VICTORIA – The federal election started out with familiar rituals on taxes, health care and same-sex marriage, as leaders skated around to score the usual points without many actual solutions on offer.
The tax discussion started with a bit of real news. Conservative leader Stephen Harper’s plan to cut the GST from seven to five per cent is a policy tailored for a Christmas election, even if the city media were quick to conclude it doesn’t make sense. The Liberals, who always discover the beauty of tax relief at election time, are offering one per cent trims to middle and low tax brackets some time in the next five years. The Conservatives say they’ll cut both, but so far they haven’t even endorsed the Liberal cuts to income taxes.
Never before has the GST had so many fans. Economists sniff that it’s an “efficient” tax, meaning efficient in extracting revenues from everyone’s pockets. It’s also efficient in the sense that every business in the country has to collect it, saving the government the trouble.
The best way to target assistance to low and middle income earners is to cut income taxes, say the experts.
As for actual impact, it’s estimated that either the modest GST cut or the small reduction in income tax rates would save an average family about $500 the first year. That’s not even enough to counteract two-per-cent inflation. Hardly revolutionary in either case.
The main thing that needs fixing in the GST is the noxious practice of charging it on provincial sales taxes. The Conservatives earlier pledged to stop this particular “efficiency.”
If the parties are looking for effective, targeted tax cuts, how about Employment Insurance premiums? That’s a direct tax on jobs that’s been stacking up billions in surpluses throughout the Liberals’ four (count ’em, four) consecutive terms in office.
The NDP’s Jack Layton is running away from the tax issue, talking about more “investments” rather than the higher taxes the party supports. His main initiative in the early days was health care. When he popped up at the recent first ministers’ conference on aboriginal issues, Layton was unconcerned about the obvious struggle to deliver the extra health care billions promised by the federal government to natives on and off reserves.
“Our main concern is that the involvement of first nations in the provinces has to be assured, and also that it remain in the public and non-profit delivery mode,” he said.
And so begins another phony debate about public health care, or more accurately, monopoly state health care. If contractors bid for efficient delivery of service to a remote community, and patients pay no fees for basic services, that satisfies the Canada Health Act, but not Layton. He insists on the Cuban model at all times. Strangely, so does the Liberal health minister, Ujjal Dosanjh, although his new party clearly doesn’t share his aversion to private clinics.
While the B.C. government quietly accepts the expansion of private health care to deliver specialty services (although not yet for hip and knee replacements, where the hospital system most desperately needs help), Harper is avoiding the issue, carefully pitching his plan to reduce waiting times in tones of reverence for the Canada Health Act.
Even Alberta’s Ralph Klein has taken a vow of silence for this election. Both know more private services are needed, but they can’t say that out loud.
Layton’s attack on private, for-profit medicine has so far ignored the most insidious example, a network of unregulated private-sector contractors employing non-union staff and billing the government for delivering basic care. They’re called doctors’ offices.
Tom Fletcher is B.C. bureau reporter for Black Press newspapers. email@example.com