Friday, April 01, 2011

Harper raising trust issues - about himself

It's early days, but Stephen Harper could be blowing the election. He's making himself look like someone who shouldn't be trusted to govern.
Harper's harping on the threat of an evil NDP-Bloc-Liberal coalition offers the best example of the problem.
It was a decent enough gambit to kick off the campaign.
Liberal leader Stephane Dion had attempted to forge a coalition government with the NDP in 2008, supported by the Bloc Quebecois.
Coalition governments are unfamiliar - though not unheard of - in Canada. (Though Britain has had one since last May.) And many people would object to a formal Bloc Quebecois role in a coalition.
So it was reasonable for Harper to claim that unless the Conservatives won a majority the three opposition parties might come up with a common program and form a government.
Then Michael Ignatieff clearly ruled out a coalition.
That might have been foolish; a Liberal-NDP government could be preferable to another election. But it made continued dramatic warnings about a coalition less credible, more bluster than substance.
Still, Harper might have been able to keep up the attacks.
Except NDP leader Jack Layton and Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe said Harper had laid plans to form a coalition government with them in 2004 if the Liberal minority government fell on a non-confidence motion.
The three leaders even signed a letter to then governor general Adrienne Clarkson urging her not to automatically call an election if the government fell, but to consult the opposition parties and "consider all of your options."
That sounds like a coalition. And Tom Flanagan, Harper's former chief of staff, said the goal in 2004 was to install Harper as prime minister with the support of the other two parties.
Then a TV interview from 1997 emerged, in which Harper predicted the Liberals would eventually lose office when they were in a minority, with the largest number of seats. The opposition parties could then co-operate and form a "coalition" to govern, he said.
A fair observer would conclude Harper was attacking Ignatieff, who had rejected a coalition, even though he had tried to form one and publicly supported the principle.
The big problem is Harper's response. He didn't drop the claims or say he once thought coalitions were OK but had changed his mind.
Harper came up with excuses and evasions. He claimed he hadn't been talking about governing coalitions, but about uniting the right.
That's simply not credible given the letter to the governor general and the clear statement in the TV interview.
That creates a trust issue. If voters believe Harper will say anything to win - even in the face of evidence that he's being hypocritical at best, dishonest at worst - they will wonder if they can trust any promises he makes over the course of the campaign.
And that's a damaging, a self-inflicted wound.
Harper made another serious stumble. When Green leader Elizabeth May was barred from the leadership debates Wednesday, Harper said he was "open to any number of possibilities," including May's participation.
"We could also have a debate between Mr. Ignatieff and myself," Harper said. "After all, the real choice in this election is a choice between a Conservative government or an Ignatieff-led government that all of these other parties will support." (That coalition thing again.)
Great, Ignatieff said. Let's have a one-on-one debate.
But the next day, Harper was in retreat. He's only willing to do the two group debates, one in English and one in French, he said. He refused to debate Ignatieff.
And Harper dodged the debate on the same day questions were raised about his tightly controlled campaign. Unlike the other leaders, he will only take five questions a day - four from the journalists on the campaign, one from local media. There are no public events; only Conservative supporters on pre-approved lists can attend.
The election was seen as Harper's to lose. Based on the early days, he might.
Footnote: Getting bounced from the debate got May great media coverage, and she should have been included. More importantly, the TV companies should have clear, consistent criteria for their decisions and the debate schedules. The backroom deals between companies and parties breed suspicion.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Harper's family tax plan misses the mark

Stephen Harper wasted no time unveiling his first big campaign promise, a proposal to let families with children split their incomes to reduce their tax bills.
It's likely a political winner. But it's bad public policy, especially if the aim is to strengthen families.
The big beneficiaries are the rich - people who least need help with the cost of raising children.
It's also a distant prospect. Harper says the change won't come until the budget is balanced, which isn?t supposed to happen until 2015.
The theory is that some two-parent families with children under 18 should pay less tax.
Harper proposes that they be allowed to shift up to $50,000 in income from the highest paid spouse to the one who earns less, or stays at home. The high earner then drops into a lower tax break and pays less.
The Conservative news release offered examples. Someone earning $70,000 with a stay-a-home spouse could shift half the income. Each parent would pay taxes on $35,000. Because they would be in lower tax brackets, they would save almost $2,000.
But the release didn't set out other scenarios.
For example, someone being paid $200,000 a year could transfer $50,000 to a stay-at-home spouse. That family would pay $7,000 less in taxes.
And a large number of families would get nothing out of the change. Two people both earning $40,000, for example, would see no change in their tax bill.
Neither would any family getting by on a modest income, because they are already paying minimal taxes.
And single parents - most in need of assistance - would be left out entirely.
In short, the people who really need help raising their children would get little benefit; the people who didn't would get the biggest tax cut.
Providing this tax break is expensive. The Conservatives estimate it will cost $2.5 billion a year.
That leaves two options. Other taxes will have to go up to cover the lost revenue, which could mean other taxpayers will pay more to subsidize people already well off.
Or the government will have to cut $2.5 billion worth of services.
Politically, it's not a bad campaign promise. Supporting families always sounds good. People with families vote - especially affluent people with families.
And social conservatives see the tax change as a way of making it easier for families to get by on one income, so moms can stay home and look after the children.
That's not a goal that should be dismissed. There are benefits to having a parent in the home with children, to the family and society. Stay-at-home moms - and a relative handful of dads - also make a big contribution in volunteer roles.
But the tax change won't really do much to achieve that goal. The Conservatives say the average tax reduction would be $1,300. That isn't going to let most families give up a second income.
What was also missing was a consideration of what else a prudent government could do with that $2.5 billion a year. Based on population, that's about $330 million a year for British Columbia.
That much money, targeted to the children and families who really need help, could make a huge difference. Early childhood education, longer parental leave, nurse support for new moms, more affordable day care - there are many options that could improve life - now and for generations - for children starting out in tough circumstances.
That kind of approach would pay a lot greater return than a tax cut that delivered the greatest benefits to people who were being paid two or three times the average wage of British Columbians.
But Conservatives calculated the tax change would play well, or believe affluent families should pay much less in taxes.
That's a legitimate position, of course. But voters assessing the party platforms should be clear about what Harper offered in his first major commitment.
And about who would win, and who would be left behind.
Footnote: Why a promise that won't take effect for four years. The Conservatives said they couldn't agree to NDP demands for more support for seniors, a move which might have averted the non-confidence vote and election, because there is no money. That makes it hard to offer any promises not already in the defeated budget.