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Canada's International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa April 24, 2012. (Chris Wattie / Reuters/Chris Wattie / Reuters)
Canada's International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa April 24, 2012. (Chris Wattie / Reuters/Chris Wattie / Reuters)

It's tax time, so let's talk about government (mis)spending Add to ...

How fitting it was that just as I was putting the final touches on my 2011 income tax return (I made that little?), the hapless Bev Oda rose in the House of Commons to apologize “unreservedly” for her “unacceptable” misuse of my money.

The federal Minister of International Co-operation has since repaid $1,353.81 to cover some of the costs she incurred last year during a conference in London, when she inexplicably upgraded from one lovely five-star hotel where the conference was being held, to the swankier Savoy, where, according to Canadian Press reports, she ran up a $1,995 hotel bill for three days, including $16 for a glass of orange juice. After a few days of unrelenting pressure and public scorn, she also finally agreed to pay back almost $3,000 for a limo to ferry her to and from the conference hotel and other costs.

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Oh what a time this is for talking about money – other people’s money that is. Ms. Oda was on the taxpayers’ dime when she blithely made her special travel arrangements. And if she hadn't gotten caught, we would have unknowingly absorbed the cost for that as well as for far more serious government financial follies. (F-35’s, anyone?) Speaking of other people’s money, Ontario’s minority Liberal government managed to get its budget passed this week by bowing to pressure from the NDP and imposing a 2 per cent surtax on everyone who makes more than $500,000 a year.

This so-called “soak-the-rich” move resulted in a cacophony of need, greed and resentment. There were dire warnings from financial analysts that “angry” clients would soon be storming their doors and maybe even leaving the province! Callers clogged open-line radio shows telling the rich, to er, get over it. And in the run-up to the budget, Michael Rachlis, one of the founders of Doctors for Fair Taxation, an organization that advocates for more taxation for well-paid doctors, said wistfully in one interview: “Maybe we’ll start a trend. Maybe we’ll see a Lawyers for Fair Taxation start up.” Yes and maybe I will win the lottery.

It all sounds like a George F. Walker play in which various competing economic interests in society are depicted with pungent hilarity. Except none of this is really funny.

There’s no question that government deficits have reached the tipping point, they have to make cuts, or risk a downgrading of their credit rating. But curtailing their spending means many worthwhile organizations are losing their funding. Just this week, a collection of women’s health organizations under the 16-year-old Women’s Health Contribution Program announced their funding would be cut in 2013. Some do community-based health policy research and others are more hands-on work, raising awareness on such issues as the hyper-sexualization of girls and the need for trauma-informed counselling for women with addictions.

Because the news of federal government cuts is trickling out slowly, it’s hard to piece together what is an unfortunate but necessary cut, and what genuinely pulls the rug out from under deserving programs or the most needy. None of it makes headlines, however, like a $16 glass of orange juice or Dalton (Robin Hood) McGuinty riding through the glen (mind you, he’d look good in green tights.) I don’t think the superrich will be leaving Ontario in droves. Nor am I naive enough to believe that the intended deficit-busting revenues ($470-million) from a 2 per cent surtax won’t be at least partially offset by new and ingenious tax deductions. F. Scott Fitzgerald was right, the rich are different from you and me – their accountants are more creative.

In the Washington version of Other People’s Money, U.S. President Barack Obama and the Democrats failed to muster enough votes in the Senate to keep the so-called Buffett Rule alive, a bill which would require households earning more than $1-million to pay at least a 30-per-cent tax rate. (Billionaire Warren Buffett wrote a wildly influential op-ed piece last year pointedly wondering why his tax rate was lower than anyone else working in his office and volunteering to pay what the President is now calling his “fair share.”) Mitt Romney predictably sees this as a socialist nightmare.

But there’s a – for want of a better word – richer conversation to be had in all this, one that last year’s Occupy movement with its focus on the growing income gap between the wealthy 1 per cent and the rest of society tried to spark, but which got lost a little in the novelty (and horror) of urban tent cities.

It’s one that catches us all out in our hypocrisy about money, our longing to be rich, or at least to not have to worry about being broke, versus our desire as a society to be good and fair – to lift all boats. There’s an uncomfortable feeling, even among those who simply aspire to be successful, that putting a surtax on the rich is a disincentive to strive, to work hard, to amount to something.

These conflicting emotions bubble beneath all these economic debates. We talk endlessly about money and about fairness but it’s almost as if we’re waiting for new words we haven’t heard before, a fresh way to frame and solve a situation that has been around forever.

I hope we find those words soon. None of the current fiscal problems will go away until we do.

In the meantime, we grasp at straws, stuck in $16 glasses of orange juice.

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