Advocates want feminist spending review as feds insist on no cuts to social programs

The Liberal government insists that the goal of an upcoming federal spending review is not to cut social programs, while gender equality advocates want to make sure it’s done with women and marginalized people.

The federal government’s latest budget released earlier this month announced the launch of a spending review of its programs and policies.

The review aims to find savings of $6 billion over five years and $3 billion per year by 2026.

“The parameters of the review process will be worked out over the next few months. However, the government has no intention of cutting existing social programs,” said Jessica Eritou, spokeswoman for Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s office.

It makes sense for the government to review spending to fine-tune programs and improve outcomes, said Katherine Scott, senior economist at the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives.

Previous reviews had a disproportionate effect on women

While a review doesn’t automatically mean a move to austerity measures, Scott said it was the result when some previous governments launched the same sort of process.

To reduce the deficit, the Liberal government led by Jean Chrétien undertook a review from 1994 to 1997 which led to a reduction in spending on social programs and in transfers to the provinces and territories.

These cuts have disproportionately affected women, especially the most vulnerable, according to an analysis by the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action.

“They paid the price,” Scott said.

Then-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and his Minister of Finance, Paul Martin, visit the House of Commons on Budget Day 1997. To reduce the deficit, the Chrétien government, from 1994 to 1997, to a review that resulted in reduced spending. on social programs and transfers to provinces and territories. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

The government’s revenue base was reduced and public services declined as women faced the effects of the 1990 recession.

As household incomes fell, chores were shifted to families and taken on by women as unpaid work, Scott said.

Services were cut at the same time, leading to women caring for the young and the elderly, as well as the sick or disabled, free of charge, according to the alliance report.

The review under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government also comes to mind for Robert Shepherd, a professor of public policy at Carleton University who studies federal spending reviews.

About 26,000 employees were cut from the public service and programs were either cut or starved of funding.

“Little was done under the Harper years, in terms of programs and services. It was a bunch of dead years. We didn’t really invest too much on very many policy goals,” Shepherd said.

These past examples can teach us to think about this one, Scott said.

“What is the spirit that motivates him? How is the government rethinking its support? And who pays the price? she asked.

Concerns about lack of contribution

Martha Jackman, a member of the steering committee of the National Association of Women and the Law, said the federal government must recognize that it is required to conduct a review consistent with women’s equality rights guaranteed in the Charter of rights and freedoms.

“The Canadian Charter guarantees the right to equal protection and benefit from all government actions, including expenditures,” said Jackman, who is also a professor of constitutional law at the University of Ottawa.

Shepherd said he’s concerned the federal government is proceeding with the review without collaborating with the provinces and territories, an approach that increases the likelihood of negatively affecting vulnerable groups.

Women and marginalized communities have less say in this scenario, as they are further removed from the process in the absence of provincial and territorial participation, he said.

Sahir Khan, executive vice-president of the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Fiscal Studies and Democracy, said the reviews don’t have to be about the cuts.

“Reviews are mostly about spending quality, improving efficiency, but also a lot about getting better results,” Khan said.

“I think the government has every opportunity to look at the intersectional dimensions of its programming and do better after the review than it did before.”

Part of the spending review will assess the effectiveness of programs in meeting the priorities of inclusiveness, economic growth and climate change, according to the budget.

Kate Bezanson, a gender and social policy expert at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., said she was not surprised the government indicated that cuts to social programs were not being considered. , given that inclusiveness is a criterion driving the review.

“Well, that’s a signal. Often the biggest policy levers for inclusivity are around rights and those kinds of social policy supports,” Bezanson said.

Minister for Women and Gender Equality Marci Ien is introduced in the House of Commons in Ottawa in November 2021. (Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press)

While Minister for Women and Gender Equality Marci Ien said she was unable to comment on what the review would entail, she noted that the budget “definitely has a fiscal anchor”. .

“We are going through difficult times,” Ien said in an interview, pointing to global inflation rates not seen in decades.

Budget measures like the national action plan on gender-based violence suggest the government is prioritizing women, Ien said.

Canada’s deficit is projected to reach $52.8 billion in 2022-23, down from the deficit of $113.8 billion in 2021-22.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came to power in 2015 on a three-year promise to manage what he called “modest deficits” of $10 billion. It exceeded these levels, sometimes double, well before the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada.

While Jackman said she was pleased the government had clarified that the review is not designed to simply be a cost-cutting exercise, looking only at expenditure and not revenue will not produce the savings and efficiency. necessary for public resources.

She described an anti-tax attitude in Canadian politics that has taken hold since the 1990s.

“There’s the idea that somehow when the government taxes it’s stealing hard-earned money from the pockets of Canadians without recognizing that it’s actually a very effective way to provide collective goods,” she said.

Bezanson said while she is encouraged by the way the government has framed the review, the past few years have shown how difficult it is to predict what lies ahead.

“We live in such uncertain times, and I hope we can continue on this basis,” she said.

“The economic and political winds are so shifty.”