The Commons: Ted Menzies challenges everyone to find a tax increase in the budget

The budget becomes a reading comprehension test

“You know, there’s two schools in economics on this,” Mr. Harper once said, “One is that there are some good taxes and the other is that no taxes are good taxes. I’m in the latter category. I don’t believe any taxes are good taxes.”

“I give you my word: As long as I will be prime minister … there will be no new taxes,” Mr. Harper had said two years before that.

Perhaps that was merely a commitment to refrain from inventing entirely new taxes that had not previously existed. But otherwise it is to wonder if the Prime Minister was a touch disappointment when he opened the budget book last Thursday and found that, not only hadn’t the Finance Minister eliminated all taxes, but he’d seen fit to budget for several increases in the cost of civil society. If he was heartbroken to read as much, it is surely a testament to Mr. Harper’s commitment to party loyalty that he has not yet gone rogue and pronounced the budget to be unworthy of his support.

As it is, it must have been rather odd for the Prime Minister to have to stand in his place this afternoon and defend such a document.

First for the opposition this afternoon was David (Furious D) Christopherson, the NDP deputy whose floppy hair has a way of bouncing in time to his indignation.

“Mr. Speaker, the Conservatives are having a hard time defending their budget. They cut infrastructure, but pretended it is new spending. They cut millions in provincial skills training, but pretended it is new money. They leaked information about a small tariff reduction on hockey equipment then turned around and actually raised tariffs by over $300 million,” he declared, holding his thumb and index finger near each other to demonstrate the concept of small. “A tax hike on almost everything. Why the shell game? Why will the Conservatives not tell Canadians the truth about the budget?”

Mr. Harper seemed here to disagree. Or at least to believe that the general public was generally pleased with last Thursday’s presentation.

“Mr. Speaker, I note how well the budget has been received across the country,” the Prime Minister noted. “I note in particular the first issue that the member raised, the infrastructure program. This government is undertaking the largest infrastructure investment in Canadian history. That is why the budget is supported so strongly by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.”

And so here, apparently, was a reckoning.

“Really there is a choice,” Mr. Harper declared. “Is the NDP going to vote against infrastructure once again, vote against the FCM once again, or is it going to stand with municipalities and with these infrastructure investments?”

So not only is the budget a referendum on whether you like veterans, it is also a matter of whether you support society’s tendency toward urban organization.

“Mr. Speaker,” Mr. Christopherson shot back, “the NDP will never vote for budgets that deceive the Canadian people.”

The New Democrats applauded their agreement.

“The Conservatives are even hiking taxes on hospital parking,” Mr. Christopherson continued. “Conservatives are trying to claim that hospital parking is like any other commercial parking, but it is not. These people are not going shopping. They are going to visit friends and family who are sick or dying in the hospital.”

This much is apparently reference to the budget’s promise to clarify “that commercial paid parking is subject to GST/HST when supplied by a municipality, hospital, university, public college, school or any entity established by one of these bodies.”

“The Conservatives are already raising tariffs by over $300 million,” Mr. Christopherson reminded. “Why are they adding insult to injury by also increasing taxes on hospital parking?”

Mr. Harper did not have much to say about this, except to remind everyone that his government had cut the GST and then to read a list of various industry associations who had expressed favourable sentiments about the most recent budget. Later, Mr. Harper would add that the NDP “opposes job creation in this country.”

When the NDP’s Peggy Nash returned to this matter of tariffs, Ted Menzies attempted a justification.

“Mr. Speaker, as we all know, preferential tariffs were actually about 40 years old and it is a program that was used as an official aid,” he said. “What we are trying to do is actually provide a level playing field for our Canadian companies and Canadian businesses so they are able to compete. For some of the other countries that are also wanting to export, it provides a level playing field for them as well.”

So perhaps when the Finance Minister stood in the House and said, “We will not raise taxes,” what he should have said was, “We will not raise taxes, but we will provide a level playing field for our Canadian companies and Canadian businesses.” And perhaps that commitment to lower certain other tariffs, noted in the budget under the heading “Supporting Families and Communities,” should have come with an asterisk. Or perhaps there should have a section for “Not Supporting Families and Communities.”

“The fact is Conservatives are increasing the tariffs of over $300 million and even callously raising taxes on hospital parking. This budget is a tax shell game and it is hitting Canadians right in the pocketbook,” Ms. Nash shot back. “The finance minister himself has admitted he does not know what the costs will be to consumers, so why are Conservatives playing games with Canadians? Why are they pretending to lower tariffs and then turning around and raising them by over $300 million?”

Here Mr. Menzies might have been better off merely repeating his previous assurances. Instead, seeming to attempt to think on his feet, he stumbled.

“Mr. Speaker, the honourable member is talking about millions of dollars, but from what I hear from the NDP, its carbon tax alone would increase the cost of everything by $21 billion,” the minister of state responded, demonstrating precisely the sort of logic that would have the Conservatives accusing the NDP of a $1-billion tax hike had it been Finance Minister Peggy Nash who tabled the budget last week.

“I know the only way that we could ever get the NDP to support this budget is if we had tax increases in it,” Mr. Menzies continued, “but no one will find tax increases in this.”

Mr. Menzies seemed to here to put his hope in the possibility that no one—including perhaps the Prime Minister—will bother reading as far as page 325 of the budget book. But there they might find Annex 2: Tax Measures. And there they will find several numbers that are not identified as cuts, but, in fact, the precise opposite.