A new Canadian survey on the rich/poor gap and taxes should spark debate

TheStar.com – opinion/editorials
Published On Tue Apr 10 2012.

It’s the risky “third rail” of Canadian politics. From Parliament Hill to Queen’s Park, politicians cringe at any talk of raising taxes, no matter how pressing the need or how good the cause. Most are paralyzed by the spectre of voter backlash. One touch, they seem to think, and you’re fried.

Maybe not. A new survey flatly challenges that timid conventional wisdom. It turns out that Canadians are ahead of their political leaders on this issue.

Fully 64 per cent, including a majority of Conservatives and wealthy people, say they are willing to shell out a bit more in taxes to protect social programs such as health care, pensions and access to higher education, all of which help reduce income inequality. Less surprisingly, there’s even more support — 83 per cent — for raising taxes on the wealthiest.

These findings by Environics Research for the newly created, progressive Broadbent Institute confirm that the public is genuinely concerned about the growing rich/poor gap. They vindicate the Occupy Canada protesters who caught the nation’s attention last year. And they challenge our policy-makers.

“The option of raising taxes to protect the social programs we cherish and to address income inequality has been absent from public debate for too long,” says the institute’s namesake, former federal New Democrat leader Ed Broadbent. “Our research shows Canadians are prepared to do their part and they expect the wealthy, corporate Canada, and their own governments to be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem.”

Ideally, these findings will pry open some space for a thoughtful debate about what Canadians truly value. Of course, they must be treated with some caution. It’s one thing to be open to higher taxes in theory, and quite another to shell out. But the results invite us to spend more time thinking about how we might imagine a fairer society, and less lamenting why we can’t.

Certainly, this challenges Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s approach to governance, with its premise that taxes are toxic.

Fully 89 per cent think addressing income inequality should be a government priority and 77 per cent think it’s a serious problem. They are right, though you wouldn’t know it to judge from the recent federal and Ontario elections where equity issues got little traction.

As Doctors for Fair Taxation noted on these pages recently, the wealthiest fifth of Canadians have seen their income rise by 40 per cent over the past 30 years, while the poorest fifth saw theirs fall by 11 per cent. Meanwhile, Ottawa and the provinces have been busy cutting taxes for years, to the benefit of high earners. So much for the “just society” that Canadians once imagined they were building.

While the United States is still saddled with the largest rich/poor gap among the advanced economies, “the gap in Canada has been rising at a faster rate,” warns Anne Golden, outgoing president of the Conference Board, the non-partisan research organization. That gap is hard to justify, and bad for social cohesion.

As Broadbent argues, “gross inequality isn’t inevitable, it’s a political choice.” One that has distorted the public agenda for too long.

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