Mr. Speaker, I rise this morning to speak on this NDP motion on income inequality and income splitting.
This is a two-part motion. The first part is a statement that acknowledges the harmful effect of the increase in inequality on Canadian society and tries to assign blame solely to the Conservative and Liberal governments. The second part is a condemnation of the Conservatives' election promise on income splitting.
I would like to address these two parts in order.
First, in terms of income inequality, I agree with my colleagues in the NDP that rising income inequality is a crucial issue for Canadian families. I also agree that it is harmful to our society and that as members of Parliament, we ought to address it. That is why two years ago, I moved a private member's motion directing the House of Commons finance committee to conduct an in-depth study of income inequality. In the wording of that motion and in my speeches in this place I avoided partisanship and as such obtained support from members of Parliament from all political parties, including sufficient support from Conservative members to actually pass that motion.
The purpose of that study was to identify solutions and to put Parliament on a path of progress toward greater equality of opportunity in Canada. At the time, I asked that all members of the House put partisanship aside and work together on this issue, and we were successful in having the finance committee conduct a study. In the end, the finance committee spent just a small fraction of its time on income inequality compared to its other studies. Despite that, the committee's report to the House identified a number of credible solutions that would improve equality of opportunity for Canadians across the country. It included solutions such as increasing the availability of affordable early child education and care programs, a recommendation that was supported by a variety of witnesses, including the Canadian Medical Association, Canada 2020, TD Economics, and the Canadian Council on Social Development.
The report also showed the extent of the problem. It showed that income inequality and equality of opportunity have worsened in Canada over the last generation. The fact is that they have deteriorated under the federal and provincial governments of all parties.
Let us be clear that federal and provincial governments have a shared responsibility for social investment and tax policy and have a responsibility to create conditions for social equity and economic growth and opportunity. This shared responsibility includes all governments, federally and provincially, including NDP governments, although the motion specifically chooses to say “Liberal and Conservative governments” without acknowledging that in fact this is not a partisan issue.
If we are going to deal with this issue effectively, we need to accept that income inequality has grown in Canada, just as it has grown in most of the industrialized world. There are a number of reasons, but some countries are doing a better job than others in maintaining equality of income and equality of opportunity, and those best practices and ideas are what we should be looking at. If we look at Canada's record of rising income inequality, we see that our colleagues in the NDP have taken a selective view of the facts. I encourage them to avoid this temptation, because if we look at the evidence available to us, we get a different perspective.
We can look at Canada's provincial Gini coefficients. StatsCan tracks the annual Gini coefficients for every province back to 1976. Members of the House will already know that the Gini coefficient is the most common way to measure income inequality, with zero representing a completely equal society in which everyone receives the same income and one representing a society in which all the income would go to one person or family.
When the New Democrats look at these Gini coefficients, they want to focus on total after-tax income. This measurement looks at the inequality that remains after governments have redistributed income through taxes and transfers. The drafters of today's motion and anyone else who wants to follow along at home can find provincial Gini coefficients for total after-tax income on the StatsCan website in CANSIM Table 202-07051.
The data show us that when the NDP was most recently in government in B.C., from 1991 to 2001, income inequality among B.C. families went up by more than 15%. That is a drastic increase, to borrow a phrase from today's motion. That is after taxes and transfers are factored in.
For individuals living in B.C., the Gini coefficient went up by more than 12%. That is a drastic increase. Ten years of NDP rule left B.C. with the highest rate of income inequality of any province in Canada. That is despite the fact that the NDP inherited the fourth-lowest rate of income inequality when it took office in B.C. Today B.C.'s Gini coefficient sits slightly lower than it did when the NDP left office. Thankfully, I guess, if we were in the blaming business, which I do not think we ought to be, the current Liberal government has been able to undo some of that damage when it comes to income inequality.
The NDP record on income inequality is not much better in Saskatchewan. After 16 years of NDP rule, the Gini coefficient for Saskatchewan households climbed by more than 8%, which is another drastic increase. Even in Manitoba, the most recent data show that income inequality for households is up by 2.5% since the NDP have taken office.
I am only using these examples to point out that the NDP ought not try to make this a partisan issue, because by doing so we distract this House from dealing with the issue itself. The NDP has intentionally tried to prevent a consensus in this House on the issue of income inequality by playing politics and partisanship with us.
The Conservatives would say that income inequality is not an issue. They are wrong. The NDP will try to make it an issue of class warfare and try to divide it along party lines. I think that is also wrong if we are serious about the issue. The issues of rising income inequality and inequality of opportunity are too important and the consequences of inaction too dire for us to be engaged purely in partisan bickering. Canadians will be better off if we work together to understand how we can reduce income inequality and strengthen equality of opportunity. Therefore, I encourage all members of this House to accept the record of their respective parties and let us focus on the future and develop the best public policy responses to this important issue. We need to move on together and work on solutions that can strengthen equality of opportunity.
We also need to address what is probably the worst example of inequality in our country, aboriginal and first nations Canadians. There is a demographic, social, and economic time bomb represented by, among other things, the fact that 400,000 young aboriginal and first nations members will be entering the workforce in the next 10 years. If they have the skills they need to compete and succeed, it would be a good thing for our economy. If they do not, which is the case with many, it will be of dire consequences to our economy and our society. We need to close the first nations and aboriginal non-first nations education system funding gap. That is something we ought to all agree on across party lines.
These are important issues, and the cost of inaction is significantly high. We have heard from the Conference Board of Canada and from the former dean of the Rotman School of Management, Roger Martin. We have heard from the former governor of the Bank of Canada, now Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney. All have said that those who say income inequality is not an issue are wrong and that those who want to make it an issue of class warfare are wrong.
We have to focus on equality of opportunity. They have all warned us that rising income inequality and inequality of opportunity will limit economic growth and prosperity and that rising inequality will tear at our social fabric. It causes future generations to lose hope, and it is notable that for the first time a majority of Canadians now believe that today's generation will be worse off than their parents. Rising inequality weakens the public trust in our institutions. As parliamentarians, we must be careful and avoid policies that would lessen equality of opportunity or deepen inequality.
Inequality can rise when governments lose sight of how their policies affect equality of opportunity. For example, the proliferation of non-refundable tax credits is contributing to greater inequality. These tax credits exclude low-income Canadians from any benefit. Another example of a measure that will increase income inequality is the Conservatives' income-splitting scheme, which is, of course, the subject of the second part of today's motion.
In the last general election, the Conservatives vowed to bring in income splitting as soon as the budget was balanced. It was a cornerstone of their 2011 election platform. Some estimate its cost at $3 billion per year, and I have heard potentially $5 billion. It is clearly the Conservatives' biggest election promise so far.
During the election, the Prime Minister said that once the budget is balanced, income splitting “...should be one of our highest priorities”. According to the fine print, couples with children under 18 would be allowed to split up to $50,000 of income each year for tax purposes. However, since the election, both the C.D. Howe Institute and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives have published thorough reports showing massive flaws in the Conservatives' plan. They have shown how the Conservatives' promise to bring in income splitting would disproportionately benefit high-income earners at the expense of the middle class and low-income earners. The C.D. Howe Institute has called the Conservatives' income splitting a flawed idea that excludes 85% of Canadian households from any benefit whatsoever.
However, it is not that these low- and middle-income Canadians would be just completely left out of the deal; worse than that, they would end up having to pick up the tab through reductions in social investments that could benefit them, and ultimately they would pay higher taxes in other ways. In the words of the C.D. Howe Institute report, the Conservatives' promise:
...would offer no tax reduction for the great majority of Canadian households, while the government revenue loss would lead to either a curtailment of public services or an increase in their tax burden to make up the shortfall.
In other words, most Canadians will pay for this expensive Conservative tax cut through higher taxes or reduced services or both.
Let us look at some examples of how a family might or might not benefit under the Conservative scheme.
In the Conservatives' budget, they like to give examples of how a family might be impacted by their plan. They even give these family members names. In fact, if we flip to page 190 of the latest budget, we will see that Blake earns $48,000 and Laurie earns $72,000. Blake and Laurie and their two children represent the Conservatives' idea of an average middle-class family. In fact, they are on the higher end of the average, and the Conservative's claim about their savings from previous budgets are a bit skewed.
However, even in the Conservatives' idyllic vision of the middle-class family, Blake and Laurie would not get a penny from the Conservatives' expensive promise to bring in income splitting. Even the fictitious family that the Conservatives cite in their budget would not benefit from income splitting.
If Blake and Laurie would not get anything under the Conservatives' scheme, and the scheme costs $3 billion per year or more, then who would benefit?
Well, under this scheme, the Prime Minister, who earns $320,000 per year and has a stay-at-home spouse, would actually save $6,500 per year. Meanwhile, a Canadian who has a stay-at-home spouse and who earns the average industrial wage would save less than $10 per week. Most households would get absolutely nothing, including households run by a single parent, a person who is struggling to make ends meet, who has no one else to rely on, and who cannot access good-quality child care and early learning.
Former finance minister Jim Flaherty understood the shortcomings of this plan when he said in February that income splitting needed a long, hard analytical look to see who it affects and to what degree, because he was not sure that overall it would benefit our society.
Shortly after Mr. Flaherty made this statement, The Globe and Mail agreed. It published an editorial against the idea, saying:
But Mr. Flaherty is right. Income-splitting needs to be reconsidered, or abandoned in favour of a better use for the federal surpluses that should begin to appear next year. If the government wants to cut taxes, this isn't the way to do it.
The Tory proposal was ill-considered from the start.
With their income splitting scheme, the Conservatives made a major campaign promise that just was not thought through at the time. Today, with the resources of government and the Department of Finance, the whole government approach, and the capacity of government to research the best practice approaches from around the world and develop sound policy, there is no excuse for the Conservatives not to step back from this and develop a better way to reform our tax system to render it more progressive. We are not in the heat of an election right now.
We have not had a significant study of our personal tax system since 1971 with the Carter commission. Everything has changed in the decades that have ensued in terms of both the global economy and the Canadian economy. Surely there is room for a thorough study of our tax system so as to create a tax system that is fairer, more progressive, and potentially even more globally competitive.
We can look at some examples. Germany has a robust economy, but at the same time, it does not have the same levels of income inequality that we have seen grow in Canada. What is it doing in terms of apprenticeship? What is it doing in terms of skilled trades? What is it doing in its tax system that we could learn from?
The Nordic countries are other examples. Scandinavian countries are sound economic models. They have good growth, and even competitive corporate tax rates in many cases. They also make good investments in progressive social policy, like early learning and child care, as examples.
The Liberal Party is open to supporting tax changes that would benefit middle income Canadians. We introduced the working income tax benefit in the last mini-budget in the autumn of 2005 when the member for Wascana was finance minister. That was an example of progressive social policy that helps people get over the welfare wall.
The child tax benefit was introduced by a Liberal government but continued and expanded under the Conservative government. It is another example of a progressive tax policy that has benefited a lot of Canadian families.
Compare those with the non-refundable tax credits that I mentioned earlier that do not benefit low income Canadians and do not change people's behaviour. If high income earners have children in hockey, they are going to benefit, but even if they do not receive it, their children would still be in hockey.
We ought to be thinking about the low income families for whom a direct benefit might make the difference toward their children being in an activity that could change their lives and improve not just their childhood but put them on track to a productive and healthy life. These are the people we ought to be most concerned about, because they are falling through the cracks, and that comes at a huge social and economic cost, not just to those families but to all of us.
We cannot support an income splitting scheme that would help high income earners and shift the burden to the already struggling middle class and low income families who are having trouble making ends meet. We cannot support a tax cut that would so clearly lead to greater income inequality and inequality of opportunity.
This brings me to the motion before the House today.
We agree that increasing income inequality and a growing inequality of opportunity is harmful to Canadian society. We agree that the Conservatives' income splitting scheme excludes the vast majority of Canadians from any benefit whatsoever and that it could lead to greater income inequality.
Finally, the fact is that Canada has seen a drastic increase in income inequality under federal and provincial governments of all stripes. This debate ought not be simply about assigning blame but instead be about recognizing the problem and working together across party lines to find solutions. Therefore, the Liberal Party supports the motion.