5 ways the budget turns back the clock on the Harper era

After six months in power, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal government has already rolled back many of the signature initiatives enacted by former prime minister Stephen Harper. Here's five ways Tuesday's budget continues that trend.

First Liberal budget includes measures that overturn past Conservative decisions

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's first budget features five promises that signal a return of big-L liberalism and a rebuke of some of former prime minister Stephen Harper's more contentious decisions. (Canadian Press)

After six months in power, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal government has already rolled back many of the signature initiatives enacted by former prime minister Stephen Harper.

Gone is income-splitting for parents of young children and legislation to force unions to disclose spending. Back is the long-form census and the niqab at citizenship ceremonies.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau's first budget features several more measures that signal a reversal of some contentious decisions made by the previous Conservative government.

Here's a look at five:

1. Balanced budget legislation

The former Conservative government fought to get to a balanced budget last year and presented it as a cornerstone of its platform in October's federal election. Morneau did away with much of that fiscal restraint Tuesday by unveiling a $29.4-billion deficit for the 2016-17 fiscal year.

The Tories themselves were not averse to deficit spending — they shovelled billions of federal funds out the door in the wake of the 2008-09 economic crisis to stave off economic ruin. And they ran eight consecutive budget deficits during their nearly 10 years in office.

But as the Conservatives neared a return to balance, former finance minister Joe Oliver sought to enshrine balanced budgets into law, launching a plan last April that would force future governments to stay in the black unless there was an "extraordinary circumstance, that is, war or natural disaster."

That legislation will have a short shelf life. Morneau said Tuesday he'd repeal the bill, calling it "inconsistent with government's plan to return to balanced budgets responsibly, and in a manner that supports economic growth." 

The Liberals' budget shows no plan to return to balance during their four-year mandate, although they have promised to keep the debt-to-GDP ratio low.

2. Court Challenges Program restored

The Court Challenges Program was launched by former prime minister Pierre Trudeau in 1978 as an arms-length initiative to fund interest groups intent on launching charter and language-rights cases against the federal and provincial governments.

Court cases are a costly process and Trudeau sympathized with the mounting bills would-be charter litigators faced as they sought to push their rights agendas.

Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau enacted the Court Challenges Program to help fund interest groups intent on launching Charter and language rights cases against the federal and provincial governments. (Bill Grimshaw/Canadian Press)

Supporters have argued the program was indispensable in expanding equality protections for marginalized groups.

Conversely, the program was anathema for a Conservative base that saw it as a chance for left-wing groups to make their case before liberal-minded courts, which would in turn expand the size of government or offend social conservative values.

The program was scrapped in Harper's first budget in 2006. 

But the Liberal budget has revived the program and injected some $12 million over five years.

"This program has been instrumental in bringing cases to the courts that clarify and assert charter rights," the budget said.

3. Veterans offices reopened

No other issue — save for the ongoing scandal in the Red Chamber — enveloped the former Conservative government in bad press quite like its handling of the veterans file.

Julian Fantino, the former veterans affairs minister, got into a shouting match with a group of veterans on Parliament Hill. He then seemed to ignore a woman looking for help for her husband battling PTSD while cameras rolled.

Julian Fantino ignores veteran's wife

8 years ago
Duration 2:24
Veterans affairs minister refuses to speak to the wife of a Canadian veteran and defends spending $4M on ads to counter 'misinformation'

The decision to close nine veterans centres ignited the fiercest opposition, despite the government's claim the offices were underutilized and caseworkers would be redeployed to nearby Service Canada offices.

What was once a key constituency of the Conservative Party — war veterans — became a vocal opponent of the government.

On Tuesday, the government announced it would reopen the nine offices, and build an additional office in Surrey, B.C., to help veterans navigate the complicated bureaucracy that governs their benefits.

The budget also includes new funding to reduce the client/case manager ratio to no more than 25:1, and boosted the disability award and earnings loss benefit available to injured war veterans.

4. Kitsilano coast guard station

Last summer, some 2,700 litres of bunker fuel spilled out of a cargo ship off the coast of Vancouver.

The response time was widely criticized as it took six hours for the Canadian Coast Guard to arrive from Richmond, B.C., and another seven for a private company it had contracted to secure an oil-absorbing boom around the vessel.

The spill became a hot-button issue for the Conservatives, as they had closed the Kitsilano coast guard base in Vancouver two years earlier.

A 2,700-litre spill occurred in Vancouver's picturesque English Bay, not far from the shuttered Kitsilano coast guard station. The Liberals pledged to re-open the station in Wednesday's federal budget. (CBC)

"They could have been on scene at this spill, once it was reported to them, within 15 minutes without a doubt," Capt. Tony Toxopeus, who used to be a coxswain at the base, told CBC News last summer, adding the station had a dedicated oil pollution response vessel and more than 300 metres of boom.

Morneau announced Tuesday $23.6 million to reopen the station and enhance its marine emergency response capacity.

5. Arts and culture take centre stage

Harper got himself in hot water during the 2008 election campaign when he responded to a question about cuts to the arts by suggesting that "ordinary people" could not relate to concerns about lower subsidies for artists they saw hobnobbing at expensive galas.

The characterization of the arts as the preserve of the elite hurt him in Quebec, where government funding for culture is something of a sacred cow.

The Conservatives responded by arguing some arts budgets actually got a boost under Harper. He also gave an impromptu performance at the National Arts Centre, singing a Beatles tune.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper performs The Beatles song With a Little Help From My Friends during a surprise appearance at a National Arts Centre gala in Ottawa. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

But the 2012 budget, which pared spending across government, substantially cut funding to Telefilm, the Canada Arts Council and the CBC, among others.

Trudeau and his finance minister have taken a starkly different approach. The budget unveiled $1.9 billion in new arts spending, including $550 million over five years for the Canada Council for the Arts, millions for Canada's national museums and $675 million for CBC.


John Paul Tasker

Senior writer

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.


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