Stayin' alive

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The budget we were handed on Tuesday is a scattershot affair, forged by a government desperate to cling to power. It offers no vision of how Canada can find its feet in the 21st-century realities taking shape south of the border and around the world.

The Conservatives reversed everything they've stood for to ensure bulletproof political passage of their plan. Michael Ignatieff has taken coalition government off the table but threatened the Conservatives with further fire with his amendment demanding repeated confidence motions in the House in March, June and December. But that amendment won't pass, since we are back to the usual intra-party head-butting. The NDP calls the amendment a cover for one more Liberal vote of confidence in Harper, and the Bloc says the motion means nothing. Still, Ignatieff has probably judged the mood of the country correctly in this winter of recession, given the goody bag the coalition has forced from Flaherty.

Though it will pass for now, the Opposition will need to watch the spending on the budgeted items like a hawk to see what actually comes of all that's been promised.

The numbers look big, but in the end the budget will be judged less by the amount that is spent than by the value of what we and the future citizens who are footing the bill receive in return.

Here are my top three reasons this budget is a bust:

What it means to ditch the green:

Listening to Jim Flaherty, you'd never know George Bush has gone bye-bye. But there is a new power reality -- the green energy sector, backed by major dollars and making big sense.

Meanwhile, Flaherty is offering up a measly $1 billion over five years for green infrastructure, with an additional $400 million, approximately, for the entire job of remediating contaminated sites, expanding the EcoEnergy program and improving the government's environmental reporting, etc.

Most shockingly, there is no defined commitment to public transit. What we actually need is closer to a five-year $25 billion package. That way, sometime within 10 to 20 years we would see the whole investment pay for itself and more in energy savings forever. Some of the package could even be committed to a low-interest loan fund.

This is a Henry Ford moment -- just in reverse. We are heading out of, instead of into, the fossil-fuel economy. Even the most Neanderthal among us (read Stephen Harper and Flaherty) acknowledge that we need to transform our energy consumption.

Why else would they flaunt their "commitment" to cap and trade? The climate debate is really about timing -- but timing is everything.

Barack's plan, passing today, pledges to begin building a new electricity grid, more than 3,000 miles of transmission lines to convey alternative energy from coast to coast. He is pledging to make 75 per cent of federal buildings more energy-efficient and to weatherize the homes of 2.5 million low-income people.

It looks like he gets it that green jobs and social justice go together like, well, horse and carriage once did. They are the combo that can fuel positive spending and economic recovery, and we are missing out.

We need new infrastructure, new efficiency standards and a new focus on education, because we know the new economy is a knowledge economy. Stalling is so yesterday. We are in a race to the new finish line. Those who lag behind will pay.

We will pay at the cash registers, with our health and with our beautiful North, if we allow the Tories to fritter away our future spending power (which is what deficit spending is all about) on other things and then leave us stuck with today's energy-wasting status quo.

Structural deficit forever:

The billions allocated to tax cuts in this budget put a few hundred bucks in our pockets today and steal from tomorrow. This is unfair and unintelligent. Let's be honest: $200 or so won't change life much if you're employed, but those who don't have jobs need much, much more. We need some focus in this fat $20 billion outlay.

The people who retain their jobs will experience some real benefits in this crap economy. It does offer lower interest rates, sale prices, even cheap gas, for Christ's sake.

Tax-cut advocates love saying it's all about giving us back our own money. But in this case, it isn't our money. Future citizens are paying the freight. And the stimulus it provides is dubious. If tax-cut money gets spent and not stashed for a rainy day, chances are high that it will be spent on something produced outside the country, thus exporting the stimulus value to wherever that was.

When we spend deficit dollars today on infrastructure, transit, education, health initiatives, etc, we are at least providing a benefit for tomorrow. Using deficit spending to pay for tax cuts is one more way the Conservatives are asking us to mortgage the future for their political gain. Give me a (non-tax) break. This is basically unethical.

EI doesn't cut it:

Rampant unemployment is the demon we must face down with this budget. Good that Flaherty added five weeks of eligibility for those on EI, but failure to restructure means that many can't qualify or will get only short-term benefits.

And the benefits themselves, frozen at a taxable max of $447 a week, are inadequate. People who are losing their jobs are bearing the brunt of the crisis. Doing everything we can to prevent this growing group from falling into desperation is not only the right thing to do. It is also the only smart thing to do economically.

"The most vulnerable," as we have come to know them during the lead-up to this budget, are those whose spending is actually at the core of our economic recovery. The crisis has taught us that debt-powered consumer spending leads to dangerous bubbles. The environmental crisis shows that mindless consumerism is unsustainable.

The most positive and effective way to enhance consumer spending is to make sure the jobless and others in need aren't forced out of economic participation as they were in the 30s.

Losing that many potential customers slows the economy to molasses, threatening all our livelihoods. Flaherty should know that not pumping up EI is a kick in the nuts of consumer confidence. Worry about losing your job is where a lot of our fear lives.

* * *

Just as it was the last to acknowledge the financial and economic crisis we are in the midst of, the Harper government is in denial about the new world that is being born before its very eyes.

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