A year ago, while British Columbia’s premier-designate Christy Clark was waiting to collect the keys to her new office, she sketched out her “families first” agenda for government. It had been the central theme of her leadership bid, and she was ready to get to work to help families get ahead. A key promise was to hold the line on taxes.
This Sunday is the first anniversary of her election to leader of the B.C. Liberal Party. The first Clark budget was unveiled on Tuesday, an opportunity to put her priorities into play.
And here is what she did: Increase the tax burden on families.
A middle-class family of four can expect to pay up to $187 more this year. Low-income families don’t catch a break either, with their tax bill rising by $152. And those figures do not include higher fees for services from Crown corporations such as BC Hydro, BC Ferries and the Insurance Corp. of B.C.
This week, asked how that squares with her tax commitment, she fell back on an old refrain: “We are not raising income taxes on people.”
Which is true – medical service premiums and the carbon tax went up instead.
And by Ms. Clark’s own definition, income tax levels are not the best measure to determine if government is helping families get ahead.
“One of the things that government needs to start doing is, rather than just talking about where our tax rates are,” she said last March, is to look at “where are we in terms of the total burden of costs that government puts on citizens.”
The Liberal government of premier Gordon Campbell was content to coast on its low personal income taxes. Ms. Clark distanced herself from that approach. She said she would ensure that medical service premiums, electricity rates and other government-levied costs would be examined through a new lens.
Looking at the whole package, she said, B.C. is only in the middle of the pack among the provinces. She promised a fresh approach when weighing taxes in the future: “When a decision comes before cabinet, we will ask: How does this affect B.C. families?”
The budget Finance Minister Kevin Falcon tabled this week wasn’t a families budget. “This budget is about fiscal discipline,” he said as he introduced the plan. The big theme was digging B.C. out of deficit and maintaining a healthy investment climate.
In an interview this week, Ms. Clark said that fits with her agenda over time.
“Our approach is to try to protect the interests of families in the long term by doing everything I can to enable the creation of jobs,” she said. “Because when families are working, that’s when they are strongest.”
Her holistic approach to taxation hasn’t been abandoned, she said. It is proving difficult to implement. “We are looking at the total burden on families, but the thing is … I don’t get to control that entirely.” She pointed to an order last week by BC Hydro’s regulator for a rate hike in April that almost doubles the increase the government had recommended.
Her long-term approach isn’t a departure – in her leadership campaign, Ms. Clark stressed the need to eliminate the deficit, and said any big tax cuts would have to wait. It is more an issue of emphasis.
It does, however, skirt her leadership campaign promise to phase in a working income tax benefit as part of a poverty reduction plan. “The families-first agenda recognizes that there are British Columbians who are not able to share in our prosperity,” Ms. Clark’s official platform stated. “There are families in every part of the province who cannot afford three meals a day and who send their children to school hungry.”
Her first act in office was to hike the minimum wage. But no tax credit for the working poor was unveiled in this week’s budget.
“You want a poverty plan? Enable the creation of good, middle-class jobs,” Ms. Clark said this week. “That’s the best poverty plan any province or any country can have.”
Ms. Clark’s tax rationalizations earned a rebuttal from Adrian Dix, leader of the opposition New Democratic Party, one designed to cut to the bone: “Christy Clark is sounding more like Gordon Campbell every day.”