Aaron Wudrick is the Federal Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, and a former political organizer, campaign manager, lobbyist and lawyer. He holds a degree in Economics and Political Science from the University of Waterloo and a Law degree from the University of Western Ontario.
It’s hard not to wonder what Stephen Harper, circa 2005, would think about the Stephen Harper of 2015. As a study in political longevity, there is no question he can claim great success: three election wins, with a greater share of the vote and more seats each time. But winning and keeping power alone tells us little about what’s he’s actually accomplished during his nearly decade long time in office.
From the standpoint of an organization that advocates for lower taxes, less waste, and accountable government, reviewing the Harper record is a complex affair. The result is truly a mixed bag.
Taxes are unquestionably lower – income splitting, a 5 per cent GST, business taxes down to 15 per cent. But taxes are also much more complicated; politically-targeted tax incentives have multiplied, cluttering up the tax code. Much waste has indeed been cut – only to be cancelled out by newer, and in many cases, more expensive wasteful programming. On accountability, bold initial steps such as the implementation of the Federal Accountability Act (FAA), creation of the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) and more recently, the passage of the First Nations Fiscal Transparency Act (FNFTA), have been at times overshadowed by the stonewalling of independent officers of Parliament, the use of government advertising for partisan benefit, and scandal in that perennial poster child of unaccountability, the Senate.
The general tendency of the Harper government has been to reduce the tax burden; their default reflex is clearly to try to find ways to empower individual Canadians and their families, rather than to impose new taxes and fill government coffers. The broad “vision” is of a more efficient government, focused on core things that government can and must do, while respecting provincial jurisdiction.
Unfortunately, the vision does not always match the action. For starters, they have almost always chosen the most complicated route possible: rather than cutting income taxes, they have introduced boutique credits for favoured political constituencies and created new entitlement programs. A classic example of the latter is the monthly Universal Child Care Benefit (UCCB). The government could have simply cut income taxes in order to leave more money in the pockets of Canadian families. Instead, they opted for a universal program, which allows Canadians to witness a benevolent government sending them a cheque (or more likely, a direct deposit) each month. Undoubtedly, this is a better option than a national, institutionalized day care program, but it’s far from ideal.
Perhaps strangest of all is the persistent mythology held in some circles of the Harper government as having dramatically cut spending and emasculated government: even after controlling for population growth and inflation, federal spending is up more than $15 billion since 2006. Add in near-record revenues, and seven years of deficits which added a further $150 billion to our federal debt — whatever your take on the Harper government, the notion that they have been shrinking the state simply defies the empirical record.
On the waste front, ending the long gun registry was a victory for opponents of waste, as was the elimination of the Canadian Wheat Board. Political pensions have been radically reformed, so that politicians themselves are making far greater contributions. (Harper himself gave up $2 million in pension benefits under the reforms). Corporate welfare spending is down, although the government actually created new agencies for dispensing “regional development” subsidies. The bailouts of Chrysler and General Motors have been costly to taxpayers, while public sector compensation remains overly generous in comparison to equivalent private sector jobs.
With respect to accountability, how do we reconcile the actions of a government that has brought in welcome new changes that improve accountability and transparency – such as the aforementioned FAA, PBO and FNFTA – with public attacks on independent officers of Parliament, perpetual battles with the Supreme Court, and a default impulse to tighten control rather than let information flow freely? Perhaps most notably, when first elected Harper was more committed to Senate reform than any leader Canada has ever seen – and yet between the scandal generated by his own senatorial appointments, and having his modest attempts at reform thwarted first by the opposition parties, and later the Supreme Court, it must count as amongst his biggest political liabilities.
In summary, the Harper record provides plenty of fodder for both critics and supporters. It is neither one of resounding success nor unmitigated disaster. The Prime Minister deserves much credit on many files, and can be justifiably criticized on others.