Political discourse usually concerns itself with truly monumental issues. These are the decisive conversations in which a step in either direction is sure to have far-reaching effects on the character of our nation for generations to come. For example, free trade with the United States, conscription in both world wars, universal suffrage, and repatriating the constitution were defining moments in the development of Canada.
Too often though, the issues discussed are so infinitesimal they can scarce be seen with the naked eye. The use of boutique tax credits is an example of this kind of small-minded policy making. Political parties identify some key demographic and offer them a thinly-veiled bribe for doing something they were already going to do anyway. The hope is that when it’s time to vote, you remember who saved you $8.87 on children’s art supplies.
Boutique Tax Credits: Policy so small you can scarcely see it.
After a steady diet of targeted political bribery, the Income Tax Act has grown into a gargantuan and convoluted beast. At a staggering 3163 pages (1), it contains tax credits for everything from taking public transit to simply turning 65. Reducing the income tax burden is a laudable goal, but tax credits are a downright stupid way of doing it. They increase complexity and the cost of compliance, they disproportionately benefit the wealthy, and rather than changing people’s behaviour, they tend to subsidize what they were going to do anyway (2). The upkeep costs for maintaining the current hodgepodge of tax credits means regular tax rates must be kept higher to compensate.
Paradoxically, the “fiscally conservative, small-government party”, the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC), has been the main tax credit offender in recent years. The Harper government doled them out to needed constituencies with surgical precision. It has been particularly disappointing to watch the Conservative party continue this approach under Scheer. In fact, CPC social media accounts regularly lambast the Trudeau government for daring to eliminate pointless gems like the children’s fitness or transit credit. Of all the criticism to level on the Trudeau government, focusing on a few poorly designed tax credits comes across as petty and insignificant.
Conservative Party members could be understandably frustrated by their party’s continued focus on cynically applied boutique tax credits. The party’s own official policy document, amended by party members at each policy convention, states that “the Conservative Party supports a simplified and understandable Income Tax Act.” How does introducing niche tax credits for every imaginable special interest group simplify the Income Tax Act? It doesn't, and believing voters can be bought so transparently betrays a deep cynicism about the rational faculties of our citizenry. Motivating voters to support your vision of the country should involve more than throwing spare change at key slices of the electorate.
The most dissatisfying element of the Conservative Party’s continued addiction to tax credit politics is the pure lack of imagination. There’s no shortage of innovative, right-leaning ideas that could change our country for the better. Boldness is not the express purview of the left, conservatives should spend more time demonstrating that to the electorate. What’s lacking is not the ideas available, it’s the political will to tackle anything that might rock the boat. This type of low effort positioning is an embarrassment to conservative politics -- party members, and Canadians, deserve better.