Name-dropping in the name of fiscal responsibility

Anne Kingston on the many fictional characters in the 2015 federal budget
Justin Tang/CP
Stephen Harper and Joe Oliver. (Justin Tang/CP)

It’s easy to ignore the fictional examples peppered through the 2015 budget—characters summoned from the starched imaginations of Department of Finance bureaucrats to offer feel-good illustrations of how various initiatives will benefit those “hard-working Canadians” politicians like to talk about, as if no other kind exists. But given that the “Action Plan” exists as a 518-page election platform, these fictional characters have been as carefully constructed as Hagar Shipley, if far less artfully drawn, for maximum electoral resonance.

As a fictional tableaux, this enterprise transports us back to the fabricated white-bread universe of Leave to Beaver: a heteronormative place in which men provide support, soldiering and are enrolled in universities; women do the caretaking and are studying to be dental hygienists. On page six, we meet “Henry and Cathy,” a couple with a combined annual income of $120,000 who have two school-aged daughters apparently named after beloved princesses of the 1950s: “Grace and Elizabeth.” One brings home $84K, the other $36K. Henry, of course, is the primary breadwinner, which reflects the norm: studies show male-female income inequity persist; a recent OECD study shows 80 per cent of women earn far less than their male partners, despite exceeding them in educational attainment. But the “Action Plan” also ignores the growing trend of wives outearning their husbands, a reality Stephen Harper was personally familiar with before his entry to politics.

Henry and Cathy benefited from Conservative government policy since 2006, readers learn: they’re $6,640 richer from tax relief and benefits. Less than $2,000 of this windfall stems from contentious and misunderstood income-splitting; if the Conservatives wanted to fully exploit the benefits, they would have chosen a family in which one spouse takes home $180,000, the other with no income. Of course, that’s less relatable to the median two-income, four-person family who actually take home less than “Henry and Cathy.” Still, it’s difficult not to wonder about Cathy, with her supremely non-threatening name, and her $36K. Is she working full-time at minimum wage, taking on overtime? Or is she working part-time from home, after she and Henry realized it didn’t make financial sense for her to keep her job given lack of national daycare in the country? Or is she simply a political place-setter for a good, caring middle-class mom, like the imaginary “Nathalie” about whom Justin Trudeau mused during his keynote speech at the 2014 Liberal convention?

On page 241, we meet another “Elizabeth” (suggesting a stunning lack of imagination in Finance or a zealous monarchist at work). All we know of this Elizabeth is that she earns $49,500 a year, is eligible for Employment Insurance, and has a terminally ill mother who likely will die in the next six months. One ray of light in Elizabeth’s bleak life is the new “EI extended compassionate care benefits,” which makes her eligible for six months’ coverage versus the former six weeks’: that adds up to over $10,000 so she can “care for her terminally ill mother when she needs it most.” It’s hard not to worry for Elizabeth. Is she married? Is she a single parent supporting kids? Does she have siblings? Are they helping out? And why is it always the woman who tends to ailing parents?

Students and soldiers that make the cut reflect similar gender demarcation. “Tara” is in a one-year dental assistant program at an unnamed school in B.C. She lives with parents who bring in under $43,000 annually; she now can can deduct an extra $1,000 for schooling. Men are the ones enrolled in universities: “Marc,” introduced on page 157, is in a four-year bachelor program at McMaster University. (Could he be pre-med? We’re left dangling.) He’ll see an extra $1,000 a year from the “Enhancing student loans” initiatives and the resources his family will have to contribute will be lowered. We also meet “Charlie,” who’s in his first year university; he’ll benefit from the longer “cooling-off period” that gives people more time to figure out the financial product they’ve just signed up for is ripping them off. Men are also the only ones benefiting from “Retirement income security benefit” for the military: there’s “Greg,” a former part-time reservist, and yet another “Marc” (someone in Finance needs to buy a baby-name book for diversity), this one severely injured after one year of military service.

Many of the fictional people in this budget are renovating, that great middle-class distraction. In this case, though, they’re modifying their houses to accommodate aging or disability. Seniors Hélène and her husband, François, who are worried about falling, install a walk-in bathtub, a grab bar and non-slip flooring for $12,500, which seems reasonable, provided the contractor was honest and they sourced from Home Depot. Hélène claims the $10,000 maximum under the new “home accessibility tax credit,” and gets $1,500 back—which means they shelled out $11K, a sizable amount for anyone subsiding on old-age assistance. Then there are brothers “Gary and Steve.” “Steve” supports “Gary,” who has relied on a wheelchair since childhood. Yet somehow “Gary” is able to own his own house, and buys a new house so he can live closer to “Steve.” He’s also able to install a wheelchair ramp, widen the doorways and put in a wheel-in shower for $9,500. Steve deducts the cost of the renovations, and gets back $1,425 from Revenue Canada. How “Gary” finagled all of that work for under $10K given the onerous costs involved in accommodating disability is unexplained. But that’s the great thing about fiction; unlike a budget, it doesn’t have to add up.