OTTAWA — Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre says building up the Canadian economy after the COVID-19 pandemic can’t be achieved without a massive overhaul of the tax system and regulatory regime.
And he knows you’re already yawning as you read that.
But his party’s parliamentary pit bull says for all the pizzazz attached to the federal Liberals’ pledge of “building back better,” the reality is that those ideas aren’t sustainable if the country’s underlying economic system isn’t dramatically retooled.
“We don’t need subsidized corporate welfare schemes that rely on endless bailouts from the taxpayer,” he said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
“That will only indebt us further, and all the jobs they temporarily create will disappear when taxpayer money runs out.”
Poilievre and some conservative pundits have attracted criticism for advancing the idea that in the Liberals’ post-pandemic strategy lurks a nefarious desire to dramatically overhaul existing social and financial systems in a way designed to benefit elites.
The accusation riffs off a speech Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave in the fall related to how global leaders could close gaps in society laid bare by the pandemic.
“This pandemic has provided an opportunity to reset,” he said.
“This is our chance to accelerate our pre-pandemic efforts to reimagine economic systems, that actually address global challenges like extreme poverty, inequality and climate change.”
Poilievre said he has no regrets about framing Trudeau’s plans in those terms. Tough questions ought to be asked of the prime minister, he said, for why he sees opportunity in something as macabre as a pandemic.
Trudeau has dismissed the idea as “conspiracy theories,” chalking it up to COVID-19 anxieties that have people looking for someone to blame.
The Liberals have faced pressure to address many different problems raised by the pandemic, including dangerous conditions in long-term care homes, the exploitation of temporary foreign workers and the realities that many of those deemed “essential workers” during COVID-19 — like grocery-store staff — often toil at minimum wage while the companies they work for make massive profits.
The pandemic has taught Canadians hard lessons about how the most vulnerable are treated, Trudeau said earlier this week.
“I think Canadians expect the government to respond,” he said.
But Poilievre said from his point of view, too many “hobby horses” are getting attached to the pandemic.
The Liberals are becoming distracted by “dreamweaving about some utopia they’d like to create,” he said.
When pressed whether his party agrees on the problems, if not the solutions, Poilievre said Conservatives see things a different way: The Liberals talk about a reset while the Tories want an end to the “war on work.”
“There are two major problems that come out of COVID-19: the massive unemployment that is destroying the revenues for our programs, the paycheques for our families, and the sense of purpose for our workers,” Poilievre said.
“The second is the astronomical levels of household government and corporate debt.”
Both can only be tackled through robust private-sector job creation, and that’s impossible with the way the tax system is structured, Poilievre said.
“People can yawn all they want when a conservative mentions the tax system,” he said. “But there is no doubt that when we have a tax system that punishes businesses and workers for producing then it becomes financially advantageous for everyone just to import cheaper goods from abroad.”
At the individual level, the existing tax system penalizes some of the very people whose vulnerabilities have been exposed by the pandemic, Poilievre pointed out: the working poor.
He pointed to a Finance Department study, obtained by The Canadian Press earlier this year, that found workers with modest incomes, between about $25,000 and $34,000, lost $413 for every $1,000 in extra earnings, the highest clawback of any income level.
The issue is both the tax rate and the fact that as people’s incomes rise, they see a drop in income-tested benefits, like the Canada Child Benefit.
Those who have jobs might not take on extra work and others not even enter the job market at all, Finance officials noted, a situation more likely to affect people who make less money than their partners — usually women.
So, the Liberals can roll out plans for a national daycare system on Monday, as they are expected to do, but if they want to truly address the so-called “she-cession” the pandemic has created, fix the tax system first, Poilievre said.
Poilievre has long called for the government to end the “war on work,” a theme his boss, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, has seized upon in recent weeks as he’s sought to make political gains for his party among unionized workers in particular.
The Tories have used time in question period to go after large retail chains hiking prices, and have taken direct aim at corporate Canada.
It’s a sharp turn from the previous Conservative government, which passed laws to weaken unions and slashed the corporate tax rate.
Don’t expect another corporate tax cut as the Tories build their platform now for the next election, Poilievre suggested.
“There are a whole other a bunch of taxes that need to be addressed before that.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 29, 2020.