National Column: Liberals struggle to keep policies consistent

by Chantal Hebert

How many storms of its own making can Justin Trudeau’s government sustain before it takes a lasting hit in public opinion?

As they reach mid-mandate, the ruling Liberals are apparently determined to find out.

Over the past few weeks, the government has marched in disorderly fashion to some poorly planned policy battles.

If there was meant to be a consistent thread to its core messaging, it has been lost in the shuffle.

It sometimes seems like the right hand is unaware of what the left hand is doing. Or, in this instance, that the left hemisphere of the collective Liberal brain trust is disconnected from the right one.

Exhibit A: Finance Minister Bill Morneau has spent weeks defending his plan to make changes to the tax rules that govern private corporations and has endured much opposition grief over it. The issue has dominated the agenda since Parliament resumed sitting this fall.

The debate has played out against the backdrop of a furious small business backlash that the minister is still scrambling to appease.

Through it all, he and the prime minister have maintained that the proposed changes are inspired by the Liberal pursuit of tax fairness.

But that pursuit does not extend to Canada’s cultural industries.

Exhibit B: Heritage Minister MÈlanie Joly had promised to adjust Canada’s cultural policy to the new realities of a digital world. Last week, the main change she delivered was a sweet deal for Netflix.

Under the arrangement she negotiated, the American video streaming giant will be spared the fiscal and Canadian content obligations under which its domestic competitors operate in exchange for a commitment to invest $100 million a year in Canadian productions.

The arrangement has set off the first real Quebec backlash of Trudeau’s mandate. Under Joly’s deal, Netflix is under no obligation to set part of the agreed-upon $100 million aside to meet a minimal French-language production quota.

Moreover, Canada’s fledging French-language streaming platforms must collect the sales taxes from their subscribers and Netflix does not.

After her policy announcement, Joly set out on a whirlwind tour of Montreal’s media studios. She might as well have packed a shovel to dig herself in.

On Saturday, La Presse’s veteran columnist Alain Dubuc challenged the minister’s contention that all countries are struggling to find a way to tax companies like Netflix. The title of his column was “MÈlanie Joly’s alternative facts.”

“Joly bows to Netflix’s law,” was Le Devoir’s headline.

On Sunday, the minister’s appearance on Tout le monde en parle – Canada’s most-watched French language talk show – fell squarely in the cringeworthy category.

She was notably at a loss to reconcile the decision to put Netflix on a different, more favourable, fiscal footing than Canada’s industry players and her government’s tax-equity mantra.

Joly’s central talking point – in French as in English – has been that her government is committed to not increasing the tax burden of the middle class. There will not be a Netflix tax, she stated repeatedly.

But what goes for couch potatoes does not apply to potheads.

Exhibit C: Less than 24 hours after Joly appeared on TLMEP, the prime minister told his provincial counterparts of his intention to introduce a 10 per cent cannabis tax. (The tax would initially be $1 per gram on every purchase under $10). Proceeds would be shared on a 50/50 basis with provinces.

Predictably, Canada’s first ministers – soon to be joined by some big city mayors – are ready to spend the next few months haggling over their respective share of the federal tax.

Somewhat lost in this debate is the purported central objective of running the cannabis black market out of business by running a competitive legal one. That will be hard to do if the price of legal weed is inflated by a variety of government taxes.

To look at polls these days is to get a confusing picture of where the federal parties stand in voting intentions. Over the same two-week period, some have reported a healthy Liberal lead where others have found none.

But if consistency in messaging and policy matters to voters, the polling picture is bound to become clearer, if not necessarily nicer, for the Liberals.

Copyright 2017 and distributed by Torstar Syndication Services

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