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Remarks to the Finance Committee, May 31 2012

by Oxfam | June 4, 2012

This presentation was delivered by Mark Fried, Policy Coordinator, Oxfam Canada to the Finance Committee on May 31, 2012

Thank you for the opportunity to share our thoughts on the latest federal budget. 

Oxfam pays close attention to the operations of government, both our own and those of the 95 countries where Oxfam works, because government policies can have a huge impact on people’s efforts to work their way out of poverty. We’ve been at this since 1963, and we’ve learned a few things along the way about effective government and citizen participation that may be relevant to the Bill before you.

The first lesson we draw from our experience is that governments don’t function well in isolation. They do better when they consciously create mechanisms for tapping into the knowledge and wisdom of public-minded citizens. The portion of this Bill being considered elsewhere would limit citizen participation in environmental assessments. The portion before you would close two key mechanisms for citizen input: the National Council of Welfare and the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy.

These provide a crucial function – not just independent expert advice, but a focussing of public thinking on issues of import – functions which cannot be replicated by privately funded bodies, be they Oxfam or the Fraser Institute. We urge you to retain these valuable advisory groups.

Another key lesson we’ve learned is that inequalities undermine healthy societies. At worst, inequalities lead to violence and open conflict; at best they limit economic growth and deprive individuals of the life chances they deserve. It seems prudent to examine two elements of this budget in light of the fact that income inequality in Canada is rising fast. The changes to Old Age Security and to Employment Insurance could well contribute to further widening the gap between men and women, between young and old, and between rich and poor.

A third lesson is that successful governments take the long view, and take sustainability to heart. The costs of environmental degradation and climate change are disproportionately born by people living in poverty. Canada’s outsized greenhouse gas emissions, in particular, are wreaking havoc among some of the world’s poorest communities.

Rather than repeal the Kyoto Implementation Act, this budget ought to include incentives to guide private investment away from carbon-intensive industries and toward clean energy. Instead, it leaves in place nearly one billion dollars in subsidies and tax breaks for the oil and gas industries. Canada agreed in 2009 at the G20 to phase out fossil fuel subsidies; please consider making that pledge effective.

A final lesson is about the importance of aid. Providing development assistance to poor countries is a long-term investment in a stable and prosperous world. It is a way to rebalance, however minimally, the grotesquely skewed global distribution of income. But most of all, aid is a sensible and generous gesture of solidarity, a helping hand to those suffering because of poverty, conflict and war.

Trying to balance our books on the backs of the world’s most vulnerable people is wrong. What’s more, because aid is only a tiny fraction of government expenditures, even the severe cuts in this budget contribute little to reducing the deficit. As a friend of mine put it, it’s like trying to lose weight by cutting your hair. 

But for poor people the consequences are serious: News reports say CIDA is completely eliminating eight country programs, and reducing aid to five of its 20 countries of focus. Ten of the 13 countries affected are among the world’s poorest; eight of them are in Africa. 

Between now and 2015, when the world is to have achieved the Millennium Development Goals, Canada will have cut $1.2 billion dollars from our aid budget. That would have helped a lot of hungry people to feed themselves and put a lot of girls through school. We urge you to reverse the cuts to the aid budget.

Let me conclude by noting that Oxfam’s website will be blacked out on Monday. We will join with many other organizations to protest elements in this budget bill that limit public debate on vital issues. Canada’s charities have much to contribute. When some charities are accused by high officials, all feel threatened and all Canadians lose out.

Thank you again for the opportunity to speak with you.