Federal Election 2015 – Part 1

I’m going to use the next three post for work through my thoughts on the federal election.  Be aware — this will be a lengthy read.  It will be split into three posts.

I’m going to try to limit by desire to preface, but I will make one important point: the federal government has a much smaller effect on the economic strength/weakness of the country than any campaign rhetoric would seem to imply.  Government economic policy is about positioning.  The major causes of economic change are corporate and international, from resource pricing to international stock market health to international warfare.  Our federal government has the responsibility of finding the best position for us to weather the inevitable economic storm which comes our way.  As such, they deserve neither full blame nor full credit for the state of the Canadian economy at any given time.  This is not to say that economic policy decisions are unimportant; they are perhaps the most important actions of the government.  This is just to say I assign limited blame and credit for failure or success, economically.

The Conservative Record:

Since we have a decade of rule, including a majority term, evaluation of the Conservative Party comes down to their record.  Regardless of how they campaign and what they promise, we have a good idea of how they govern.  The first question of the election is: do they deserve to continue?

Points in Favour:

  1. Management through the 2008 Recession.  I’m no economist and, really, have no idea what’s the best policy for managing the effect of a global recession.  As best as I can tell, the Conservative record is mixed here.  I do, however, want to give them credit for choosing to support infrastructure spending during the recession; I could easily have imagined that an ideologically commitment to balanced budgeting could have preventing them from pursuing this program.  In addition, by some economic metrics, we weather this 2008-2011 storm better than most.  As in the preamble, blame and credit for economic performance is tricky at best.
  2. Tax Free Savings Account.  Regardless of the current debate about size and limits of TFSAs, these seem like a good vehicle for promoting savings.  In the interests of full disclosure, part of my approval of TSFAs is surely based on their usefulness to our particular financial situation.  I directly benefit from their existence.  Personal advantage aside, they seem like a good tax policy decision.

I don’t really have much more in this section.  I’m sure there are many relatively small and specific actions, such as increasing the protected area included in Nahanni National Park, which would meet with my approval.  However, I’m trying to stick to broader and more substantial policy decisions in this post.  I’m willing to hear from those more positive on the Conservative record: what has been praiseworthy about their government?

Points Against:

  1. Management through the 2008 Recession.  I feel justified putting this in both sections.  The focus on traditional resource industries, particularly oil, mostly like contributed to our current and future vulnerability.  An ideological commitment to banking deregulation, particularly after the US causes of the 2008 recession, seems very foolish.
  2. Attitude towards parliament.  The use of procedure, particularly the ability to prorogue to avoid undesired motions and debate, is undemocratic and shows a contempt for the parliamentary system.  Having the technical authority to close down parliament doesn’t give ethical justification for doing so.
  3. Commitment to warfare in Afghanistan.  While our involvement in the Afghanistan conflict was due to actions of Paul Martin’s Liberal government, the Conservatives repeatedly recommitted to a deeply problematic military campaign.
  4. Census reform.  I can think of three possible justifications for simplifying the census, as was accomplished in the summer of 2010: cost, privacy, or fear of information.  On cost, I feel the importance of census data justifies the cost.  On privacy, again, I feel the importance of census data justifies the imposition and gathering of private data (with appropriate measure of security and guarantees of anonymity).  On fear of information, which many have claimed is the real unspoken motivation, I am, of course, desperate disappointed in any government which seeks to suppress information.
  5. Attitude towards science and silencing of government run scientific inquiry.  On the same theme of suppressing information which is inconvenient to their agenda or ideology, I am deeply disappointed with the Conservative record towards science in general and its own scientists in particular.  In particular, weakening of environmental regulations, prohibiting publication of scientific research done by governmental scientists and cutting funding to various public interest research departments are all strikes against the Conservative record.
  6. Policy on Crime.  I’m strongly opposed to the entire Tough-On-Crime agenda.  in addition to the policy decisions, an environment of antagonism and cruelty has been fostered in the entire criminal justice system.  This gets in the way of attitude and programs that help actually rehabilitate criminal and reduce recidivism.  As far as I can tell, the whole program both dehumanizes criminals and makes the rest of us less safe.
  7. Rhetoric on terrorism.  The Conservative government has adopted, wholeheartedly, the very problematic us-vs.-them rhetoric of terrorism.  This language is actively harmful to our society: it justifies racism, breeds contempt for religious minorities, argues for disastrous international military actions, and undermines civil rights.  The ideological decision to envision Omar Khadr as a terrorists instead of a child soldier and the ensuing harm (and wasted resources) is the most clear exemplar.
  8. Human rights, in particular, bill C-51.  Coming out of the rhetoric mentioned in the previous point, this is a deeply problematic bill.  While it remains to be seen how it plays out in functional jurisprudence, the bill has the potential remove important rights of communication, free speech, protest and association.  It’s attitude towards information and privacy is also deeply troubling.  Bill C-24 is equally troubling in how it authorized the government to deny citizenship rights, particularly towards ethnic and religious minorities targeted by the rhetoric of terrorism.
  9. Drug policy.  I’m strongly in favour of the broad suggestions of the 2011 Global Commission on Drug Policy: treat drug problems as a public health concern instead of a criminal justice concern.  The Conservative record on this has been the exact opposite.  In addition to the problematic criminal justice policy, there are two other notable examples where I am deeply disappointed in the Conservative policy.  The first is their obstruction of the now-legal use of medical marijuana.  The second is their opposition and legal action against Insite Drug Injection Site and similar programs, programs which are easily justified in terms of decrease criminal activity, increased health for the users and increased safety for the community.
  10. International policy.  I object to the general militarization of our foreign policy and participation in bombing missions.  I’m also deeply disappointed in the rhetoric, for example, in the oversimplified pro-Israel stance or the skepticism about the US-Iran nuclear agreement.
  11. Market driven policy.  I’m nervous about the simplistically pro-market ideology of the Conservative government, as evidenced in their opposition to the Wheat board and other purchasing cooperatives or their blanket enthusiasm for international free trade agreements.  I don’t always know what the best decisions are on such complicated economic issues.  However, my judgement is that this government is driven by corporate interests and ideology of market freedom instead of carefully considered evidence-based reasoning issue by issue.  As such, I don’t trust them with the very important economic decisions such as negotiating free trade agreements or managing agricultural and resource economies reasonable.
  12. Focus on tax deductions as major policy and campaign priorities.  This government has made it clear that it feels the best method for interacting with citizens is through the tax code.  I object to this focus, first because it adds to the complication of the tax code.  Second, because it is done as an alternative to actually government programming.  For example, I would be much more in favour of a system to fund, develop and support child-care facilities as opposed to simply assigning a greater tax deduction targeted at child-care.
  13. Simplistic support for the oil industry.  I realize that the oil industry is not going away.  However, I’m disappointed by unconsidered and supportive the approach of the conservatives towards oil extraction.  In particular, the willingness to ignore the environmental costs of to the Athabasca watershed, including its social implications for the inhabitants of Northern Alberta, is very troubling.

Points where I lack information:

  1. Environmental record.  I’ve heard many vague criticism of the Conservatives environmental record and I’m skeptical, given their ideological commitment to business, about their ability to prioritize environmental impact.  That said, I’ve not done the research into the specific environmental decisions of the Conservative government.
  2. Regulatory record.  As with the environmental record, I’ve heard many criticisms and I have ideologically driven skepticism, but I haven’t gone through the specifics.
  3. Aboriginal issues. Again, I haven’t done my research here.  For the most part, though, I trust the voices of those affected and will listen to them for support and/or criticism of the Conservative government.

Unsurprisingly, my answer to the question is: no, they don’t deserve to continue governing.  What, then, are the other options?  I’ll be back with two more parts.  In part 2, I’ll discuss my opinions and impressions of the oppositions parties platforms and in part 3, I’ll share my conclusions, voting decision, and miscellaneous thoughts.

3 thoughts on “Federal Election 2015 – Part 1

  1. A few points of disagreement
    1 – TFSAs – I’m unclear about the benefits of this program. Most people who are marginal savers are likely to prefer the RRSP, since they get a refund in the current year, so it’s not clear to me that TFSAs promote savings to people who aren’t already strong savers. It’s also one of their policies that costs the current government little-to-nothing to implement, but will become extraordinarily expensive in 20 or 30 years as more and more investment earnings are sheltered from taxes. On balance I rate this as a tax giveaway to the wealthy, and a pillar of their “starve the beast” strategy for shrinking government in the long term.

    2 – Management of the 2008 recession (as a negative). Worth reading: http://news.nationalpost.com/full-comment/stephen-gordon-the-oil-boom-has-come-and-gone-god-kept-his-side-of-the-bargain-but-did-we-keep-ours

    I remain critical of Harper’s promotion of resource extraction and the continued existance of the mineral exploration tax credit and flow-through shares programs to quietly subsidise the industry. But in reading the article above, I was quite surprised to find out that the resource boom actually didn’t increase the share of our economy dedicated to resource extraction. So, while the goals of the government are counter to my own, which would shrink the size of the resouce industry relative to the rest of the economy, I don’t see that these policies have had a big of a negative impact as I would have expected.

    3 – Census reform – we’re on the same page, but worth noting on the cost front: replacing the long form census with the optional household survey, in addition to providing substantially poorer information, is also more expensive. According to the former chief statistician, approximately $30m more expensive. (http://www.macleans.ca/politics/ottawa/the-cost-of-scrapping-the-long-form-census/)

    4 – Tax code – I agree with the general sentiment of simplifying the tax code instead of adding ever more credits to it. I would also very much like the government to report tax credits as “spending” instead of hiding their costs in a reduced revenue line. Deductions are a more complicated question, since some (the RRSP deduction) are spending-like, while others (union dues & professional memberships deductions, for example) are about taxing net income instead of gross income.

    The specific example of child-care, I’m less sure about. I do think the tax code should be driven by a consistent philosophy of taxation, which it’s currently not. Generally we tax people on net income (income earned less costs necessary to earn income). Since the cap on the childcare deduction is substantially lower than the cost of childcare, and childcare is a necessary expense to earn income, we’re no longer taxing on net income, and the deduction cap should be increased to a reasonable level and automatically adjusted in the future in line with a related price index.

    Meanwhile, instead of subsidising all childcare (the NDP policy), I would prefer government policies aimed at income-tested subsidies and increasing options for childcare at non-standard hours, in order to increase low-income parents’ options.

    5 – Market Driven policy – I am a fan of free markets as a way of organising the economy, and free trade as I see the alternative – protectionism – as a form of racism. But I do get very disturbed by conservative rhetoric about not interfering in markets (except milk, apparently). If a government policy doesn’t alter the free market, then it’s not actually doing anything. The trick is to be intentional about how policies adjust the market, and whether it’s in the public interest. For instance, universal health care substantially reduces the cost of healthcare, and so increases the quantity consumed. This is a good thing. But government-backed mortgage guarantees reduce the cost of borrowing to buy a house, the benefits of which are far less clear. (Leads to higher house prices, increased debt levels, a less mobile workforce, and second-order effects on the rental market that are difficult to quantify.)

    I like to think about government policies no matter what they are in terms of how they impact markets, and rather than thinking about the size of their effect – which seems to be of paramount importance to conservatives – thinking about whether the effect is in a socially-desireable direction.

    I think overall here we’re in agreement that the Harper government has many faults, far more than would qualify them for re-election.

  2. Indepth and insightful. Thanks, Neil!

    Very useful comments on TFSA. I’m quite willing to admit that my opinion is skewed by the fact that I’ve found them a convenient tool. I can’t really argue (nor do I wish to) with your conclusion about the long term tax implications.

    On Tax Code, I would be just thrilled if politicians had a serious discussion about their holistic philosophy of the tax code. I’m disappointed in all four parties on this score, though I’d be pleasantly surprised if anyone could direct me to campaign literature that proves otherwise.

    I’d like to hear more of your thought about protectionism. Is protectionism as racism a function of protecting our mostly white population at the expense of our mostly non-white trading partners? That is, do you see the opening of international trade as an effective avenue for wealth transfer from the richer predominantly white Europe/North America to the so-called developing world? Or is there another angle/interpretation that I’m not seeing?

    Also on trade and protectionism, how do you feel about the negotiations of free trade agreements, particularly re: environmental protections, labour protections, etc. Are we striking the right balance or are we giving away too much authority?

    Thanks again for the thorough response and critique.

  3. I guess in my mind “Canadian, not-Canadian” thinking is just as racist as “White, not-White.” Nationalism, really, I suppose. Basically when I see free trade criticism, it usually comes in the form of “we should protect Canadian jobs.” Since I don’t see any particular reason a Canadian is more entitled to a job than a Mexican, Indian or German, this has always struck me as morally reprehensible rhetoric. I think that the modern opening of trade has done a lot for improving lives in developing countries, certainly a more effective tool than traditional charity-like development programs. No amount of CIDA funding could have boosted Chinese wealth the way an iPhone factory does.

    I feel like free trade agreements should be about leveling the playing field, between countries. So costs that result from regulatory difference should be taxed-in when goods enter the country (GST already is, and I would think that a carbon tax would be another example where tariffs do level the playing field.) I recognize the difficulty of doing so…do we calculate a tariff to compensate for minimum wage regulations? Should it be prorated to encourage other countries to adopt living-wage level minimum wages, or just tax the difference so there’s no advantage to low-wage employers leaving the country? What about unionization rights (which would be very difficult to calculate, I would think)? These are good questions that I don’t really have the answers to. But the not-free-trade option doesn’t really seem to do that either. Instead it provides a punitive tax on, say, underwear, because there was a large underwear manufacturer that wanted to protect their Canadian jobs.

    Actual agreements fall far short of achieving these sorts of goals, thanks to the realities of international politics. They’re in deliberately vague language, so it’s usually hard to assess exactly whose interests are being promoted, so I honestly don’t know. On balance, I think Canada is better off for at least having NAFTA, and while there’s often headlines about some crazy-large claim being for seemingly spurious reasons under the agreement. But I can’t recall any of these controversial news items coming back as an actual judgement. I suspect this is generally true of other agreements as well.

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