Which political party would do the most to tackle growing inequality?

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Image: alirjd/Flickr

The issue of wealth and income inequality has not been front and centre in the current election campaign. 

There has been much talk about affordability, which means rather different things to different people. Some worry about whether or not they can afford a new car or a new smartphone. To others, affordability is more of a life and death affair. They can't afford a safe, clean, decent place to live.  

Overall, the fact that wealth in Canada has become more and more concentrated in the hands of a very few, while incomes at the lower end of the scale have stagnated, has not elicited much interest from those charged with reporting on the 2019 campaign. There was not a single question on this issue in any of the televised debates. 

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh did try to put inequality on the agenda, and the Greens' Elizabeth May followed him. Coverage of their campaigns tended to focus elsewhere, however. 

Journalists and pundits carried on about Singh's preternatural ability to connect with voters on a human level and about May's persistent tendency -- too strident for many commentators -- to sound the alarm on a warming planet. 

Affordable housing, taxing the rich and support for new parents

For those of us who think the increasing gulf between the super-rich and the rest of us is an issue, a Quebec-based non-partisan institute, l'Observatoire québécois des inégalités (roughly translated as the Quebec institute for the study of inequality) has graded the platforms of the various parties as to how effectively they address economic inequality.

The Observatoire brought together experts from both the U.S. and Canada and had them grade some key promises of all the parties, without telling them which parties had made them. The institute only found three promises for each party that were specific enough to grade in terms of their potential impact, positive or negative. 

Only two campaign planks merited an A grade from the Observatoire's expert panel: the NDP's promises to institute a one per cent wealth tax on fortunes over $20 million, and to create half a million new units of affordable housing over ten years.

The experts gave high marks to the Liberal pledge to extend paternity/maternity benefits to all new parents, even those who had not worked the requisite hours in the previous year. This measure will be a boon to those who work in the insecure, gig economy. They also liked the Liberal plan to increase the guaranteed income supplement for the poorest among senior citizens. 

For the Greens, the Observatoire said the pledge to make higher education free would significantly reduce inequality, as would the Green promise to abolish the tax deduction for stock options, which high paid executives often receive as a way of avoiding taxes. This is also a longstanding NDP idea. The Liberals announced a yet-to-be-instituted $200,000 cap on this form of remuneration in their most recent budget. 

Even the Conservatives get some credit for one proposed measure, the promise to lower the tax rate on the lowest bracket.

But the Observatoire gives the Conservatives a failing grade for their promise to restore the giant loophole the Liberals closed for so-called private corporations. High income professionals, such as doctors, often set up these incorporated entities to split their income with family members, by putting them on the payroll or paying them dividends. The corporate income tax rate is also lower than the personal rate. 

The organized business lobby gave Liberals a lot of grief for these tax changes. In response, Justin Trudeau's government softened the changes somewhat. It devised a way, for instance, to avoid unnecessarily burdening family farms with increased taxes. 

The Conservatives were not placated, however, and want to scrap the Liberal changes altogether, which will be of great benefit to the wealthiest earners. 

The Observatoire gives its lowest marks to Maxime Bernier's Peoples' Party, which pledges to balance the budget in two years through severe cuts to social spending. Evaluating that fringe party hardly seems to have been worth the effort, since they are likely heading for an electoral result of between one and zero seats. 

A tough choice on election day

The results of the Observatoire's exercise underscore the agonizing nature of the choice in this election for voters who care deeply about issues of social justice and equity. 

Some of them (that is, you) might be tempted to opt for Trudeau's Liberals, who are definitely not nearly as scary as Scheer's Conservatives. 

The current Trudeau gang are not the Chrétien/Martin Liberals of the 1990s, who obsessed over deficit and debt, refused to raise taxes on even the wealthiest of the wealthy, and brutally slashed transfer payments to the provinces for social services, education and health. 

The Justin Trudeau Liberals have taken at least a preliminary stab at making the tax system more progressive, have put some money into the pockets of the poorest families and have maintained and even modestly increased transfers to the provinces for basic services.

But Liberals are a slippery breed. 

They can be social justice crusaders one day and corporate sycophants the next. You never know which Liberal is going to show up. 

During the 1990s, the New Democrats had been reduced to a handful of seats in the House. The right-wing populist Reform party was the main opposition in English Canada, while, in Quebec, the ardently separatist and politically opportunist Bloc Québécois dominated. As a result, the Liberals of the day felt a significant pull to the right -- fueled by unabashedly pro-market-solutions mainstream media -- and their policies showed it.

Today, the caring and sharing Liberal party is on display, although the NDP -- and to the extent they focus on such matters, the Greens -- have much more root and branch approaches to building a society that is more fair, just and equal.  

The question for progressive voters is: Do they succumb to the invitation to vote strategically to head off the disaster of a Conservative government, or do they vote to keep the vacillating, self-styled party of the centre from slipping back into its big business, pro-profit and pro-corporate personality?

It will not be an easy choice. Good luck with it.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Image: alirjd/Flickr

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