgage. Reducing household debt, while laudable, doesn't inject one extra penny into the economy - which is what Canada needs right now.
Research shows that major investments in infrastructure are far more effective stimulus for the economy. And this budget contains promises of infrastructure investments -- but the provinces and municipalities will have to match the funding.
For starters, municipalities have already made it quite clear they don't have the money. And many provinces, such as hard-hit Ontario, will be forced to go into deeper deficit to make the federal government's promises turn into reality.
That will delay projects at a time when we need to get moving on shovel ready jobs.
I like Christmas and well-wrapped pretty gifts, but there is a time and a place for them. Budget day isn't it.
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