The October 5, 2004, Speech from the Throne contains some good news in that it focuses some key CUPE issues such as childcare, health care, a new deal for cities and more.
However, the throne speech also raises troubling questions about whether these promises will be implemented in such a way as to improve the quality of life for Canadians. The throne speech commits the federal government to action in these key areas by relying on the provinces and allowing them flexibility in determining how these areas will be addressed.
The throne speech emphasizes reporting and accountability. But report cards will not guarantee that Canadians will get the services they need.
This new model of flexible federalism may mean that provinces are free to rely on for-profit delivery of services rather than by putting public, not-for-profit programs into place. It will also mean that what kind of services Canadians have access to will depend on where they live even if the cost of those services is being paid for by the federal government.
The governments statements on childcare are a good case in point. While it is very important that the Throne Speech identified childcare as a priority for the government, it fell short of guaranteeing that a publicly delivered, not-for-profit childcare program would be put in place across the country.
In the 2004 spring election, the Liberals promised to bring about a pan-Canadian childcare plan that would enshrine four key principles in legislation quality, universality, accessibility and developmental programming. Paul Martin promised to spend $5 billion in additional money over the next five years to create 250,000 new high-quality, government-regulated childcare spaces at an affordable cost to parents. The Liberals promised a pan-Canadian system building on what Quebec already has regulated, high quality, publicly funded childcare at a maximum cost of $7 a day per child.
In the throne speech, the government said it would develop foundations for a national framework and work with provinces and territories, focus on best practices, require progress reports, and ensure flexibility in the system. But nowhere do they address how childcare needs will be met. They refuse to commit to establishing a publicly funded, not-for-profit, childcare system for all children from birth to 12 years of age, including those with special needs.
Unless they are pushed to do so, the promise of the throne speech may be little more than transferring cash to the provinces and letting them spend the money however they choose.
To make this crucial election promise a reality, the government should make a commitment to establishing universally accessible childcare through public and non-profit delivery of childcare programs.
Cities and communities
Paul Martins New Deal for cities, outlined in the throne speech, is a weak response to the urgent needs of our communities. Cities are promised $2.5 billion spread over five years. This barely covers the $2 billion annual cost cities face for infrastructure, let alone the accumulated $60 billion cost the Federation of Canadian Municipalities estimates cities need to deal with the infrastructure deficit.1
CUPE supports the mayors of the largest cities in their call for $0.05 of the fuel tax within three years, rather than spreading the money over five years and narrowing it to apply only to the gas tax not the broader fuel tax that includes diesel too.
The throne speech is silent on renewing or revising existing infrastructure programs. We know the green municipal funds established last year have been used to leverage private not public investment in infrastructure already.2 We fear that the new revenue for cities will end up lining the pockets of private companies who promote public private partnerships (P3s) as the answer to infrastructure needs.
The throne speech confirmed the first ministers health care agreement reached in September 2004. The federal government will spend about $41 billion over the next 10 years to bring federal transfers up to about 25 per cent of total provincial/territorial spending on health care.
Despite the new funding, the federal government failed to require any meaningful commitments from the provinces on accountability or conditions that must be met to receive federal funding. Despite the health ministers promise to stem the tide of privatization, nothing has been done to ensure this.
A detailed analysis of the health accord is available on www.cupe.ca
The throne speech makes little mention of affordable housing and does not indicate its willingness to establish a separate, dedicated fund for social housing or reinvest the surpluses from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation in new social housing. The throne speech could have signalled the government was willing to commit previously promised funding to social housing, and support the homelessness and housing renovation programs, but it did not.
The government indicates its intention to develop a workplace skills strategy that would enhance apprenticeship systems and boost literacy and other skills. It aims to establish training facilities and labour market agreements developed in collaboration with provinces and territories, unions and sector councils. As well, the government promises to recognise foreign credentials and prior work experience.
This could be a positive development if the government intends to address these issues from the perspective of workers needs. We agree that our apprenticeship system is sorely lacking and needs further development. It should be extended to traditionally female jobs as well. For example, a proposed pilot project to develop apprenticeships in the health care sector should begin immediately.
We agree that a program to recognise the international credentials of immigrant workers should be implemented. Appropriate assessment tools, including prior learning, should be used with immigrant workers and all workers in Canada, including aboriginal workers. The government should not use immigration policy to replace a comprehensive training and apprenticeship program.
The throne speech raises plans to review of the employment insurance system. This is long overdue since roughly two-thirds of unemployed women and more than half of unemployed men in Canada do not qualify to receive EI.
We need qualifying hours to be lowered to 360 for all benefits throughout the country. The duration of benefits must be lengthened, and benefit levels should be set at two-thirds of a workers best 12 weeks. Benefits should be automatic if workers are laid off after a special leave such as maternity leave. We need a training insurance system to be managed through the EI system that would provide training and paid leave for that purpose.
The throne speech fails to mention increased funding for post-secondary institutions. Instead the government promises to increase access to post-secondary education by establishing learning bonds as a savings vehicle to help low-income families. This is entirely inadequate to make a real difference either in the funding needs of post-secondary institutions or for low-income students who cannot afford to go to college or university. Funding for research continues to be geared to commercial interests.
The government intends to introduce a fundamental reform of the equalization program. We will have to pay close attention to this.
If the equalization program is truly intended to support key public services, equalization payments must be conditional on their use for publicly funded, owned, operated and delivered programs, and not for-profit alternative service delivery models such as P3s, and contracting out.
As well, CUPE will be pushing that the equalization formula be changed to one taking into account the average economic strength of all 10 provinces rather than the current formula which excludes Albertas strong performance.
Energy and the environment
We support the governments plans to encourage environmental assessments, implement green procurement policies, invest in energy efficiency and energy research and development, encourage increased production and use of clean, renewable energy and promote greater energy efficiency. We also support its objective to refine and implement a national plan to uphold its Kyoto accord commitments.
But, funds must be invested to create public projects for local generation with emphasis on local distribution, and production of clean and renewable energy sources. Supply issues must be addressed first, through conservation and energy efficiency measures.
Regulation is required to foster an east-west grid, rather than north-south integration with the United States to ensure greater reliability and access to hydroelectric power for people in Canada.
While the throne speech flags some key concerns for CUPE, we are concerned about how the federal government intends to act on these issues.
We will continue to monitor developments closely and press for the development of public programs such as childcare and to ensure that public funds go to improving public delivery in a number of areas.