Shrug. Ask most Canadian Christians what a federal budget should contain, and a hopeless shrug might be the most common response.
Then again, some of us might tune in to the news to see if we can expect to pay more taxes, receive a tax break, or perhaps even come to expect new government services. If a budget only seems like big news for business, social advocacy organizations and politicians, however, we're missing the mark.
Budgets really are mirrors into our values, and doorways into our hearts. What we, as a society, decide to spend money on, what we decide to cut, and how we decide to do so, reveals much about the things we hold most dear. What our elected politicians think we want them to do on behalf of our communities gets expressed in budgets. Budgets tell us who have been listened to, who have been forgotten, who counts, and who matters not.
Budget day in Ottawa will arrive soon — on March 22. If the opposition parties vote against it, Canadians will go to the polls in our third election since 2006.
From forecasts that ministers have tabled in Parliament we have already had a few glimpses into what budget 2011-12 will offer. Spending will be curtailed, as government assumes that the worst of the recession is over and that deficits should be reduced. Parks Canada will see its budget drop by 14 per cent, and Environment Canada will lose 20 per cent of its budget.
Due to the expiry of the $390 million retrofit program that subsidized renovations to reduce energy consumption, and other cuts, the Department of Natural Resources expects to lose about 21 per cent of its budget as well.
Last year's budget also regrettably froze foreign aid for three years. Since then, groups like KAIROS, MATCH, the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, the Canadian Teachers' Federation, and others, have had their funding cut.
Spending will not drop in all areas. The Canada Border Services Agency will receive a 14 per cent increase, and funds directed to the Correctional Service of Canada will rise 21 per cent. In addition to $15 billion to be spent on the purchase of new fighter jets, the government is betting that these expenditures will make you feel more secure.
As ethical actors in society, what might Christians expect to see, and advocate for, in the federal budget?
Recent scholarship has shown that in the developed economies of the globe, more equal societies hold great advantages over countries where wealth is concentrated at the top. Health and social problems are worse in more unequal countries, as is infant mortality, teenage birth rates and rates of imprisonment, among other indicators.
In Canada, inequality is growing, despite the fact that the richest 20 per cent of the population already makes 5.6 times more than the poorest fifth. Promotion of a more equitable society — one that limits the chasm between rich and poor — must rely on a fair and equitable tax system where all citizens pay taxes as they are able.
Reducing poverty in Canada should also be a goal of every good federal budget. In November a parliamentary committee released its report with 58 recommendations, and called for a federal poverty reduction plan.
By law, the government must respond to this report by March 17. Not only should the government fully consider and evaluate these recommendations, but the budget should reflect concrete first steps to address poverty, like increasing the child tax benefit to a minimum of $5,000.
Canada is increasingly multiethnic in nature. Recent immigrants, who have on average higher educational levels than established Canadians, also suffer much higher poverty rates. Yet in December the federal government announced $53 million in cuts to integration services, forcing many reception services to shut their doors.
An ethical budget would emphasize investments in integration services, especially language training, as privileged ways to create equality of opportunity in Canadian communities.
Despite planned cuts to the ministries of the environment and natural resources, Canada needs to take environmental protection seriously.
By withdrawing its opposition to the introduction of a tax on carbon emissions, billions of dollars of new income could be made available for social and green infrastructure spending, while defending lower-income Canadians.
If people of faith do not reflect on what an ethical budget could look like, our common values will never be reflected in the national politic.
(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)