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Environment, culture face cuts as Ottawa turns off stimulus taps

The Harper government's latest spending plan forecasts extra cash for law and order and cuts to climate change and cultural programs, as the Conservatives detail how they will start shrinking Canada's deficit.

Treasury Board President Stockwell Day announced the spending plan at an Ottawa-area gym called Lean and Fit, suggesting his government is ready to trim the fat.

"This would be the first time in over 10 years that a government is planning spending that is less than the year before," Mr. Day said.

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Yet the numbers tabled Tuesday in Parliament show Ottawa needs a lot more time on the treadmill.

The government's Main Estimates forecast the 2011-12 budget for all government departments and agencies will be $250.8-billion, a $10.4-billion reduction from estimates a year earlier. While Mr. Day billed the cut as one worthy of praise, it is a reduction from record-high spending as a result of the two-year temporary stimulus program.

When compared to the same estimates tabled for the 2008-09 fiscal year, the spending plan announced Tuesday is 13 per cent higher than government spending before the recession.

Even so, the numbers suggest pain is coming.

Infrastructure-related spending takes the biggest hit as the stimulus ends, but cuts are also forecast for environmental, cultural and social programs. Meanwhile, government-wide spending on "security and public safety" programs is in line for a 10.1-per-cent boost, and justice and legal programs will receive a 4.8-per-cent increase.

The NDP said it will seek answers as to why Canada's contribution to the International Criminal Court faces a 64-per-cent cut, particularly given the Harper government's call to have Moammar Gadhafi hauled before the court for crimes against his Libyan people.

Environmentalists were particularly alarmed by estimates showing a 20-per-cent cut to Environment Canada, including a 59-per-cent reduction in spending for "climate change and clean air" and a 51-per-cent cut to substances and waste management.

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But Environment Minister Peter Kent said that isn't likely to happen. He said that while several big programs are scheduled to "sunset," he has asked Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to renew them in the budget later this month.

"That's the Finance Minister's call. We've made our submissions," he said.

Clare Demerse, a climate-change researcher with the Pembina Institute, said the estimates are concerning.

"Spending decisions are one of the most important ways that governments show what their priorities are," she said. Ms. Demerse noted the government is on track to miss its 2020 reduction targets for greenhouse-gas emissions. Cutting climate-change spending won't make that any easier, she said.

NDP Finance critic Tom Mulcair, whose party will soon have to decide whether to support the Conservative budget, called Mr. Day "incompetent" and Mr. Kent "an embarrassment" in response to their comments on cuts.

"Every single year, even before the recession hit, their spending greatly outstripped any increase in the cost of living or inflation," he said.

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The Main Estimates cover spending for the entire federal government for the fiscal year starting April 1, 2011. They are tabled in Parliament every year around this time. They do not take into account measures that will be in this month's budget.

The estimates are updated several more times during the calendar year through a process called Supplementary Estimates, meaning planned spending increases or decreases could later be reversed by supplementary measures.

The government's October, 2010, economic update projected a $45.4-billion deficit for the current fiscal year ending March 31. Mr. Flaherty promises to balance the books by 2015-2016.

Mr. Day's own department, the Treasury Board, forecasts a 19-per-cent spending increase, bringing its annual budget to $4.9-billion. Mr. Day said the increase is partly because of new government-wide spending programs and higher costs associated with employee benefits as public servants age and increase their use of prescription drugs.

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