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Conservative Leader Stephen Harper speaks to Lianne Hastman, holding her son Henry, during a roundtable in Beaumont, Alta. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper speaks to Lianne Hastman, holding her son Henry, during a roundtable in Beaumont, Alta. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

John Ibbitson

Parties agree: Tax breaks trump social programs Add to ...

The debate is over: tax breaks trump social programs. Even the Liberals and NDP agree.

Stephen Harper's campaign promise to allow parents with children under 18 to pool the income of both parents for tax purposes, wouldn't come into effect until the federal deficit is eliminated. Lord knows how many elections we'll have had by then.

But the Conservative proposal does speak to a fundamental shift in how governments help people: they do it through the tax code.

It wasn't always like this. Governments used to actually create programs to help people. Sometimes that program took bricks-and-mortar form, subsidized housing being the classic case. Other programs helped with skills development, health care, college tuition.

Governments also paid people directly - this writer dates himself by remembering Mom waiting for the baby bonus to arrive so she could buy us winter clothing - as well as tax deductions and tax credits.

But politicians and public servants generally agreed that social policy should be delivered though programs as well as benefits.

Paul Martin sounded the death knell to that idea at the federal level when he cut spending in 1995 to fight the deficit. Once the budget was balanced, he introduced the Child Tax Benefit, which assisted low income families with children through direct payments.

Mr. Martin didn't entirely abandon program delivery; his national child care strategy involved subsidies to government-regulated day care spaces.

But that policy died when the Conservatives came to power in 2006. Mr. Harper preferred to help parents pay for child care through a tax credit. Since then, tax cuts, tax deductions and tax credits have been the preferred Tory method for delivering government assistance.

The Liberals have gone along. While we await the release of their election platform for families, their already-announced family care program includes a tax credit for caregivers.

And what is the NDP proposal to cancel the GST on home heating fuels? A tax break, pure and simple.

There are good reasons to do things this way. Experience shows that government-run programs are prone to waste and red tape. Direct payment is more efficient and less personally intrusive.

And politically, there's nothing like getting a cheque in the mail to make you feel better about the politicians who made that possible.

The government-funded program isn't dead - the provinces are still heavily involved. And we may yet see program proposals during this campaign.

But at the federal level the consensus is clear: It's better to pay than to provide.

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