Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer. Image: Screenshot/Andrew Scheer/Twitter

Canadian political leaders don’t like telling voters what programs or services they plan to cut. They would rather talk about finding efficiencies and cutting waste. 

The exception, it seems, are programs and services aimed at people who do not live in Canada. They are fair game, and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has them in his sights. He has promised to cut Canada’s overseas development assistance (ODA) by a whopping $1.5 billion, or 25 per cent.

In support of this bold, new policy, Scheer is now inveighing against Justin Trudeau for spending Canadian tax dollars to “build roads and bridges in foreign countries” rather than on hard-working Canadians. 

The Conservative leader does not want to sound heartless, cruel and callous, of course, so he says his government would focus on cutting ODA to middle- and upper-income countries, such as Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and G7 member Italy. A Conservative government would, he says, still provide assistance to the poorest and most needy countries, those in the least developed group as measured by the United Nations’ Human Development Index.

When you look at the facts, however, that is a hollow and entirely fraudulent promise. The CBC’s fact checker has devastatingly (for Scheer) crunched the numbers

Ridiculous and fictitious claims about aid to wealthy and middle-income countries 

When he announced the 25 per cent reduction in the aid budget, Scheer named 10 middle- and upper-income countries — which include, in addition to those named above, Turkey, Russia, Barbados and China — to which he would cut assistance altogether. But here’s the rub. In the most recent fiscal year, Canada contributed a paltry total of $22 million to all of those combined. In the case of Italy, it was about two million dollars for earthquake relief. 

Cutting that $22 million would bring Scheer less than two per cent of the way to his goal of slashing $1.5 billion from the aid budget. And where would he have to look for the other 98 per cent? Scheer and his Conservatives would have no choice but to cut deeply into assistance for those least developed countries to which they claim they want to redirect funds.

On CBC Radio’s As It Happens, Conservative global affairs critic Erin O’Toole refused to answer when host Carol Off pointed out that fact to him. 

O’Toole kept repeating his talking points about cutting aid to countries such as Italy and Brazil, until, in the end, he was forced to claim the Conservatives, as an opposition party, do not have access to the “granular” information about current ODA spending they would need to get into detail as to how they would go about cutting the $1.5 billion.

It was a telling admission of ignorance. 

If true, it would mean the Conservatives just made a grossly irresponsible promise, without the necessary knowledge to back it up. 

But, in fact, O’Toole’s claim that his party lacks access to essential information is patently false. 

Global Affairs Canada, the federal department responsible for ODA, makes detailed information about its spending and programs available, online and accessible to everyone, including opposition parties. 

As well, all political parties have access to the excellent, professional and non-partisan research services of the Library of Parliament, which are not available to the general public. They just have to ask.

In other words, there is no excuse for an opposition party to claim it does not have enough information on existing government spending programs to fully elaborate how they would carry out a policy change.

For the Conservatives, overseas development assistance, like immigration or Canada’s stance on the Middle East, is a political punching bag, designed to attract votes by spreading fear and resentment.   

Liberal record is poor; Scheer would do worse, much worse

The sick irony of all this is that the Liberal government has been a huge disappointment in the area of overseas development assistance. 

For many, many years, both the OECD, of which Canada is a member, and the United Nations have recommended that wealthy countries spend no less than 0.7 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on development assistance. Five decades ago, in 1969, a commission headed by former Canadian Liberal prime minister Lester Pearson reaffirmed this target.

And yet, Canada has never come close to meeting that target. The current Liberal government spends a paltry 0.28 per cent of our GDP on assistance, less than the Harper Conservatives, who invested 0.30 per cent.

Former Conservative British prime minister David Cameron is making the media rounds to talk about his new book of memoirs, and, when asked about accomplishments of which he is proud, never fails to mention the fact that his government boosted British ODA spending to 0.7 per cent of GDP. 

By comparison Canada is a laggard wealthy country, not pulling its weight. 

When we drill down to specifics, the Trudeau government looks even worse, especially given its penchant for virtuous rhetoric on such matters as concern for the poor and for building democratic institutions. 

The McLeod Group, an Ottawa development experts’ think tank, recently did a study focused on assistance for democracy and combatting authoritarianism in the developing world. It shows the Trudeau Liberals have entirely failed to live up to their high expectations .

“Canada does not currently have any institution whose mandate is to coordinate and support Canada’s international democracy assistance,” the report states. “The Office of Democratic Governance, which was created in 2006 within the former Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), seems to have been dissolved. Rights & Democracy, an independent institution created by Parliament in 1988 to support human rights and promote democracy around the world, was abolished in 2012 by the Harper government, among other things because of its work on Palestinian rights and on access to abortion for women.”

Given the mess the Harper government made of this file one would have expected the Trudeau government to do better. However, the McLeod experts point out, the Liberals “have failed to distinguish themselves from the previous government.”

The McLeod study shows that Canadian government funding for democratic development has declined over the past decade. 

In 2004-2005 the now-abolished CIDA invested $341 million in governance and democratic development. In 2017-2018, the Canadian government spent about half that, $169.5 million.

Trudeau’s approach to overseas development assistance policy has been, in essence, to shuffle the deck chairs on the Titanic. 

But Andrew Scheer now promises to do much worse than both Trudeau and Stephen Harper. If elected, the current Conservative leader will start throwing deck chairs overboard.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...