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The Federal Budget Should Prioritize People's Well-Being

A society in which citizens and residents are valued as whole people is also a more productive society.

An odd thing takes place in the middle of Canada's cottage season. Every year, while most of the country is getting ready for the August long weekend, policy types from business associations, social and environmental justice organizations, agricultural groups, health agencies, academic institutions, and others are carefully crafting briefs for the federal parliamentary committee on finance (FINA) pre-budget consultations.

Budget 2019, of course, is an election year budget. As such, one might expect that its development might emphasize the same sort of people-centred approach taken by the current government in their 2015 election campaign.

Instead, FINA has put forward a framework with this theme: "Economic Growth: Ensuring Canada's Competitiveness." The core question they're asking is, "What steps can the federal government take to support and/or encourage Canadians and their businesses to grow the economy in the face of a changing economic landscape?"

I get it. Financial stability is key, and that's true whether you're a low-income family, a medium-sized business or a country. Still, it isn't everything.

If we strive only for productivity and competitiveness, our society will not necessarily foster health, happiness and security

Unfortunately, at budget time over the last few years, we've seen a narrowing of the federal government's focus on economic measures in a way that fails to adequately address the well-being of people, communities and the Earth. For example, in 2017 they asked, "What would help Canadians generally maximize their contributions to the country's economic growth?" Then, in 2018, "What would help Canadians to be more productive," and, "What would help Canadian businesses to be more productive and competitive?"

As I've said previously, productivity and competitiveness are important economic indicators and key to the success of private sector business. But they make up only a portion of who we are as citizens and as a country. Once again this year, the committee's framework has failed to account for personal fulfillment, community well-being and ecological integrity.

A society in which citizens and residents are valued as whole people — for their roles as citizens, parents, neighbours and friends — is also a more productive society. The opposite, however, doesn't hold true. If we strive only for productivity and competitiveness, our society will not necessarily foster health, happiness and security among its citizens. And the important benefits of connection, cooperation, culture and creativity risk being lost.

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Ground-breaking research by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, conducted over 30 years and published in the 2009 book, "The Spirit Level," unpacks some widely-held beliefs to reveal the tremendous socio-economic benefits of addressing inequality and promoting sustainability. One of their central findings is that everyone benefits from greater levels of equality, as greater equality and the correspondingly higher levels of social inclusion have the potential to increase economic participation and competitiveness.

While competition is widely understood as a contributor to economic growth, society faces multiple crises — poverty, climate change and a global refugee crisis, to name a few — that urgently require cooperative efforts to be effectively addressed. Mechanisms like the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Paris Agreement, and efforts toward a global compact on refugees are vital and must be supported.

Credible research suggests that investing in measures that promote social inclusion and environmental well-being have the added benefit of encouraging competitiveness internationally.

So, let's start by ensuring that all people in Canada are able to participate fully in society by addressing the challenges faced by the 4.8 million people that live in poverty. Investing in a strong Canadian Poverty Reduction Strategy is key to flourishing communities, and would also create broader benefits as opportunities emerge for social and economic engagement.

Similarly, removing the barriers to refugee resettlement would serve all of Canadian society. Doing away with the Immigration Loans Program for refugee travel would allow newcomers to get on their feet more quickly, rely less on government resources and start contributing to the Canadian economy sooner, through consumer spending, tax contributions and job creation.

Well-designed measures to address inequality, marginalization and exclusion can also be important pieces of a "just transition" to a decarbonized economy. Investments in low-carbon energy development and putting an end to oil and gas subsidies, as well as funding for skills development and retraining for workers, would help align federal commitments to climate action. They would also increase Canada's global competitiveness as the world moves away from its dependence on fossil fuels.

As we continue to enjoy the lazy days of summer in the company of family and friends, let's remember how good this sense of community is for our well-being, how much we value Canada's abundant natural spaces, and how grateful we are for the opportunities we have to provide for our children.

And let's also encourage policy-makers to remember this too.

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