National Column: Are Tories fighting a losing battle on taxes?

by Chantal Hebert

As promised, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer brought the battle against the Liberals’ fiscal reform plan to Parliament Hill this week.

With the prime minister present Monday, Scheer himself rose a dozen times to launch verbal volleys at the government. On the first day of the fall sitting of the House of Commons, the tax changes were the sole issue on the Conservative radar.

On Tuesday, every official Opposition question again dealt with the proposal to curtail some of the tax benefits enjoyed by individuals who set up private corporations. But in that instance, the Conservatives set their sights on the half-dozen ministers whose departments deal with constituencies that could be affected by the changes. Wednesday featured variations on the same theme.

To put the Conservative single-minded focus on tax reform in perspective, on the day in 2003 when then-prime minister Jean ChrÈtien declined to have Canada join the U.S.-led offensive on Iraq, the official Opposition did not devote its entire question period time to the issue.

As a rule, it takes more than a few weeks in any given sitting of the House of Commons for opposition attacks on the government to reach fever pitch. In this case that level has already been reached. The next few months promise to test the vocal chords of the Conservative caucus – and the nerves of everyone else.

But if Scheer’s hope was to fan the flames of discontent within Liberal ranks, the results are inconclusive. And if the plan was to ignite a public opinion firestorm against the government, it may be backfiring.

There is discomfort with Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s proposed plan on the government benches. A handful of MPs have gone public with their reservations.

But for all the Conservative prodding, there has so far been little evidence of the kind of cracks that once surfaced on the Conservative cabinet front line on policy matters such as – for instance – the wisdom of pursuing Stephen Harper’s election promise of extending income splitting to families with children or the need to put the future of the senate to a referendum.

Some of Harper’s most senior ministers, not his backbenchers, were the main protagonists in those public rifts.

Until the House opened this week, the Conservative narrative along with that of the many constituencies that oppose the Liberal plan dominated the air war. There were times when it seemed they owned the battlefield.

In spite of that, the polls done since the controversy erupted all concur: the Liberals are well ahead of the federal pack and enjoy a double-digit lead on the Conservatives. Worse from the Conservative perspective, there are more Canadians who profess to support Trudeau’s party than at the time of his election victory two years ago.

That begs the question of whether Scheer has engaged in a losing battle.

For, along with the return of Parliament, other voices are joining the government chorus.

Take Quebec, where the Conservatives will be testing their post-Harper strength in a byelection involving their Lac-St-Jean seat next month.

The Fonds de SolidaritÈ FTQ supports more than 2,000 small businesses in the province. It is one of Quebec’s biggest economic players. On Wednesday, its president, GaÈtan Morin, signed an open letter in support of Morneau’s fiscal reform. So did Alexandre Taillefer – one of Quebec’s rising entrepreneurial stars – and economist Jean-Martin Aussant. He is a former Parti QuÈbÈcois MNA who is often seen as former PQ premier Jacques Parizeau’s spiritual heir.

These are not Quebec names one usually associates with the federal Liberals. Ditto on the national scene in the case of the Broadbent Institute. The progressive think tank that many New Democrats see as an extension of their party is backing Morneau in this battle against the Conservatives.

It was Ed Broadbent in his days as federal leader of the NDP who cast the choice between his party and its two main rivals as one between Main Street and Bay Street. Then, as now, the former tended to be more crowded with voters than the latter.

So far, polls have found that most Canadians have been giving the fiscal reform debate a pass. That may change as more and more so-called influencers engage in the debate. Scheer may come to regret having captured their attention.

Copyright 2017 and distributed by Torstar Syndication Services

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