National Column: Liberals give middle class cold shoulder

by Paul Wells

Wednesday’s budget will be about the middle class and innovation. Maybe it’ll even be helpful! That would be nice. Unfortunately, the Trudeau government’s handling of both files so far has left them in something close to a shambles.

I wrote here, somewhat quizzical, after Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos gave a presentation to reporters about “The State of the Middle Class.” In retrospect, I was probably too kind.

When a tenured academic turned senior cabinet minister delivers a presentation on the middle class that (a) never defines the term “middle class”; (b) never depicts the effects of the government’s actions to date on the plight of the middle class, however you want to define it; (c) offers no hint about future efforts to help the middle class – well, that’s a fiasco.

The Liberals used to promise that Canadians would be able to track their own progress, using large numbers of publicly available indicators, on marvellous websites that would be part of a governing philosophy called “deliverology.” That philosophy is, by all the evidence, deader than electoral reform.

These days, we get Duclos telling us how polls say we feel.

But let no one criticize any Liberal emphasis on feelings. Bloomberg put the question to Bill Morneau, the finance minister, this week, and he was staunch in defending a politics of mood.

“We look at what’s gone on around the world” (translator’s note: this is every western politician’s preferred euphemism for the election of Donald Trump). “Is there anybody who questions that we should be focused on how people feel?” Morneau asked. “What are the outcomes if we don’t? So I think we’re going to stay on that message.”

OK then. I feel worried when I read Duclos’s former colleague, the UniversitÈ Laval economist Stephen Gordon, pointing out in the National Post what the NDP has been saying all along: that few Liberal measures for the middle class have done much for the middle class. Take what Justin Trudeau likes to call his “middle-class tax cut.” Says Gordon: “The tax cut for the median tax filer – someone reporting total income somewhere around $45,000 – is either negligible or non-existent.” But if you make triple that income, you get the maximum tax benefit. This is policy for people in the Rideau Club and those working hard to join it.

I feel suspicious when I start to think the problem of definition and the problem of policy targeting are closely linked: that if nobody will tell me what the middle class is, nobody will have to tell me I’m right when I say tax policy doesn’t touch it. And then I start to feel the way I feel when a reader tells me I’m “cynical.” I don’t feel cynical; I feel hopeful that things will change, and disappointed when they don’t.

I feel like maybe we should move on to innovation. This government is the first with a minister for innovation! He’s Navdeep Bains. He frequently posts photos of his meetings on Twitter, with the hashtag #innovation. That’s how you know there is innovation going on.

A year and a half after he became the minister for #innovation, it’s not clear what Bains’s plans are. It’s pretty clear that within the government, he has less than complete control over #innovation. There’s an advisory council on economic growth, chaired by the McKinsey guru Dominic Barton, which periodically reports to the government urging more #innovation.

There’s a science advisory panel, chaired by former University of Toronto president David Naylor, that delivered a report to Science Minister Kirsty Duncan more than three months ago. That report has vanished. One presumes that’s because it offered some advice.

Whatever Bains proposes, it will have company. Kevin Page, the former parliamentary budget officer who now runs a policy shop at the University of Ottawa, found that there are already 147 programs and tax credits, worth a combined

$22.6 billion, designed to spur #innovation. That’s right now. Today. Already. The accumulated detritus of every former government. I have covered four new #innovation policy papers from previous governments since 2000.

In his budget, Morneau will probably reveal new details of

$800 million that was set aside a year ago to spur the creation of “clusters” in Canada’s regions to support new technologies.

One thing to note about $800 million is that it is much smaller than $22.6 billion: that, in other words, new effort cannot make a huge difference compared to the stratified layers of the fossilized remains of previous efforts, lying unexamined at the bottom of the policy ocean. I have feelings about all of this, too. It’s a big time for feelings in Ottawa.

Paul Wells is a national affairs writer. His column appears Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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