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How Feminist is the 2023 Federal Budget? It isn’t.

The tension between this federal government’s neoliberal economic roots and social justice ambitions has always been evident.

March 30, 2023

3-minute read

We have heard lots of rhetoric over the past two years about building a better future through investments in child care, health care and a net zero economy. But, as always, actions speak louder than words.

In Tuesday’s federal budget, the government appears to be stepping back—offering up a multitude of half measures (a grant here, a strategy there) or queuing up important investments only to hand off responsibility for delivering on its policy goals, as is the case with the budget’s new climate initiatives.

The tension between this federal government’s neoliberal economic roots and social justice ambitions has always been evident. There was a moment during the first wave of the pandemic when a different progressive vision beckoned—a different feminist vision beckoned.

But the chorus from Bay Street was already calling for government to aggressively scale back social spending, the same group now peddling the discredited narrative that government programs are driving up inflation and hurting working people and households.

Last year’s budget signalled the pivot from the government’s pandemic footing. This year, the turn is complete. The Finance Minister was very explicit that the Budget 2023 wasn’t going “to pour fuel on the fire of inflation” with significant spending. And she delivered on that score. This is again a disappointing budget that fails to tackle the scale and breadth of challenges in front of us.

There were some large figures posted—including $80 billion over ten years for the transition to a low carbon economy and $195.8 billion over ten years in health transfers to provinces and territories.

With Tuesday’s new spending, there’s an increase in program expenditures over the next two years (from 15.7 per cent of GDP in 2022-23 to 15.9 per cent in 2024-25), then levels start to fall again, forecast to reach 15.4 per cent by 2027-28.

Of course, the economic forecast is a good deal more uncertain today than it was a year ago—creating greater pressure to alleviate the real pressures low-income households and marginalized communities are facing today. All of which makes the anemic response to the crisis in the cost of living all the more devastating.

The “grocery rebate” is worth a maximum of $234 for a single person and $467 for a couple with two kids. This might cover a couple of trips to the grocery store—but with food inflation running at 11 per cent year over year, it won’t go far.

The government is also boosting Canada Student Grants by 40 per cent for low-income students, while increasing loan levels (so that they can take on even more debt). And phase two of the new dental program is being rolled out with a pretty substantial budget. These steps will decrease the pressure on household budgets, but only modestly.

Where was the renewed investment in affordable housing? Non-market housing developers can’t get shovels in the ground. New funds are desperately needed to offset rising material, labour and financing costs. And where’s the plan for a recession-ready EI program? Where’s the workforce strategy for care workers? Where’s the plan to combat the crushing rise in violence against queer and trans people?

And how does the government square its stated commitment to a feminist foreign policy with the decision to cut the development assistance budget by $1.3 billion in the face of multiple global crises?

There are a couple of new taxes for the wealthy—expected to net $1.5 billion by 2024-24, growing to $4 billion by 2027-28. But we are leaving huge sums on the table for a group that whose wealth has grown by an astonishing amount since the pandemic began.

You know you’re in trouble when the proposals to tax the uber rich south of the border are much bolder than your own.

You know you’re in trouble when the labour conditions tied to industrial subsidies south of the border are much bolder than your own.

You know you’re in trouble when the government seems to be increasingly ceding democratic control of key policy files to big business and the banks.

I worry about what this all means for delivering a truly universal child care system, or implementing a plan that will keep Indigenous women and girls safe, or one that will lift people with disabilities out of poverty. For all of the small, time-limited wins, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the government is checking items off a list. Picking off the low-hanging fruit. One and done.

So—is this a feminist budget? No. It’s a wake-up call to dig deeper and push harder.

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