Jim Flaherty will not go quietly

The sketch: Let a thousand income splitting white papers bloom

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

So however much longer he is Finance Minister and however often he Finance Minister stands in Question Period, Jim Flaherty will not go quietly.

It was this morning that Jim Flaherty opined openly that the idea of allowing for the splitting of incomes between spouses for the purposes of paying income tax was in need of a “a long, hard analytical look … to see who it affects in this society and to what degree.” He confessed that he was “not sure that overall it benefits our society.” This much just a few days after he told a television camera that “I think in the next year it will be healthy for Canada to have a fulsome discussion about that issue.”

Let us allow here that there is nothing particularly unreasonable in any of that. Whatever the merits (or lack thereof) of the policy proposal in question, analysis and discussion are basically good things and the implementation of public policy should surely be preceded by such stuff. Let a thousand white papers bloom and may God bless us with a few economists to run the numbers.

All of which is only complicated in this particular case by the fact that three years ago Stephen Harper announced income-splitting as being among the priorities of a re-elected Conservative government, that the policy was said to “make the income tax system fairer,” that the Family Tax Cut™ was thus booked in the Conservative party platform at a cost of $2.5 billion in fiscal year 2015-2016 (just about half of the surplus the Conservatives then projected for that year), and that Jim Flaherty is the Finance Minister in the re-elected Conservative government that has Stephen Harper as its leader.

Thus was the peanut gallery excited and intrigued. And thus did Question Period begin with the inevitable attempt to exploit this distinction between Mr. Harper then and Mr. Flaherty now.

“Mr. Speaker, there were some interesting criticisms this morning from the finance minister about the Prime Minister’s plan for income splitting,” Thomas Mulcair helpfully reported for those just tuning in. “Does the Prime Minister agree with his finance minister that the Conservative plan is of no help to the vast majority of Canadian families?”

The Prime Minister first sought comfort in a different policy.

“Mr. Speaker, this is the finance minister and this is the government, against the wishes of opposition members, that brought in income splitting for our senior citizens, something from which they benefit every day and every year,” he reminded everyone.

The Conservatives applauded themselves.

“This government, in the last election, made a commitment that when we balance the budget … one of the highest priorities of this government will be tax reduction for Canadian families,” he vaguely recalled. “I know that their plans would be tax hikes on Canadian families, but we believe in this party we should cut taxes for Canadian families.”

In his seat, Mr. Flaherty nodded.

There was not actually an answer to the question here, but Mr. Mulcair moved on nonetheless.

Mr. Harper would take five questions from Mr. Mulcair, then three from Justin Trudeau and then four more from Mr. Mulcair.

It was then that NDP finance critic Peggy Nash stood and seemed to put a question that might’ve gone to the finance minister, but it was Mr. Harper who stood. A second question from Ms. Nash and again Mr. Harper was up. Mr. Harper would take another New Democrat’s question, then three that might’ve gone to the Defence Minister, then three from the Liberals on the budget. After 20 questions, he finally deferred, leaving Jason Kenney to handle a query about skills development and federal-provincial relations.

It was lovely to hear so much from the Prime Minister and he seemed to be enjoying himself and possibly this was nothing more than a curious or coincidental approach to Question Period (there was this misplay in the fall), but thus was the peanut gallery rife with speculation.

The Finance Minister would eventually stand to handle a question from Liberal Judy Sgro about transfer payments to Ontario, only managing a joke about having not heard Mike Harris’ name in awhile before the Speaker decided his time was up, and later still, the Liberals would send up John McCallum to directly challenge the Finance Minister.

“Mr. Speaker, the Minister of Finance has answered only one question on the budget, and he barely answered that,” Mr. McCallum complained. “I wonder if he would mind standing in his place and explaining to the House what his position is on income splitting?”

Mr. Flaherty stood here and the opposition benches mocked—”Ohh!” they cried—and the Conservatives responded with a standing ovation (of which, for the record, Mr. Harper participated).

“Mr. Speaker, I can assure the honourable member for Markham—Unionville that I am standing in my place,” Mr. Flaherty reported.

The House was now quiet as the Finance Minister proceeded.

“The budget is not balanced yet, as he may have noted yesterday. We hope and we expect that it will be balanced next year,” he explained. “We remain committed to tax relief for Canadian families.”

After Question Period, for the record, Mr. Harper and Mr. Flaherty would appear to share a friendly exchange (possibly even a chuckle), still in their seats for a moment while the House moved on to other business.

A short while after, Mr. Flaherty passed through the foyer, at least long enough to get to the stairs and thus just long enough to be caught by the loitering hordes. He reported to reporters what he had just said in the House and then he turned and slowly shuffled up the stairs as reporters shouted questions after him. He seemed to smile as he turned to go up the second flight.

Whatever the future in particular holds for the minister and the policy, perhaps we can hope the future generally includes more hard, analytical looks and fulsome discussions.

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