Olympic athletes, yes; foreign aid, no

There’s something missing from the flood of reaction over the past few days to the federal Speech from the Throne and 2010 budget. Two decisions that should be connected, and contrasted, haven’t been. A lesson about how well the Conservative government understands Canadians has been missed.

The throne speech was shot through with pride and patriotism drawing on two recent events: the Haitian earthquake and the Vancouver Olympics. The games were said to show that sometimes “festive hearts and the sharing of a common humanity are our greatest hope.” Our response to Haiti’s need was invoked to demonstrate that we “never shrink from lending a helping hand to the most disadvantaged.”

Then came the budget. Even though the government had clearly signaled that funding for elite athletes would not be boosted, they found the money. The so-called “Own the Podium” fund for medal-prospect athletes for the next summer Olympics was boosted by $6 million a year to $36 million. Another $10 million over two years was earmarked for identifying and developing other top-flight amateur athletes.

In the lasting excitement over the Vancouver gold rush, who could fault the government for finding a way? It’s not a large sum in the scheme of things.

Unlike the pre-budget buzz about whether the government would allocate new money to sports, there wasn’t much talk about what was in store for foreign aid. If it had occurred to anyone to speculate, the good feelings generated by Canada’s assistance to Haiti after the January earthquake would surely have coloured the conversation.

More than at any time in recent memory, Haiti’s misery seemed to unite Canadians in a shared sense of obligation. It wasn’t just a matter of emergency aid, either—much of the discussion surrounding Haiti was about the need for long-term development assistance to follow the disaster.

However, unlike the way the Vancouver Olympics afterglow created a political imperative to boost sports funding, any lingering pride over Canada’s part in helping Haiti apparently didn’t figure in budget planning.

The budget announced that after a final increase in aid spending this year, funding for foreign assistance will be frozen at $5 billion—leaving Canada near the bottom of the heap of rich countries in terms of the share of our wealth that we set aside to ease the suffering of the poorest nations and perhaps speed their economic development.

And here’s the part that should make us all ashamed. The government probably called it right, in terms of the popular reaction. Had sports funding not gotten a boost, there would certainly have been a heated outcry. Making aid spending the single biggest target of restraint has been met mostly with cold indifference.