Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of CBC The National's "At Issue" panel and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He writes a weekly digital column for The Globe and Mail.
The Prime Minister's income splitting tax cuts and enhanced benefits for parents is making political waves this week. The big question is what impact they will have in about a year's time, when Canadians head into ballot booths.
These measures will reassure and motivate those core conservative voters who've needed some new reasons to feel enthusiastic for the party they supported, after a few years of weak polls and painful distractions like the Senate-Duffy-Wright scandal.
But it will be the impact beyond that group which will be more crucial. This is more challenging because voters often hesitate to thank politicians for giving us some of our money back, and many aren't sure tax cuts should be a high policy priority in the future, or that only Conservatives can or would provide them.
By the time the next election happens, a pretty large number of Canadians who hadn't been inclined to vote Conservative will be receiving cheques from the federal government. Cheques that before yesterday they hadn't expected.
I've polled Canadians frequently on how they feel about tax cuts, benefit increases and the fiscal choices governments make. Drawing on that experience, here are some observations that occur to me.
These days, as many at 40 per cent of voters think it doesn't matter which party is in power – policies would not be all that different and wouldn't matter very much to your life.
When a party stakes out thematic ground, like the Conservatives have on taxes, many people just tune this out – assuming it is just exaggerated political rhetoric. But backed up with actions that improve your monthly household spending power – this has a better chance to break through that skepticism.
It's easy to find people who say they want their taxes cut. It's harder to convert tax cuts to votes on Election Day. Many people feel they are paying more than they need to, if only government wouldn't waste so much of their money. For voters in that frame of mind, a tax cut is not exactly viewed as a gift from a benevolent government, or a gesture that requires reciprocal thanks. They're happy to have the money but something short of grateful.
In terms of the impact on voter sentiment, the income splitting tax change may not matter as much as the new and increased benefit payments parents will be receiving from the government.
For many families these amounts will be meaningful. And so the Liberals and NDP will not be much inclined to roll these back. If they want to argue for different ways to help with child care costs – the instinct will be to make them additive, rather than forcing voters to reject the bird in the hand.
Conservatives may assume that these announcements have put their opponents at a distinct disadvantage, by reducing the other parties' fiscal room to manouever. But they shouldn't get ahead of themselves. When the Finance Department keeps telling us that there is more fiscal room than anyone anticipated it's harder to make the case that the other parties are promising things that couldn't possibly be affordable. Apparently, we've lost the ability to predict what will and what won't be affordable.
Finally, there is the question of how many voters cast a ballot based on past performance versus future promise. Incumbents always want to believe that there are more of the former – but that's actually rarely the case. Mostly people think about what they want going forward and who's making a more compelling case.
The Conservatives have staked out ground that says – if you want to keep more of your money, we're your best choice. In our last poll, 32 per cent of voters said taxes was one of the three issues they cared most about, and 40 per cent of those voters were planning on voting Conservative. So there's a Conservative advantage – but one limited by the fact that most voters are saying taxes aren't among their top three issues – and further limited by the fact that 32 per cent of those who do care greatly about taxes were planning on voting Liberal.
To make more of yesterday's opportunity, the Conservatives will need to make more people focused on future tax cuts and more convinced that the only way to get them is by voting Conservative. Succeeding at that won't be trivial, at least not if the other parties are on their game.