Friday, October 11, 2013

Taxing Through Taxes

Despite not hailing from Nova Scotia, I suppose its time that we sat down and talked about what happened in the province. Though, this post will only touch on the topic; rather, we're going to focus on something a bit grander that comes out of that discussion.

Now, as a non-resident, I can only form opinion and sift some aspect of truth from what resources I have at hand. There have been numerous explanations as to what happened in Nova Scotia that led to a collapse of the NDP, and a rejection of the party at the polls in an incredible exodus. There's also been quite a debate over whether or not this was a good thing...

After all, Chris Brisbane has said that the Dexter NDP has been less than progressive and their defeat at the polls would be a victory for progressively minded voters. (LINK) Numerous other commentators have pointed out that Dexter's government failed to control electricity rates throughout the province, angering a large segment of the electorate. There is also lamentation over Dexter's buddy-buddy relationship with corporate interests, or corporate welfare if you prefer, and his approach to massive forgivable loans to large corporations. There's also an argument over Dexter's campaign to not raise taxes, only to do just that.

It's the question of taxes that I actually want to focus on, though not quite in the way you might think.

In the last few decades, a mantra of government success is pointing to lower taxes. It is a good thing to be able to tell the electorate that you are taking less of their money; and it is a rallying cry for most right of centre political parties. In fact, they have so much claimed this issue, that almost every second sentence out of their mouth is about the other parties being proponents of higher taxes.

For example, take the recent announcement that the federal NDP would roll back Corporate Tax Cuts undertaken by the Harper Government back to pre-2006 levels; or put simply, raise them back to 22%.

Unsurprisingly, then idea was immediately attacked and criticized by both the Conservatives and Liberals. It also highlights a problem in the political world: The ability to have a conversation about issues.

I've talked before on the blog about how it seems we've been fighting the same political battles for the last five decades; and the battle around taxes is one of those battles. Right of centre parties will always say that tax rates are too high, and that they must be slashed. Centrist parties will prefer a middle of the road approach, raising here and slashing there, while trying to balance in such a way to ensure they don't offend their base.

Leftists, of course, focus on ensuring that corporations are paying their fair share. This is where I point to Cameco being accused of avoiding $300 million dollars in taxes through use of a subsidiary company; if only because it helps highlight that corporations have, and will, find the way to ensure they pay the least amount of tax possible.

It's also a good case to remind people who are sitting here and paying their fair share of taxes that those closer to the top are not.

In an episode of the now off the airwaves television series "House", the lead cranky doctor questions whether you would rather have a doctor who holds your hand when you're dying, or who ignores you while you get better. And sadly, this is a damned good parallel to politics.

When it comes to taxes, and numerous other issues, there is a deafening cone of silence. This is because of style-over-substance politics. It's politically damaging to stand up and state an opinion on a contentious issue.

It's a question of whether you would rather have a politician tell you hard truths, or feed you from a bottle and tell you everything is alright while the house is on fire.

Perhaps its the eternal optimist in people, but the general consensus is we don't want to hear hard truths. We don't want to hear how bad things are going to be; we want to keep our heads down, our money in our wallets, and just get on with our lives.

But that isn't the way the world works.

Look back to 2008 for the best example of this. With the housing bubble bursting in the US and the subprime mortgage crisis starting to have international repercussions; the Harper Government was proclaiming that there was no recession on the horizon. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty rejected the idea that an economic downturn was coming; as did the Prime Minister. In fact, Stephen Harper went so far as to state that "now was a good time to invest in the stock market." at the first sign of a real economic dip on the horizon.  

Of course, it was an election year.

And while the Liberals and the NDP were sounding alarms about the economic recession and what it might mean for Canada; Harper and company were snake-oils salesmen selling the notion that the economy was fine and no icebergs lurked on the horizon for the HMCS Canada.

In hindsight, we all know what a bad buy that turned out to be.

The fact of the matter is, and the point I'm trying to get across, is that we must have these hard discussions in politics. Taxes should not be a verboten topic that cannot be discussed under penalty of political suicide.

Any government that tells you taxes will never rise, is outright lying to you. Ralph Goodale, for example, points out the ways in which the Harper Government have raised taxes on the average citizen through 'stealth' measures while touting an economic record that claims they haven't raised taxes for the average citizen. (LINK)

But sure, they cut the GST...which in turn directly contributed to the massive deficit this government has been running, which in turn is leading to massive austerity movements in the civil service and government programs that will undoubtedly have wide-ranging and long lasting consequences on government services for decades to come.

But, hey, at least they cut the GST!

Hard truths are part of life, and that is especially true in politics. But they are necessary if we ever want to stop fighting the same political, and ideological, battles over and over and over until the end of time.

It is better to have a politician telling hard truths and admitting that things are going to be rough for awhile, regardless of who you elect, than a politician who is trying desperately to convince us that nothing is wrong and then does nothing once elected to keep up the facade.

Take climate change, if you want to stray from the tax discussion.

Canada's record on climate change is going from bad to worse with Harper and team at the helm; if only because their party still seems to reject the idea of climate change as a concept, despite the recent IPCC report stating that human beings are indeed driving climate change. (LINK) The Harper Governments' response? A $24 million dollar ad buy promoting the Alberta Tar Sands and their development. (LINK)

Which brings me back to Nova Scotia.

The world is unpredictable, this is especially true of governance. A pledge to not raise taxes during an election might get you votes, but if you suddenly are staring down the face of a massive government shortfall you have to consider your options.

Granted, I'm a preferred redundancy man myself; in that, I would prefer a government look at their spending and find ways to first find savings rather than jump first to raising taxes. I think it's an approach we all can agree on; we don't want to put more money into the coffers, if the managers can find a more efficient way of spending money they already collect.

But, there will be situations where the end result is a tax increase. And we need to discuss the nature of this, and understand, that there are times when there is no choice but to raise taxes; even if it goes against what the party in power campaigned for.

Would Dexter's NDP government had been better served by acknowledging this? I can't say for sure, if only because there's a case to be made of them not being elected in the first place if they campaigned under possibly needing to raise taxes. Time will tell in Nova Scotia with how the Liberals respond to electrical rates in the province; after all, they campaigned under bringing those costs under control.

Not being from Nova Scotia, I can't say whether or not that is an achievable objective or whether higher utility rates are just another one of those hard truths we need to be able to talk about.

Politicians need to drive the change here, but electors have an important role to play. If a politician is willing to stand up and talk to us on an adult level, and acknowledges hard truths and doesn't pander to us, then we need to be willing to elect such an individual. Electors create their political system just as much as the politicians who represent it.

If we vote blindly, or from emotion rather than reason, then we are implicitly telling politicians that that is how you get elected.

Don't tell us truths, don't treat us like adults, don't raise civility in political discourse, and above all else have us turn our against one another because more for someone else means less for me. This is the political mandate and legacy that we've created over the last fifty years; but we can change it.

We can elect politicians who tell us hard truths, who talk about uniting rather than dividing, and who work with other parties instead of treating them all as adversaries. Politics is not a zero-sum game; when we help someone else, we all benefit. More for someone else does not equal less for me, it equals a better society for us all.

But first, we have to be willing to change the channel on political discourse and demand better. And that starts by acknowledging hard truths, and accepting that we need to talk about them. It's time to pull the wool off our eyes and take our fingers out of our ears. Are we going to like everything we have to hear? No, beyond a shadow of a doubt, we're going to absolutely hate some of the discussions we need to have.

But in the end, we'll all be better for it.

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