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The Process Leading Up to Budget 2001
NAWL has been involved in the budget-making process for years. Despite preparation and advocacy on our part, each year our submissions appear to have little effect on the policy choices ultimately made by the federal government. Perhaps it is time to rethink NAWL’s approach.
Each year the federal government issues a call for submissions to the Standing Committee on Finance (House of Commons) to the public. They fax the call out to groups that have made presentations in the past and post it on their Web site.
The process for obtaining permission to present to the Committee is straightforward. If you send a written submission to the Committee by the deadline, you’re on. You’re then scheduled to meet with the Committee on a panel with other interested parties.
You talk to18 members of the Finance Committee for about 10 minutes. If you’re lucky, there will be some women members of the Committee in attendance, since there are approximately four women on the Committee.
This year, NAWL Executive Director Bonnie Diamond and I went before the Committee to make submissions on behalf of NAWL. We were on a panel with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Canadian Trucking Alliance, the Cement Association of Canada, the Canadian Automobile Association, and the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health!
Based on my experience over the past five years, I want to address three problems with the budget-making process.
The first problem with the consultation process is that most of the decisions are made even before they reach the Committee stage. For example, the Chair of the Committee, Maurizio Bevilacqua, announced before we began our submissions that the Committee was not considering any changes to its announced tax cut plan. But we know that any meaningful discussion about the allocation of government resources in times when fiscal restraint is considered important requires a discussion of a government’s tax cut agenda. Without the “tax” side of the discussion, you’re left simply making difficult choices between competing spending initiatives.
The second problem is illustrated by the list of “interested parties” scheduled with us. The discussion would be greatly enriched if we were paired with equality-seeking groups. That way we could ensure that the messages we deliver are consistent, to the extent that is possible. It would also mean that the Committee couldn’t ignore the submissions of equality-seeking groups, by choosing to deflect their positions and address questions to groups like the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
Related to both these concerns is the fact that women are excluded from the consultation process. Although the process is relatively open — the Committee issues a general call for submissions, accepts written submissions without requiring in-person meetings, and consults in most of Canada’s major centres — the Committee makes no concerted effort to solicit the views of women or other equality-seeking groups. As a result, many of the groups that appear before the Committee do so because they have the required resources (time and money), and often because they have a past relationship with the Committee and have seen that lobbying the government can sometimes make a difference.
Finally, the third problem is that the Canadian budget does not reflect a serious commitment to gender equality. Once the consultation process is over, the Finance Committee releases a significant document describing its recommendations to the Minister of Finance in light of the hearings. The Committee’s report is intended to assist the Minister of Finance in setting the policy agenda and specific policy choices reflected in the budget. This document never reflects a serious commitment to gender equality. The report this year, released in November, was appropriately titled Securing Our Future.
NAWL’s key message for the Committee this year was: Good fiscal policy-making must take gender into account. In our written submission, we discussed the discriminatory effect of the personal income tax cuts on women, and critiqued the design of the caregiver credit. We argued that gender-sensitive budgeting may have resulted in better fiscal policy choices and more effective program design. Similarly, for example, in times of emotional stress, the concept of “security” could have included funding for mental health initiatives and homelessness that would have assisted women’s economic and health security.
The report ignores Canada’s commitment to gender-sensitive budgeting, and its international commitments to women’s equality. We urged the federal government to consider recognizing UNIFEM’s call that governments implement a gender analysis into the budgeting processes by 2015. As UNIFEM’s Executive Director, Noeleen Heyzer, states, “Budgets matter because they determine how governments mobilize and allocate public resources. They are used to shape policies, set priorities and provide the means to meet the social and economic needs of all citizens. Budgets matter to women because they are an indicator of government commitment to address women’s specific needs.”
Where Do We Go From Here?
So, should NAWL abandon this process and focus efforts elsewhere? No. But we do need to rethink our involvement. The process is a valuable one, and the possible benefits are worth the frustration and effort.
First, in order to have our submissions be more than token, we need to ensure that there is wider and more diverse representation, that the equality seeking groups have hard-hitting presentations, and that the proposals are proactive instead of just reactive. NAWL has undertaken to work more actively on fiscal policy issues year-round, so that we can more easily respond to fiscal policy issues as they arise.
Second, in order to be effective, we need to present at the Finance Committee with other equality-seeking groups. We have been actively involved in the budget-process for years at NAWL, so we have numerous examples of our work to share with other groups. We should consider organizing budget submissions with other equality-seeking groups, and pressuring the Committee to hear us as a block.
Third, we need to see our work included in the final product. To this end, we need more publicity that the government is not living up to its commitments to conduct gender-sensitive budgeting, for example. There should also be more publicity about the ways in which our views are ignored, as are the views of international organizations, such as UNIFEM, who can criticize the budgeting process in a more global context.
I hope that in reconsidering our approach we are able to get more out of what could be a useful process.
Kim Brooks teaches torts and tax at Queen’s University Faculty of Law and is a member of NAWL’s steering committee.