Is public money spent for public good?

Yes, the budget needed to be rewritten. It’s time to take federal-sized responsibilities seriously.

On April 7, the federal government released Budget 2022, sparking another round of analysis and debate about how public money should be spent.

Christians in Canada would do well to reflect on what criteria we are using to evaluate government spending decisions. Otherwise, it can be difficult to contextualize spending announcements, particularly when we’re dealing in billions of dollars and deciphering partisan spin.

The question is not simply how much is being spent, but how well is it being spent, and to what end. What is the federal government (in this case) well positioned to do, that we, as smaller groups of citizens could not accomplish in its absence?

Federal responsibility

The Government of Canada has a legal responsibility to create the conditions in which all people can enjoy their social, cultural and economic rights to an adequate standard of living. The government is uniquely positioned to carry out this responsibility by creating underlying social and physical infrastructures, and implementing rights-based regulatory frameworks and policies.

Unfortunately, decades of inaction, underfunding and discriminatory policies have brought about today’s multiple crises of health, housing and affordability. And it’s going to cost a lot more now to fix the situation than it would have to prevent it. The government should be carrying this debt so individuals and families don’t have to. But they must also implement a fair tax system and rights-based regulatory standards to ensure corporations and wealthy individuals contribute their fair share, too.

Previous budgets, mandate letters, reports and consultations demonstrate that our governments know of their legal obligations, know of policies and investments that have proven effective, and even know of the public support for such transformational change. But they have chosen instead to tell us, time and again, “wait” and, “we can’t possibly do it all.” But we can, and we must mobilize our great resources and creativity to address the interconnected crises of today.

Citizens of Canada by Visible Hand

Stomaching the cost

The tricky part is getting over the sticker shock of necessary upfront investments in order to cultivate downstream savings. It takes convincing people to give up “the devil we know” for the uncertainty of an alternative future. Sometimes, incrementalism and half-measures result in a kind of “straw man” phenomenon where programs or policies are seen as failures, when really, they simply weren’t properly implemented because of inadequate funding, all because parties felt the public wouldn’t stomach the actual needed costs. We are reminded of Jesus’ parable about the man who sets out to build a tower and is ridiculed when he runs out of money and can’t finish the job – the Ontario basic income pilot comes to mind, not because it ran out of money, or wasn’t working, but because its funding was pulled!

Other times, lots of money is dedicated to programs with very little uptake or impact, either because overly restrictive eligibility criteria exclude those who stand to benefit the most from them, or because the program does nothing to tackle the underlying issues that create the need being targeted. Tinkering around the edges won’t bring about the systemic change we need.

Collective rights

Our well-being, our liberation is bound up together with all people living in these lands, and even beyond; it is tied intrinsically to the flourishing of all creation and the rights and dignity of each person. These are not just flowery words or politically correct posturing. Persistent and increasing socio-economic inequities (i.e., the status quo) alienate sizable portions of the population who are feeling increasingly insecure about their prospects in life. This creates fertile ground for scapegoating and fear that has a spill-over effect into other facets of society.

So yes, we will argue for ambitious, targeted spending and policies to bring equity to the marginalized. Yes, we will call for increased taxes and accountability for wealthy individuals and corporations. Yes, we will name the ongoing impacts of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and its perpetuation of colonialism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy and ableism masquerading as meritocracy. Yes, we believe we need to transition to a sustainable, green economy. And yes, that might make some people feel like they are being stripped of what they have worked hard for, just to see it mismanaged by big government. The fear is real. Our current system is demonstrably inadequate to protect people facing precarity and poverty. But this is precisely why this system needs to be transformed, and it is precisely why we need to work together to call for ambitious action and investments.

No individual person, family, community or ecosystem should have to bear the burden of a system designed to extract wealth and resources and concentrate them in the hands of a very privileged few. This is true for the transition to renewable energy sources and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. It is true for critically needed investments in health care, housing and income security that have been languishing for over 40 years. Our federal policies should serve to ensure all people benefit from the great abundance found in our lands, waters and communities – a just and sustainable future.

Our government is in a position to collect and distribute wealth, and even to take on debt, in order to close the gaping inequities in socio-economic and health outcomes for people living in this land of abundance. But they cannot do this alone, and they will not if we let partisan grandstanding push out substantive debate both on the Hill and in our hometowns. It is up to us, as members of civil society, to speak up and support one another, bearing one another’s burdens and calling for our collective rights, well-being and liberation.

Let’s call for the change and investments we really need, having counted the cost of inaction with as much care as the cost of transformation, and standing firm in affirming that each person, each corner of creation, is worth it.


  • Natalie Appleyard

    Natalie is the Socio-Economic Policy Analyst at Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ).

  • Maryo Wahba

    Maryo is the Communications Coordinator at CPJ.

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