OTTAWA - The political season in the nation’s capital kicked off Monday as Prime Minister Stephen Harper hinted he could begin to roll out more tax cuts as of this fall’s fiscal and economic update.
Harper ditched a summer caucus retreat and a fall kickoff on Parliament Hill and turned instead to a campaign-style rally in a downtown Ottawa convention centre. Addressing Conservative MPs, senators, party staffers, and supporters, he said: “A balanced budget will allow us to continue delivering lower taxes for Canadians.”
“I look forward to the economic and fiscal update this fall when we will be taking the first steps in the next part of our Conservative plan for Canadians,” said Harper. He pointed to an Employment Insurance premium cut for small businesses announced last week by finance minister Joe Oliver as just the start.
The fall update is a standard report in the government’s budgeting cycle, and although Harper said Oliver is on track to balance the budget “as scheduled,” many economists expect the government will be in a position to announce the budget has actually been balanced this fiscal year.
That sets the stage for a political debate that began Monday inside and outside the Commons, and will only partially play out in the halls of Parliament in the months leading up to the fixed election date of October 2015.
Harper boasted of gains the Conservative government has made in international trade agreements, the economy, and foreign policy. He pointed to the hard line taken against Russia’s incursions in Ukraine, Islamic State’s terror spree in Iraq, and his staunch defence of Israel, and stressed his leadership skills over political rivals Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau — though he never once named them.
On top of the economic and foreign policy questions, one issue simmering below the surface is what revelations may emerge from the criminal fraud trial of suspended Conservative Senator Mike Duffy, who is due in court for a first appearance Tuesday.
Mulcair, meanwhile, challenged Harper to bring details of Canada’s military support in Iraq to a vote in Parliament.
The NDP leader and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau used the first day of the fall sitting to showcase other economic policy options, too.
The NDP called for a formal debate Tuesday on Mulcair’s proposed $15-an-hour minimum wage for federally regulated sectors like transport, telecommunications, and banking. Trudeau said the Liberals would likely support the idea when it comes up for debate.
The Liberals offered an alternative to the recently announced tax credit for small businesses paying EI premiums. Rather than giving a tax credit, Trudeau said a Liberal government would offer a rate holiday for small businesses that hire new employees.
“This government’s proposal around EI actually is an incentive for businesses to grow smaller or to stay small,” Trudeau said. “That’s why we’re proposing today to use the same funds to create incentives to hiring new workers by offering an EI premium exemption … as a way of growing the economy and creating new jobs.”
Yet outside and inside the Commons, Harper cast his opponents as tax-and-spenders, saying Conservatives know “Canadian taxpayers” do not want the budget surplus squandered “so that governments can raise taxes, or accumulate more debt, to funnel big envelopes of cash to interest groups.”
Harper said Conservative policies led Canada out of recession to create nearly 1.1 million jobs “overwhelmingly private-sector, full-time, high-paying jobs.” As in 2011, Harper warned the economic recovery is “fragile” and those gains could “easily be lost.”
Yet Harper may have a tougher time making the political argument Canadians are better off with him, as Conservatives have said in ads.
That’s because Statistics Canada’s seasonally adjusted data show the number of people working in Canada has indeed grown but so has Canada’s population, and the employment rate has not kept pace with that growth.
In fact, in there has been a decline in the employment rate from January 2006, when 62.4 per cent of people aged 15 and over were employed as the Conservatives came to power. In August 2014, that number dropped to 61.3 per cent employed.
The same time frame saw an increase in the unemployment rate, to 7 per cent from 6.6 per cent. And the labour force participation rate — a measure of those who are working or are actively looking for work, which can be interpreted as a measure of confidence — declined slightly to 66 per cent in August this year to 66.8 per cent in January 2006. Further, as a share of total employment, full-time work has dropped slightly, while part-time work as grown slightly.
Still, Harper set out to frame his party as the one delivering money to Canadians’ wallets, saying tax cuts have delivered about $3,500 to the pockets of the average Canadian family.
He promised more to come on his government’s law and order agenda, including efforts to revoke parole eligibility in cases warranting life sentences, and said his government would end “automatic early parole for serious, repeat offenders.”
That suggestion — that the Conservatives would move to end statutory release — is a long-standing promise by the Conservative party.
However, the Conservatives’ moves to toughen prison sentences through retroactive changes to parole eligibility or removal of judicial discretion have begun to be rejected by courts as unconstitutional.
- With files from Alex Boutilier