Opinion » Editorial


Conservative agenda overlooks regional opportunities



The Cascade Bicycle Club, the largest bicycle club in the United States with more than 5,000 members, is a non-profit organization based in the Seattle area that works to "create a better community through bicycling." Executive Director Chuck Ayers recently described the cost and frustration of trying to encourage a healthy, environmentally-friendly mode of transportation in the 21st century. Ayers is working on a project to improve and increase bike parking at an outdoor public facility. When the topic of bike lockers came up he was told that "some agencies" have eliminated bike lockers for Homeland Security reasons.

"The reality of that settles in only as the absurdity of it subsides (for context think car bombs and port security, airlines and tanker ships)," Ayers wrote. "Now Cascade is spending staff time to research what agencies, what policies and what rationale is behind such thinking. Will we lose bike lockers at transit stations? At office buildings? At universities?"

The frustrations of the Cascade Bicycle Club, and local efforts running into brick walls set up by federal authorities, come to mind when looking at the first budget from the Stephen Harper Conservative government. As one would expect, it is conservative in nature, cutting taxes and putting more emphasis on individual responsibility. But it is also pushed by an ideological agenda that, in some instances, aims to create solutions where there are no problems, while at the same time has overlooked some problems and the huge costs of not dealing with them.

Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson has written a few times about the Conservatives’ efforts to get tough on crime even though all available statistics show a steady decrease in crime. About mandatory minimum sentences Simpson wrote: "There isn’t any evidence, therefore, in Canada or abroad that mandatory minimums deter crime. That the Harper government should be expanding them is yet another example of the triumphs of focus-group-driven politics over evidence-based policy."

But it doesn’t end there. The budget also throws money at "security," including $95 million to upgrade security for passenger rail and urban transit. Security is a concern in the post-9/11 world, we are told over and over again. Although there haven’t been many attempts to hijack passenger trains recently, and security on urban transit systems is the responsibility of the cities that run those systems, no doubt the money will be welcomed, and spent. It might be better spent on things like education or mental health but those aren’t federal responsibilities.

But it is some of the areas where the Conservatives have decided to save money that are most troubling, and most foolish. The timing of some of these decisions is bad and British Columbia in particular will feel the impact.

The gutting of the Kelowna Accord, perhaps the first sincere attempt by all provincial and territorial governments and the previous federal government to improve the plight of First Nations, is folly. A series of successive court rulings on aboriginal rights have driven home the point that federal and provincial governments need to deal with First Nations – if not out of sense of justice then just to eliminate economic uncertainty.

The Kelowna Accord was a promising start. The Conservatives have left themselves room to deal with it in a fall budget update, but some show of support with last week’s budget could have eliminated another six months of uncertainty and confusion.

Similarly, the Conservatives’ decision to dilute the Pacific Gateway plans, stretching expansion of port facilities and transportation networks over eight years instead of five, looks good on the books right now but it’s going to slow expansion of trade on the West Coast of Canada. And this at a time when American and Mexican ports on the Pacific are gearing up and competing for Asian business. The Pacific Gateway plan had already been criticized by some for not being big and bold enough. By watering it down the Conservatives are working against their own challenge to Canadians to be more competitive and productive.

There is nothing new in the budget for tourism or the Canadian Tourism Commission, which last year was relocated to Vancouver. The government of B.C. is putting a lot of emphasis on tourism as an industry but the federal government has shown no such faith. At a time when the strength of the Canadian dollar is discouraging Americans from vacationing in Canada the industry could use some support, particularly as it tries to build momentum leading to the 2010 Olympics. But the Conservatives have chosen not to take advantage of this opportunity either.

And there is little in the budget to streamline the immigration quagmire and address the shortage of workers that every western country is facing in the next few years.

In short, there is nothing in the budget to suggest the Conservatives are driven by any sort of vision for the future, but rather by the popular ideology of the moment. And that ideology may work against the opportunities and realities we face at a local level.