Thursday, April 16, 2015

Conservative smoke and mirrors

The Globe's Jeffrey Simpson has treated us to a withering attack on Stephen Harper's fiscal policy.
He begins his salvo by reminding us that, what seems like an eon ago, the Conservatives inherited a large budget surplus, which they then proceeded to blow within the space of about three years, through a succession of tax cuts and high spending, so that by the time that surplus was actually needed (during the recession of 2008-9), there was none to be had. And they STILL got re-elected in the next general election...
Since then, they have complicated and distorted the Canadian tax code with a raft of small targeted tax credits, most of which, despite the positive spin that accompanied them, actually benefit well-off families rather than the "hard-working Canadian tax-payers" Harper is always spouting about. Universal Child Care Benefits, the "Family Tax Cut", income splitting, increased Tax-Free Savings Accounts, changes to RRIF rules, yada yada - the working-class actually get little or no benefit from these much-touted measures.
All the talk now, of course, is about a balanced budget, which is being re-branded as a revolutionary Conservative invention. This they hope to achieve by quietly slashing the national defence budget - not necessarily a bad thing in itself - even while increasing Canada's participation in other people's wars (Iraq, Syria, Ukraine) as a smoke screen, as well as by selling government holdings in General Motors, continuing to over-collect EI premiums, and almost certainly by reducing the federal contingency fund. Meanwhile, they continue to promote their high-profile tax cuts at the public expense, at an annual cost of about $75 million a year (with $7.5 million allocated to promote the up-coming budget measures alone).
All in all, Mr. Harper has raised the smoke-and-mirrors approach to politicking to something of an art form. The shame of it is that the Liberals and NDP are currently too weak, and too afraid of the optics of appearing to condone spending and tax increases of any sort, to provide any meaningful opposition to this process, so Harper gets away with it all scot-free.

The actual 2015 Canadian federal budget presented few surprises, and all of the above still applies, with the added insult of a very un-Conservative assumption of a rebound in the price of oil. Additionally, several of the beneficial measures and tax-breaks offered are in fact post-dated, sometimes for several years, in the hopes that the Conservatives will reap the voter goodwill but not have to actually pay the piper.
And the budget was indeed balanced - largely though a series of accounting sleight-of-hand moves, including reducing the contingency reserve from $3 billion to $1 billion, assuming a rebound in oil prices, maintaining higher than necessary EI premiums, etc. - despite the broad opinion of many economists that the Canadian economy is under-performing, and that now would be the ideal time to take advantage of the current low interest rates and invest in job-creating stimulus projects in order to kick-start the economy. But the Conservatives stubbornly insist on balancing the budget, largely for the value of its electoral optics, and ignoring the possible benefits of strategic deficit funding.
What may prove to be even more important, though, is that the Conservative budget deliberately ties up the public purse for some years to come, so that, even were they to win the upcoming election, any putative Liberal or NDP government would be hog-tied and unable to carry out their own agenda without alienating segments of the electorate by rolling back some of these measures or substantially increasing taxes. Clever, but incredibly cynical.
So, to summarize: many small but loudly-touted sops to various niche-voter segments (seniors, suburbanites, immigrants and small business owners), the use of accounting trickery to balance the budget come what may, and a fiscal emasculation of any future governments. All in all, a Machiavellian exercise in political and economic cynicism par excellence.

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