In the 2006 federal election campaign, the Conservatives ran on a promise to cut the goods and services tax to 5 per cent from 7. Fiscally speaking, it was the biggest thing the Stephen Harper government did during its decade in office.
It also represented something consistent about the Conservative vision of a government that taxes a bit less, and can afford to do a bit less.
Economists generally disliked the idea of cutting the GST, but the move really did leave more money in people’s pockets. In 2006, the Conservatives estimated that a family of four earning $60,000 would save around $400 a year.
Also thanks to that GST cut, the government is noticeably smaller. Federal revenues are roughly $15-billion a year lower. If Ottawa had that extra money, it would be running a surplus today, or able to spend $15-billion a year more on programs and benefits.
In 2015, the Liberals ran on a promise of more child benefits, targeted at low- and middle-income families. They paired that with a plan for what they called a middle-class tax cut – really more of an upper-middle-class tax cut – paid for with a higher tax bracket for the top 1 per cent of earners.
Fiscally speaking, it’s the biggest thing the Justin Trudeau government did during its four years in office. And it, too, represents something fundamental about the Liberal vision of government.
In 2015, the Liberals promised to put more money into the pockets of most voters. That’s also what the Conservatives promised with their 2006 GST cut.
And it’s the goal of the 2019 Conservative platform’s biggest idea so far, the so-called “universal tax cut,” which will drop the lowest income-tax bracket from 15 per cent to 13.75 per cent. On Sunday, the Liberals released their answer, a plan to raise the amount of income that is tax-free, the so-called basic personal amount, from $12,069 to $15,000 by 2023.
These latest promises from the two parties both involve cutting tax from the bottom up, but with important differences. By cutting the rate on the lowest bracket, the Conservative are offering a tax cut to almost everyone, from low- to high-income. Once fully phased in, it would mean 1.25 cents less of income tax on every dollar earned between $12,069 and $47,630. But it also means that, to get the maximum benefit, you have to earn as least $47,630.
The Liberals’ promised tax cut, in contrast, would deliver a considerably bigger break for low-income Canadians, a slightly lower tax break for those with middle-class incomes, and no money at all for those at the top end. The Liberal tax cut will phase out for those with incomes over about $150,000, and it will not apply to anyone in the top bracket, over approximately $210,000.
That follows the targeted-benefits approach of the 2015 Liberal platform. The Liberals replaced a bunch of child and family programs with the Canada Child Benefit, whose payments fall as income rises. Upper-income earners came out losers in this arrangement but according to the Parliamentary Budget Officer, in the CCB’s first full year, 880,000 families with incomes less than $30,000 each got an average of an extra $2,223 in cash, and 874,000 families with incomes between $30,000 and $65,000 got an extra $2,086.
The CCB has significantly reduced poverty in Canada. And the OECD found that, when those new cash benefits are taken into account, low- and middle-income Canadians with children now have a much lower tax bill than their peers in the United States.
But doing all that wasn’t cheap. In its first full year, according to the PBO, the higher benefits for low- and middle-income families cost $4.3-billion more than the old family-benefits system.
The Conservatives’ “universal tax cut" will put real money in almost every pocket, as the 2006 GST cut did. But it will also reduce Ottawa’s revenues, which will be $5.9-billion lower in 2023, according to the PBO. The Liberals’ 2019 tax-cut plan has almost the same price tag. But the party says it will be paid through to-be-announced “measures that make our tax system fairer." Stay tuned.
Conservatives and Liberals aren’t offering visions of Canada that are night and day. But there are real differences in where they strike the balance between how much government should do to reduce poverty, for example, and how much tax it should raise and redistribute to do it. One question for Canadians in this election is where they want to strike that balance.