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Michael Laxer lives in Toronto where he runs a bookstore with his partner Natalie. Michael has a Degree in History from Glendon College of York University. He is a political activist, a two-time former candidate and former election organizer for the NDP, was a socialist candidate for Toronto City Council in 2010 and is on the executive of the newly formed Socialist Party of Ontario.

The perils of populism: Andrea Horwath, taxes, road tolls and the 'war on the car'

| March 22, 2013

History is ripe with irony, though the irony is generally lost on those in the midst of it.

Today we have the irony of an Ontario New Democratic Party (ONDP) running on a "pocketbook"-driven right-wing populist platform that is antithetical to the founding principles of their own movement, and doing so with seemingly no sense that they are, in reality, engaging in the final sacrifice of these principles on the alter of the moral false god of power.

Recently, in the Toronto Star, Trish Hennessy and Hugh Mackenzie argued very persuasively that austerity, the lack of economic growth, and tax cuts are inextricably linked (as I have previously, among others, argued on the pages of rabble)  and they outlined a list of entirely responsible changes to taxation policy that, sadly, absolutely no one at Queen's Park is remotely interested in implementing.

In the present context of neo-liberal austerity and ideological consolidation, and this is very specific to this context, there is not a single case or situation in which advocating for tax cuts is "progressive" let alone left-wing. In fact, in the present context, any calls for tax cuts are inherently reactionary and enabling of the forces, like the Hudak led Ontario Tories, who have been successful in making Canadians believe that the very notion taxation is burdensome and somehow damaging to a "middle-class" lifestyle. 

All tax cuts, including cuts to consumption taxes, benefit the austerity agenda and aid in perpetuating the growth of our culture of extreme inequality. This is due to the fact that taxes, socially speaking, are redistributive in the present context by definition.  The "bottom" 50 per cent (if not more) of income earners will always get far more out of increased or maintained taxes (in terms of services, health care, social security, etc,) than they put in.

Hudak has outlined a plan of tax and service cuts that, if implemented, are nothing short of an attack on the very foundations of the Ontario economy and that would guarantee a U.K.-style economic collapse.

The Liberals, being Liberals, have coasted through their years of power by being Mike Harris with a human face; cutting taxes and, until 2008, evading the consequences of it due to the fortuitous situation of a global economy firing on all cylinders.

New to the game is the ONDP, who have only recently become certified tax fighters, and so-called "consumer activists" on the backs of the environment as well as the actually poor and "working poor". As the ONDP (and the NDP in general) is fixated on the notion of power, they have embraced the underpinning of a consumerist culture with a zeal that is, even now, rather surprising.

They have adopted the Ralph Nader like "consumer protectionist" values of American "progressives" in the era just prior to the rise of neo-liberal forces and replaced formerly held notions, however vague, of class with a non-ideological version of them. 

Thus they eschew, when it matters, (such as when holding the balance of power as they have since the last election) issues such as welfare (which they allowed to be cut, in real terms, in the last Ontario budget) or programs related to poverty and instead emphasize making life more "affordable" for the middle-class; a class that is seemingly very large given that the ONDP has only advocated raising personal taxes on the top third of Ontario's "1 per cent"... those making over $500,000 a year!

Beyond the silliness of centring a supposedly leftist or progressive agenda around policies such as "rewarding job creators" (namely small business, the worst employers in the economy) through tax cuts (which is what the ONDP is proposing for incorporated "small businesses"), one has to begin to question the zeal with which the ONDP embraces that retrograde symbol of '50s Americana: the car.

Horwath's unwillingness to discomfort the "middle class" at all in the aim of changing personal behaviour  to aid obvious budgetary and environmental goals has already been demonstrated by the entirely wrong-headed, pseudo-populist campaign the ONDP has led against the HST on home heating. 

The campaign is driven by a desperation to appeal to middle-class and upper middle-class home owning consumerists. Most tenants, for example, do not actually pay for home heating. So they already pay no HST. Much worse, the HST cuts would apply to everyone, including Bridal Path mansion owners. Apparently Conrad Black needs a home heating tax cut. If helping low-income citizens, as opposed to attempting to appeal to the upper middle class, was the actual goal, the ONDP could offer rebates capped at a certain amount per year of home heating consumption (say $500-1000)... thereby excluding rich people, the upper middle class and those indulging in unnecessary gas consumption. They are not doing this.

Given the very pressing need to see middle and upper income citizens alter their consumption patterns, an across the board HST cut on home heating is outright reactionary.

The ONDP is on the wrong side here. David Suzuki was right about that.

Even worse, Horwath and her caucus are almost Rob Ford like in their enthusiasm to end the "war on the car."

Thus we find Horwath virtually completely rejecting a recent proposal by the Toronto Region Board of Trade (TRBOT) to raise revenues to fund transit and road infrastructure by implementing a variety of new taxes, including:

-  A regional sales tax.

-  A $1 a day parking space levy.

-  A 10 cents per litre regional fuel tax.

-  High-occupancy toll lanes in which drivers of single occupancy vehicles would pay 30 cents a kilometre.

She does so by stating "I've said all along that the solutions have to be found, but when the solutions are simply putting the burden of the costs on families who are already struggling, I'm concerned." She then claims that none of this should even be discussed until the government has closed a variety of unspecified "corporate tax loopholes" that she implies would allow for the funding, a claim that is as manifestly and easily proven to be false as were Ford's claims of being able to fund his platform by ending the "gravy train". While the loopholes should be closed, given all the things that need to be covered in the Ontario budget, these loopholes amount to a minuscule addition to the revenue stream. Any revenue generated by them would also unquestionably be more than lost through the implementation of the tax cuts the ONDP advocates.

Her position is even more astounding given that investment in transit infrastructure will directly benefit those Ontarians who are most "struggling" in Toronto, those who rely on public transit.  They have carried the financial burden of subsidizing the car-culture-driven lifestyle of suburbanites for a very long time. Apparently Horwath wishes to extend this.

While the TRBOT proposals are, of course, self-serving and do not go nearly far enough, (as they exclude the obvious need for increased personal taxes, something neither the ONDP or anyone else is advocating for either), they are not wrong. In fact road tolls and transit focused taxes such as those they are advocating for are long overdue. 

As a society we desperately  need to shift people out of cars and onto mass transit. It is the morally and environmentally correct course. It also directly benefits our lowest income citizens in entirely obvious ways. 

This is not the first time that Horwath has sacrificed environmental and transit concerns for suburban car owners. Back in 2011, as Martin Regg Cohn noted:

 Andrea Horwath’s love affair with the car is also boundless -- she made lower gas prices a major campaign plank, promising to shave a few pennies off the HST at the pump. And her antipathy to tolls prompted a stunning public rebuke of star NDP candidate Paul Ferreira, who was trying to win back the seat in York South -- Weston.

Ferreira’s crime was to call for an adult discussion on gridlock: “I think we owe it to voters, to residents, to citizens to have mature conversations on topics like that. Should there be road tolls?” he asked in a CBC radio debate on GTA issues. “I am proud to say that in 2006, when I ran for city council in this city, I proposed levying a toll on the DVP and the Gardiner Expressway.”

Horwath did not find his musings amusing.

“Definitely no tolls!” she told reporters the next day. “I’ve been pretty clear about that so I was quite surprised to find that this is something Paul said during a debate. He knows very well that that’s not in my plans. If he’s trying to do that then it will stop at my desk."

Of course Ferreira was right and Horwath wrong.

But it would seem the "mature conversation" is no more likely to be had within the ONDP now than it was then. And transit users, environmental policy and lower income Toronto residents will pay for this.

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Comments

Sorry but cutting consumption taxes in a specific context is hardly reactionary. Social democrats used to campaign against consumption taxes. So if a party called for a cut to consumption taxes while raising taxes on capital gains, corporations and high income earners that's hardly reactionary. It's making the system progressive again.

I agree with most of what you say about Horwath's horrid populist turn with the ONDP, but I think your visceral hatred of the ONDP blinds you on one point. While Horwath is wrong to reject attempts to curb automotive use - she is right about the issue of creating a regional sales tax impacting lower earners. Of course Horwath isn't going to do much beyond closing these magical corporate tax loopholes to raise revenue, so it's more empty rhetoric from her.

But don't worry you're in the good company of right wingers like Karen Stintz and Andrew Coyne when it comes to supporting sales taxes.

Laxer wrote:
In the present context of neo-liberal austerity and ideological consolidation, and this is very specific to this context, there is not a single case or situation in which advocating for tax cuts is "progressive" let alone left-wing. In fact, in the present context, any calls for tax cuts are inherently reactionary and enabling of the forces, like the Hudak led Ontario Tories, who have been successful in making Canadians believe that the very notion taxation is burdensome and somehow damaging to a "middle-class" lifestyle. 

All tax cuts, including cuts to consumption taxes, benefit the austerity agenda and aid in perpetuating the growth of our culture of extreme inequality. This is due to the fact that taxes, socially speaking, are redistributive in the present context by definition.  The "bottom" 50 per cent (if not more) of income earners will always get far more out of increased or maintained taxes (in terms of services, health care, social security, etc,) than they put in.

This is utter nonsense. Laxer has been spending too much time talking to his pal Matt Fodor.

In what kind of neoliberal austerity regime do the bottom 50% "always" get more out of taxes than they put in? When did neoliberal taxation systems become government-sponsored Robin Hood operations? When is the last time a federal or provincial government instituted a new tax for the purpose of transferring wealth from the rich to the poor?

Neil Brooks of the CCPA wrote:
Income tax makes up less than 40% of the taxes individuals pay, and it is the only progressive tax they pay. All other taxes paid by Canadians are regressive, including the GST, retail sales taxes, property taxes, excise taxes on cigarettes, liquor and lottery tickets, and payroll taxes for financing the Canadian Pension Plan and Employment Insurance. These taxes take their biggest bite, proportionally, from lower-income Canadians.

So having paid the biggest bite, proportionately, of their incomes in taxes, what proportion of government spending benefits lower-income Canadians?

More than half of provincial government spending goes to education and health, which benefit everyone equally, regardless of income. Those who are paying the biggest proportional bite of their income in taxes are therefore subsidizing the health care and education of those who are paying the smallest proportional bite. About 8% of provincial expenditure goes to pay debt charges – interest payments to the wealthy who lend money to the government. Less than 20% goes to social services, which benefit the poor disproportionately; but apart from that, government expenditures benefit business, industry, and the rich more than they do the poor.

Federal government spending is even more disproportionately beneficial to the rich and powerful. Expenditures on war, incentives and subsidies to businesses, government advertising, federal cops and spies, prisons and courts, tax and customs duty  collection, debt repayments, travel and salary expenses for politicians, the costs of operating and maintaining government buildings, foreign aid and development expenditures, tourism promotion, trade regulation, airline and border security, legal expenditures, election costs, the cost of diplomatic and trade missions abroad, transportation costs, infrastructure expenditures, and many other similar expenditures eat up the lion’s share of federal expenditures – and all of them exist to protect and enhance the wealth of the richest Canadians. All paid for by money that comes disproportionately from lower-income Canadians.

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