Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Taxes, Corruption and Belief

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Dec 01, 2005

Let's deal with the issue of corruption head-on. The Conservatives, we are told, will clean up the government so that things like the sponsorship scandal do not happen again. No doubt most Canadians would like to see an end to such scandals. The key question, though, is whether the Conservatives are likely to fulfill their promise. The evidence says they won't.

What evidence? Well, we could start with the last time a Conservative government ran the country. This would be, of course, the infamous two-term reign of Brian Mulroney, the party Canadians left devastated at the polls, the internal workings of which were lavishly laid bare by Stevie Cameron's On the Take: Crime, Greed and Corruption in the Mulroney Years. Mulroney remains a major figure in the Conservative party, the master to whom aspirants (like Belinda Stronach) consult before entering the political fray. It is reasonable to assume that the new gang would be much the same as the old gang.

Better evidence, though, comes from the utterances of party leader Stephen Harper. As reported here and elsewhere, "a Conservative government would appoint a permanent independent prosecutor to ensure that politicians and others who steal from the public purse pay for their crimes." One might wonder where this plan was, say, twelve months ago, when such a position could have been proposed and passed in the divided parliament. But the obvious answer is: the plan didn't exist.

It has all the makings of a half-baked plan. It does not, for example, take into account federal and provincial jurisdiction. The Ottawa Sun (hardly a stauch critic of the Tory way) comments, "in Quebec, the feds seizing control of provincial jurisdiction is headline material for separatist campaign literature." And it adds, helpfully, "Turns out it was plucked from a 15-year-old discussion paper put out by the Law Reform Commission." Fifteen years ago, of course, the aforementioned Brian Mulroney was in power. Small world.

The point is, the Conservatives were aiming for some quick political points by addressing the corruption scandal. Nothing wrong with that, but the fact that they had no policy in place after more than a year of headlines about corruption scandals speaks volumes. While they may rail, and will continue to rail, about Liberal corruption, the fact is that a Conservative government would not consider it a priority, would not consider it a problem. Just as in the Mulroney years.

A similar point can be made regarding taxation. Stephen Harper, again trying for some quick political points, suggested that the GST be lowered to six, and then five, percent. "I believe that all taxes are bad," Harper said. "Better taxes are lower taxes." That rhetoric is believable - a stance against taxation (and a corresponding reduction in government services) has long been a Tory ideal. But is that stance, with respect to the GST, believable?

It is not. While even Conservatives recognize that the government needs some tax base in order to continue operations, the sorts of taxes they favour are not income, equity, or other wealth-based taxes, but rather, consumption taxes, of which the GST is a prime example. There are good reasons for this stance: consumption taxes keep the tax burden centered on resident Canadians, thus reducing the tax load on foreign investors and exporters. It thus stimulates (so the argument goes) economic growth.

Why then would the Conservatives float a plan to reduce a consumption tax? It flies against longstanding Tory policy. Perhaps it is part of a comprehensive taxation plan, one composed of a set of balanced reductions across the board? One would like to believe that, but again, the evidence speaks otherwise. For all intents and purposes, the GST plan looks as well like it was plucked off the shelf, dusted off, and put into play without any planning or thought. Or as the Toronto Star editorialized, "There must be another explanation. And once Harper tells us what it is, we will report back to you."

The other explanation is, of course, that Harper has no such plan to cut the GST. It's not like no party has ever falsely promised to cut the tax before; this was one of Chretien's most significant broken promises.

The upshot here is that, of the two major announcements Harper has made in the early days of the campaign, neither turns out to be believable. They are, in fact, hastily drawn campaign rhetoric seemingly drafted by a campaign team that appears to have been - unbelievably - unprepared for the possibility of an election.

Which raises the question - or should, at any rate - of what Harper really believes. Because it is inconceivable that the Conservatives do not have some plan for what they would do if elected. But if we reason along such lines, the conclusion is as inescapable as it is disturbing: if we heard what Harper really thought, the reaction would be so negative that the Tories would lose the election campaign before it ever really began. And worse, the Tories know this, which is why they are hastily dredging old, ill-conceived policy planks from the back room, in a bid to put something, anything, that might be popular in front of Canadian voters.

I would prefer to see the Conservatives place before voters an honest statement of what they believe and what they plan to do, even if they have to work over the Christmas holiday to figure it out. I would rather Canadians had the opportunity to vote on the real Conservative alternative, not some slap-dash promises they think will sway voters. Conservatives have long said their approach reflects the needs and interests of the average Canadian, that their approach constitutes a majority opinion in this country. Let's see them put it to the test.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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