National Column: Two big issues to keep an eye on as Parliament returns next week

by Chantal Hebert

When it comes to two of the big policy battles that loom as the fall sitting of Parliament gets underway next week, prudence dictates that a journalist keeps his or her powder dry.

In the debate over the government’s proposed tax changes for people with private corporations, as in the case of the Liberal plan to legalize marijuana, what we have so far seen are just the opening manoeuvres in a tug-of-war, the outcome of which in the court of public opinion is far from decided.

Some observations on the twin issues:

Tax changes for people with private corporations: A lot of noise and fury is attending Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s proposed curtailing of the fiscal advantages available to the professionals who shelter their incomes in private corporations.

But, so far, the level of engagement of the vocal minority of taxpayers directly affected by the measures and of the opposition Conservatives is inversely proportional to that of the voting public.

If and when the so-called ordinary Canadians that both the government and its main opposition claim to champion do get engaged, it is not a given that they will not side with the Liberals.

Based only on the proportion of voters who have no access to the tax-saving measures that Morneau aims to curb or eliminate, an observer might surmise that it is the government that has the best hopes of bringing reinforcements to the fore in the battle for public opinion.

That’s why it may be best to take with a grain of salt the notion that the government tried and failed to bring about its reform by stealth, in the dead of the night or in this case in the dead of the summer.

If only by virtue of the 75-day consultation period Morneau undertook, not to mention the months involved in debating the legislation in both houses of Parliament, the issue was never going to be resolved before the House of Commons got its teeth into the plan. Time will tell whether the Conservatives jumped the gun by hurrying to deploy their heavy artillery against Morneau’s reforms. A government forewarned is one that is forearmed, and the Liberals have left themselves plenty of wiggle room.

Marijuana legalization: By comparison, the cannabis legalization front has been relatively quiet. But that hardly means peace has broken out in the marijuana trenches.

If anything, the government may be living more dangerously, as it strives to change the legal status of pot, than it does as it attempts to rein in the tax benefits of private corporations.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that voters are more attuned to the cannabis debate than to Morneau’s tax changes.

While polls have found a potentially supportive audience for the Liberal tax fairness rationale, Justin Trudeau’s contention that he wants to legalize marijuana to keep it out of the hands of minors has mostly been met with incredulity.

The risk here is not so much that a groundswell of opposition against the concept of legalization will sweep the country, but that its implementation turns out to be so chaotic as to reflect poorly on the competence and the good judgment of the government responsible for rolling out the policy.

On that score, think back to the favourable climate that attended the creation of a federal gun registry only to have the latter subsequently become a poster child for government waste and mismanagement.

Much as Trudeau’s government seeks to wash its hands of the messy details attending the creation of a dozen provincial and territorial markets for cannabis in time for next July, it remains a signature promise of the prime minister. And it is Trudeau who is setting the pace of the transition.

The opposition parties: It is early days, but it seems that the take-no-prisoners approach that was one of the less appealing features of the Conservatives in their recent government incarnation has survived the transition from Stephen Harper to Andrew Scheer. But only a party operating in an echo chamber would believe that the way to resonate with more voters is to deafen them with over-the-top partisan rhetoric.

As for the New Democrats, their leadership campaign has yet to help them carve a larger place in the Liberal-dominated federal universe. Once a new leader is in place, that task may have to wait until he or she sorts out the party’s relationship with its flighty Quebec supporters.

Copyright 2017 and distributed by Torstar Syndication Services

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