Opposition leaders criticize federal budget over pharmacare, old age security

·5 min read

OTTAWA — Federal opposition leaders are criticizing the Liberal government's first budget in two years for omitting pharmacare and failing to provide a bigger boost to old age security or provincial health-care transfers.

Debate began in the House of Commons Tuesday with leaders pushing to shape the economic blueprint more to their liking.

Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said he knows where he's seen two of the Liberals' signature budget promises before: his own party's election platforms.

Singh said the spending plan tabled by Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland heavily borrows from the New Democrats' promise in 2015 and 2019 to introduce universal child care.

He said another commitment the NDP made first is the $15 federal minimum wage.

Despite his criticism, Singh has said he won't do anything that would send the country into an election, as provinces deal with a deadly third wave of COVID-19, driven by more transmissible strains of the virus.

The Liberals need the support of at least one federal party for the budget to pass in the minority Parliament.

Singh cast doubt on whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government will deliver on its child care pledge since the Liberals have been promising to improve the system since the 1990s.

"How can Canadians believe them now?" Singh asked in the House of Commons.

Pharmacare is another piece missing from the 2021 spending plan, the NDP leader said, arguing the Liberals chose to please "Big Pharma" over working families.

"I would say that this Liberal budget is the best budget we could have had for 2015," said NDP MP Charlie Angus.

"In 2015, the New Democrats ran on child care and the Liberals ridiculed us. $10-a-day child care, they thought was so ridiculous ... now they understand the wisdom of it."

As the official Opposition, the Conservatives plan to propose an amendment to the budget and the Bloc Quebecois, as the third-largest party, will propose a sub-amendment.

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole has signalled that his party will propose its own economic recovery plan, and criticized Trudeau for having long promised child care, but not bringing it to provinces for consultation.

"The Liberal Party of Canada has promised a national daycare plan nine times. Even cats only have nine lives."

"I think Canadian families, particularly in a pandemic, want certainty and want flexibility, particularly with more families that may have partial work at home, needs where they can rely on families or others."

Bloc Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet has indicated that his party will attempt to redress what it sees as two "unacceptable omissions" in the budget: the failure to accede to premiers' demand for an additional $28 billion each year in health-care transfer payments and the failure to provide increased old age security benefits for all seniors.

"I don’t know what world Mr. Trudeau lives in, but all our MPs have been contacting us since yesterday to tell us … the number of people aged 70, 75 who are extremely upset by this budget. I've rarely seen indignation at this level," Blanchet said in French during a news conference.

The budget actually promises a 10 per cent hike in old age security for Canadians 75 years of age and over. But the Bloc wants that increase to apply to all seniors as of age 65.

As for provincial health-care transfers, the budget reiterates a federal announcement in March that promised a $4-billion one-time top-up, but does not include any extra long-term spending.

Votes on the amendment and sub-amendment will come later in the week and, depending on their wording, could be deemed a test of confidence in Trudeau's minority Liberal government.

O'Toole said Monday that the NDP's pledge to prop up the government on budget votes frees up his party "to actually show how much Mr. Trudeau has missed the mark, propose some amendments that we may be able to secure support from other parties on."

Among other things, O'Toole indicated that would include an alternative to the budget's centrepiece plan to invest nearly $30 billion over five years, and $8.3 billion a year thereafter, to create an affordable national early learning and child care program.

Conservatives, he said, prefer an approach that would allow parents to make their own child care choices. That could mean increasing the Canada Child Benefit, rather than investing in child care.

O'Toole also slammed the budget's "out-of-control" spending — just over $100 billion in new spending to stimulate the economic recovery, on top of an unprecedented deficit of $354 billion in the 2020-21 fiscal year.

The budget, he predicted, will lead to "ballooning housing costs, higher taxes, a growing risk of inflation and will leave millions of Canadians behind."

Both O'Toole and Blanchet said their parties are prepared to vote against the budget, but it was not clear whether either party's proposed amendments will include an explicit statement of non-confidence in the government.

While the opposition parties proposed their own budgetary fixes, Trudeau and his finance minister, Chrystia Freeland, launched a full-court press to sell the budget, as written, to Canadians.

"This budget lays out a plan for good, middle-class jobs and a clean, resilient economy that works for everyone," Trudeau told a news conference.

"From creating a million jobs by the end of the year, to ensuring $10-a day child care in five years, to reaching net-zero emissions in less than 30 years, it all comes down to this: good jobs, a strong and fair economy and a healthy environment."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 20, 2021.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press