The 2018 budget is a pitch to Canadian women voters. But is it enough?

If not for women, the Liberals would be in serious trouble. And not only because they comprise half the cabinet: the support of women is carrying this government through the difficult midterm portion of its mandate. In that sense, it seems only right the Liberals should pay special heed to equality.

Liberal budget focuses on equality - but critics say it needed to do more on child care

Finance Minister Bill Morneau hands over the federal budget to a clerk in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Tuesday, Feb.27, 2018. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The colour accents on the cover of the 2018 federal budget — the line underneath the title, some text at the bottom of the page — are a shade of purple known as "18-3838 ultra violet," dubbed the colour of the year for 2018 by Pantone, the printing and paint company.

Purple is also one of the colours worn by the women's suffrage movement of the early 20th century.

These are the details that go into designing and marketing a federal budget, the most important political statement of the year in Canada — and one that long ago ceased to be a mere tally of numbers.

But Canada's first gender-conscious budget surely must be judged on the basis of something more than fashion and symbolism.

'We're talking very much about the long term'

6 years ago
Duration 7:16
Finance Minister Bill Morneau weighs in on the Liberal government's 2018 budget.

As James Moore, a former Conservative cabinet minister, remarked upon reviewing the budget book, there are dashes of green within for various audiences that might prove valuable to the Liberals in 2019: a splash of funding for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, $400 million more to support bilingualism, new money for science and research.

But this — from the word "equality" on the cover to more than a dozen measures within — is a budget for women.

If not for women, Justin Trudeau's government would be in serious trouble. And not only because they comprise half the cabinet: the support of women is carrying this government through the difficult midterm portion of its mandate.

According to the last opinion tracking by Nanos Research, the Liberals actually trail the Conservatives in support among men: 38 per cent to 33 per cent. But among women, the Liberals lead 42 per cent to 25 per cent. And the latter gap is enough to give the governing party an overall lead.

In that sense, it seems only right that the Liberals should pay special heed to what used to be called "women's issues" — though there are important issues of justice, welfare and economics here, too.

Parental leave, pay equity and more

There is a new allowance for parental leave that might better balance the responsibilities of parenthood. There's a promise of pay equity legislation for federally regulated industries. There will be new assistance to help women in the trades and agriculture, new financing for women entrepreneurs. Two billion dollars over five years is budgeted to boost a previously-announced feminist international aid policy.

A set of initiatives to deal with gender-based violence, sexual assault and harassment will receive $187 million over the next five years. There is $100 million for women's groups, $1.8 million to develop a strategy to engage men and boys on the topic of gender equality, $1.3 million to host a roundtable on gender-based analysis and $7.2 million to host a "national conversation on gender equality with young Canadians."

Thirty million is being set aside to boost the participation of women and girls in sport. And Statistics Canada will receive $600,000 to establish a Centre for Gender, Diversity and Inclusion Statistics.

Underpinning all of that is a commitment to gender-based budget analysis — a method of assessing how policies will affect the genders differently that the Liberal government now proposes to make a legal requirement for future budgets. Done well and consistently, such analysis could shed new light on the impacts of federal policy.

Budget politics

6 years ago
Duration 11:28
The panel weighs in on the politics surrounding the federal budget

The politics and economics of gender

As a measure of progress, in both society and politics, compare Morneau's budget with something like the Liberal election campaign of 1957.

Six decades back, Liberal pamphlets enthused that "Canadian housewives" would be able to "provide more nourishing and attractive meals," while Canadian women would be able to "enjoy the full advantages of new TV sets, washing machines, automatic dish-washers, electric refrigerators, deep freezes, automobiles and other conveniences."

Mind you, Louis St. Laurent's Liberals were also keen to note their interest in establishing "equal pay for equal work" — still an unfulfilled ideal six decades later.

The Trudeau government's third budget | At Issue

6 years ago
Duration 9:59
2018 marks the Trudeau government's third budget and it has drawn its fair share of praise and criticism, including from the At Issue panel. From its focus on spending to close the gender gap and support for Indigenous communities, to the notion that it merely serves as a precursor for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's next election campaign, the At Issue panel shares their thoughts

Other things have changed a lot since, of course. In 1957, labour force participation among women was 27.1 per cent. That rate has grown steadily to over 80 per cent. But it has levelled off over the last decade, with women's workforce participation still trailing that of men by nine percentage points.

That's what Morneau wants to change — and not simply as a political gesture to half of the population.

"RBC Economics estimates that if Canada had a completely equal representation of women and men in our workforce, we could have increased the size of the economy by 4 per cent last year," he told the House of Commons on Tuesday.

So the real question here might not be what Morneau's proposing to do, but whether he's proposing to do enough.

Falling short on parental leave and child care?

Though the budget includes a number of initiatives, the sums of money involved are not particularly large.

Jennifer Robson, a professor and policy analyst at Carleton, suggested the new parental leave might not be robust enough to make a substantial difference. Armine Yalnizyan, an economist formerly with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said the government needs to do more to make child care accessible.

"I think they have put the right focus on gender because I think without women working to their full potential, we're not going to get the type of growth that we're hoping for in the coming years," Yalnizyan says. "But you can't just ask women to work more without providing the supports they need, like child care."

Current federal commitments on child care are projected to create as many as 40,000 new spaces. But Yalnizyan noted the government's own acknowledgement that only one in four children currently has access to regulated care. By that math, Yalnizyan said, another 700,000 spaces might be needed.

Such things would require more money than the Liberals are willing to spend right now — perhaps because the goal of achieving equality must still contend with the political imperative to show a declining debt-to-GDP ratio.

But Morneau's embrace of equality might at least drive such discussions, forcing the Liberals to account for whether they're living up to their ideals and compelling the other parties to explain how they'd do better.

The Liberals have put their finger on something in this moment of #MeToo and the Women's March, movements that speak loudly to some of the 20th century's unfinished business.

The challenge is not only to embrace it, but to make good.

On The House midweek podcast, from inside the 2018 federal budget lock-up, Chris Hall dissects Bill Morneau's latest fiscal blueprint with CBC parliamentary bureau chief Rob Russo and CBC senior reporters David Cochrane and Karina Roman.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.