Extraordinary statement by the finance minister captures government’s approach to the economy

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Appeared in Maclean's, September 15, 2017
Extraordinary statement by the finance minister captures government’s approach to the economy

In a recent CTV interview, one of the most powerful federal cabinet ministers, Minister of Finance Bill Morneau (pictured above), made an extraordinary statement that unfortunately encapsulates the federal government’s approach to economic policy.

In explaining the government’s proposed changes to small business taxation, Minister Morneau used the phrase “going after” to describe his government’s approach to extracting more taxes from incorporated “professionals and wealthy people.”

Not only is it shocking that a sitting finance minister used this kind of language to describe tax reform, but the minister is obviously unaware of the signals he’s sending to high-skilled workers, entrepreneurs, investors and professionals such as lawyers, doctors and dentists.

To achieve a strong economy, we need professionals and entrepreneurs to invest in their businesses and take risks to expand their businesses so they can supply the goods and services demanded by Canadians. In doing so, they strengthen the economy and improve the lives of Canadians across the country.

At a time when investment by private businesses in plants, machinery and equipment is down more than 15 per cent since 2014, Canada must do everything it can to welcome and encourage these people.

And yet despite running on and continuing to laud the importance of improving the economy, the governing Liberals continue to enact policies and send signals that discourage economic growth.

For example, one of the first policies enacted by the new Liberal government was an increase to the top federal income tax rate to 33 per cent from 29 per cent. This increased federal rate comes after most provinces also raised their top rate, which means in every province the top personal income tax rate is now close to or even over 50 per cent.

The Liberals have also increased capital gains taxes, which entrepreneurs are particularly sensitive to, and have refused to clarify whether additional increases to capital gains and new taxes for stock options are in the works.

The government seemingly does not understand that higher tax rates discourage Canadians from the productive activities that benefit us all. Telling professionals and skilled labour that more than half of their earnings (from new endeavours, expanding their business, or simply working more) will go to the government means we don’t value these activities because we’re discouraging them.

But it wasn’t always this way. Former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin understood: “Lower personal taxes would also provide greater rewards and incentives for middle- and high-income Canadians to work, save and invest,” he said. And it’s not a partisan issue—former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper echoed Martin’s concern when he said: "Canada needs lower personal income tax rates to encourage more Canadians to realize their full potential.”

In addition to tax increases, the Liberal carbon price mandate (i.e. taxes and regulations) will also dampen economic performance. Specifically, it will increase costs for firms, particularly in carbon-intensive industries such as agriculture, manufacturing and resources. Firms in such industries are being incentivized to move production from jurisdictions with carbon taxes (like Canada) to those without, which would further damage the Canadian economy without providing any environmental benefit. This is all the more poignant now that it’s clear the United States will not introduce a national carbon tax.

Why isn’t the government getting the message? Perhaps because it’s ardent in its position, despite the evidence and feedback it’s receiving. Indeed, the finance minister said as much during his CTV interview: “We’re on a plan here… we’re going to move forward… we said we were going to do this.” Remember, this response comes in the middle of the government’s consultation period. Indeed, it leads one to ask—what’s the point of consulting when you’ve made up your mind?

Hopefully the Liberals will come to learn what they once knew—creating the right environment where businesses, investors, workers and entrepreneurs can flourish is the proven approach to a better, more prosperous economy.