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Here’s why you should pay attention to the federal budget this week

Justin Trudeau’s government has emphasized a focus on women in this year’s budget, which will be delivered Wednesday.

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Does thinking about the Department of Finance Canada dropping a 300-page document full of policy numbers and tax-related jargon bring on an intense desire for a nap? Try to fight that instinct: This year’s budget, and the gender analysis it’s supposed to include, makes it of particular importance to Canadian women. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has a global reputation for being a proud feminist — will this budget align with that priority? Here are a few reasons why Budget 2017 is worth watching:

Gender differences will be front and centre

In his fall economic statement, Finance Minister Bill Morneau promised the government will apply something called a “gender-based analysis” to the upcoming federal budget — and all others to come. This means government number crunchers will take data related to a policy, proposed tax hike or break, or spending area and analyze how it impacts women, compared to men. For example: Who are the recipients of any given financial benefit, or increase in spending? Who benefits most from a tax break? Which gender might get more jobs out of a particular infrastructure project? What about boosts for female-dominated workplaces?.

The effect could be wide-reaching

Feminist advocacy groups and economists are excited about this because for years the budget has been treated as a gender-neutral beast, when really things like RRSP contribution caps, infrastructure spending and tax breaks are a lot better for men, says Sheila Block, senior economist at left-leaning think tank Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. It’s important to look at gender in the budget, she says, because it’s better for the economy overall if women are participating at greater rates. Women are more likely to be poor, or work lower-paying part-time jobs with less security, she points out. “If you’re looking at people as your basic economic resource and you’re under-utilizing people because of their barriers to participation, then you’re less productive and you have a lower GDP than you would otherwise have.” Look at Germany, for instance, which has narrowed its labour gap between men and women by a third in recent years by introducing reduced, flexible working hours and redirecting spending towards the creation of talent hubs for women.

Block says the gender lens might also touch on changes to the Canada Pension Plan (which critics have said won’t benefit senior women, but will help younger working people), funding allocated to end poverty, and initiatives to end violence against women — which might mean investments in things like housing options for women fleeing violence.

There are changes coming to child care and parental leave

Long-term child care spending is expected to be a major highlight of the budget, with speculation that the government could extend the $500 million already promised to the provinces and territories for 2017-18 into an annual commitment over the next decade. The cost of child care has long been the reason many women leave the workforce, Block says. The federal government is also thinking about extending maternity and parental leave benefits from the current 50 weeks to 18 months.

It’s a litmus test

“This [budget] can really show whether the Trudeau government is putting its money where its mouth is,” Block says. “This is where you really see whether there is a demonstrated commitment of redirecting dollars or spending more money on programs and policies that will reduce women’s inequality.” But she’s skeptical. The fall economic update merely said the government will be “completing and publishing” their gender-based analysis — it didn’t necessarily say it would take action. So Block will be looking for “concrete commitments” in this document — she’ll be following the money, but wouldn’t be surprised if all she sees is a pledge to follow analysis with action next year. Either way, she urges women to pay attention to this budget, “because the government has promised it’s going to pay attention to you. Hold the government to that promise.”

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