Question Period Live

Which fictional middle-class family is most like you?

Preeti and Jessie? Henry and Cathy? Michelle and John? Governments everywhere love to play make-believe

It’s totally possible that a mainstream politician, during an election debate in a school auditorium somewhere in Canada, will spend much of their time talking about the never-ending daily grind that defines the lives of their poorest would-be constituents. It’s possible. But if we assume question period exemplifies typical election rhetoric, odds are the poorest among us will at best see themselves reflected in an onslaught of campaign pamphlets as sidekicks to the middle class, aspiring to live the dream.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau wasn’t in the House of Commons this afternoon, but deputy leader Ralph Goodale gladly took up Trudeau’s cause. Goodale unfurled his best sales job on the boss’s brand new tax plan. “It’s clearly possible and desirable to have one comprehensive, and better, Canada Child Benefit,” he said, reading the prospective handout’s name into Hansard.

“One that is more fair and more generous than that which exists today. One that supplies a bigger, rock-solid monthly cheque absolutely tax-free to all middle-class families and all those working so hard just to get there.” There’s that nod to the working class, meant as a tip of the hat. Goodale continued. “But this government is preoccupied with benefits to high-wealth households, which means those in the middle, and at low-income levels, get shortchanged. Why not fix that? Why not be fair?”

Goodale wasn’t ignoring those low-income households, but they’re almost never mentioned on their own. Pierre Poilievre, the jobs minister who’s always looking for a fight in the House of Commons, responded that Trudeau hopes to raise taxes on the middle class (a contentious claim that others with greater expertise will doubtless parse at

“Mr. Speaker, he would replace our Family Tax Cut with a Liberal Family Tax Hike, including on low- and middle-income households,” said Poilievre, nodding once again to poor folks before rehashing his party’s nine-year-old love affair with a one-time Liberal’s gaffe about parents’ propensity to spend a government cheque on beer and popcorn.

No one can say Poilievre, in the middle of his thrashing of Liberal tax policy both past and present, didn’t name-check low incomes.

Later, NDP MP Peggy Nash warned of growing income inequality in Canada, and the attendant growing waiting lists for affordable housing in Toronto that have followed. It’s plainly clear that Nash’s question concerned low-income families. Curiously, she never used that phrasing—instead referring to people “working harder and falling further behind,” and “in need” of a helping hand.

Candice Bergen, the minister of state for social development, quibbled with Nash’s numbers and defended Tory tax cuts. She also reminded the House which class was at top of mind. “We’re making life more affordable for middle-class Canadians so that they can afford the rent and housing in the regions that they live in,” she said, before adding, vaguely, a line about her government’s “supports for families who are vulnerable.” How many members of those waiting lists are properly somewhere in the middle class? Will the middle class soon encompass every Canadian who’s not obviously wealthy?

Brian Gregg is frustrated by politicians who are inattentive to low-income voters’ concerns. Gregg, the spokesman for the fledgling Alberta-based advocacy group Poor Vote Turnout, admitted that Alberta’s political leaders aren’t listening to his message. He’s all but given up attracting their attention during the ongoing campaign. (He’s now campaigning for a local NDP candidate, David Shepherd. Gregg is also the man who convinced Angie Klein, son of former premier Ralph, to endorse the New Democrats. Her endorsement video is among the more eccentric of YouTube’s latest offerings.)

Gregg is a jack of all trades who Edmontonians might recognize as the busker in the silver lamé jacket they’ve seen around town. He wants governments to offer every voter a $100 cash incentive to cast a ballot. He knows that won’t happen any time soon. “Politicians know that poor people don’t vote,” he says. “It’s not worth their while to use scarce resources to work for the poor.”

Average attendance at Poor Vote Turnout meetings settles at 10 or 15, says Gregg. His is not a popular cause. But, of course, anything can change under the right circumstances. The least-rich might find a saviour knocking on their door. Right about when everyone else owns a solid gold house and a rocket car.

The context

Meet Preeti and Jessie, Michelle and John, Darrell and Robert, Julie and Andrew, and Anna. These are the fictional faces of Justin Trudeau’s plan to save the child-rearing middle class from those wealthy capitalists who grin widely whenever Stephen Harper cooks up a scheme to make them even wealthier. Trudeau’s plan for fairness, announced today, is the Liberal alternative to the tax cuts splashed all over Finance Minister Joe Oliver’s election budget. Liberals say those measures are breaks for the wealthy. Tories say every family with kids benefits from their master plan. If you count yourself as a member of the middle class, get used to that burning in your ears; everyone wants your vote.

Preeti and Jessie, the poster-parents of the Liberal plan, earn $90,000. They’re raising a balloon-carrying daughter under six and a growing boy who’s older than his sister, but not yet 18. The family might be neighbours of Henry and Cathy, the parents of Grace and Elizabeth we learned about in Budget 2015. Henry and Cathy earn $120,000, which is actually nearer the combined income of Michelle and John, two other parents in the Liberal universe whose flock includes a school-aged son and daughter. These proud families just need a bit more help, says Trudeau, so they can “help build Canada.”

Liberals also want to cut income taxes. Guess who benefits? “We’re going to give a tax break to middle class Canadians by asking the wealthiest Canadians to give a little more,” goes the plan. Liberals would lop 1.5 points off the tax bill of Canadians earning between $44,701 and $89,401. That’s a seven per cent cut, from 22 per cent to 20.5 per cent. Meanwhile, anyone earning more than $200,000 would pay a higher rate, at 33 per cent.

So goes the tug of war between the middle class and the wealthiest class. Listen closely in question period for any mention of low-income Canadians. The Liberals earn bonus points if they raise the plight of the fictional Anna, a single parent who’s raising a young child on only $30,000 a year. Anna isn’t part of the middle class. She’s in the Liberal plan. But she’ll almost never find the spotlight.

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