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mark milke

Mark Milke is a Calgary author.

Politicians everywhere love the middle class. In the 2015 federal election campaign, all three leaders courted this cohort. Two talked up middle-income tax relief (Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper); one accused the others of hurting the middle class (Thomas Mulcair).

Premiers also play up their middle-class roots and devotion. Last November, B.C. Premier Christy Clark noted her middle-class upbringing. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, in her 2014 campaign, promised that if re-elected, her government would stop hiking taxes, this to shield the middle income earners from the "pinch" of tough economic times.

But dive below the surface rhetoric, and what becomes clear is how many politicians engage in employment-killing policies, ones that harm Canada's middle class, to say nothing of the poor.

Examples abound.

In Ontario, initially popular but fatally flawed government green-energy strategies rigged the power market in a manner that, as every Ontarian well knows, sent power bills soaring – an extra $37-billion over eight years with another $133-billion to come over the next decade and a half, according to Ontario's Auditor-General.

Such policies are an expensive hit to Canadians seeking a middle-class job and lifestyle. Ontario's high-cost power model, for example, has been great for economic development – in New York state.

Just as problematic is the attack from provincial governments on resource extraction.

Some impose onerous conditions for pipeline crossings (British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec), outright bans on natural gas development (onshore bans in Atlantic Canada), or hike business taxes (Alberta). And the recent federal ban on crude-carrying tanker traffic on the northern B.C. coast will not help either.

This is a problem because, until recently, resource extraction increasingly provided a great source of entry-level, middle-income and higher-paying jobs for everyone from cooks and cleaners to those manufacturing equipment, engineers and white-collar office workers.

To see the trend in stark detail, consider which provinces created the most jobs in the 10-year period between 2005 and 2014.

Total employment rose by 85,000 in Saskatchewan (an 18.5 per cent increase), job counts were up 189,000 in British Columbia (9 per cent higher) and 354,000 more in Quebec (a 9.6 per cent increase); employment increased by 497,000 in Ontario (7.8 per cent higher) while in Alberta, total employment rose by 454,000 (or 25 per cent more in 2014 when compared with 2005).

Unsurprisingly, the dramatic increase in jobs in the resource sector meant a burgeoning middle class – in addition to opportunities for higher and lower-income Canadians in such provinces.

As one metric here, look at tax filings. Let's use the $30,000 to $99,999 income cohort as a proxy for the middle class. With Canada Revenue Agency tax filing data (covered in my 2014 study on the matter), Alberta and Saskatchewan's thus-defined "middle class" respectively amounted to 45.5 and 45.2 per cent of all tax filers. Ontario's proportion of middle-class earners was 42.9 per cent, the same as the national average.

Add in higher-income tax filers, those above $100,000, and in total, those reporting taxable incomes of $30,000 or above amounted to 49.5 per cent of all filers nationally (and 49.9 per cent in Ontario), but 52.6 per cent in Saskatchewan and 57.7 per cent in Alberta.

Want to know where the middle class and high-income earners have been in recent decades? Proportionally, they existed in a larger "chunk" in those two provinces over all others.

Some play down all this. They argue that Canada put all her economic "eggs" in the resource basket, or that Alberta and Saskatchewan in particular were just lucky.

Nonsense. Economically speaking, Canadians can walk and chew gum at the same time; past growth in the resource sector was not, despite false claims to the contrary, hostile to other possible flourishing sectors. And it was not just luck: Quebec and the Maritimes sat out the recent 20-year boom in the resource sector because of explicit provincial policy that banned energy development in particular. That meant plenty of middle-class jobs were foregone.

Which brings us back to that much talked-about middle class: Whether manufacturing in central Canada, resources in more remote locations, or some sector not yet conceived of, if Canada's politicians want a healthier and larger middle class, they need to avoid making Canada into what it is rapidly becoming: a just-say-no, high-tax, high-regulation, high-power-cost jurisdiction.

The political class might instead start saying "yes" in ways that allow middle class jobs to flourish.

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