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Do billionaires fleeing Canadian taxes deserve public subsidies for their Alberta franchises?

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N. Murray Edwards

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Twitter commentator Dave Beninger raised an interesting point yesterday: If tarsands tycoon N. Murray Edwards is going to bug off to England because he finds the taxes in low-tax Alberta 3 per cent too high, should his fellow Alberta taxpayers be asked to pony up for a new arena for his Calgary Flames professional hockey team?

This was a question a Postmedia scribe reporting on the revelation Edwards has apparently decamped from Wild Rose Country for England's green and pleasant land didn't ask anyone -- least of all Edwards, who is evidently not the sort of billionaire who responds to calls and emails from the grubby press.

The evidence taxes are behind Edwards' presumed move from Calgary to London is in fact fairly flimsy. It consists of a note about the Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. executive chairperson's place of residence in a recent filing by another company in which he has an interest, combined with the opinions of two anonymous sources.

Of course, if the reporter's two informants run in Edwards' circles, why wouldn’t they blame taxes? As for someone suggesting in a Postmedia publication circa 2016 that it might be inappropriate for people who make a fortune here to move their wealth offshore to avoid taxes in the place that made them wealthy, that's simply unthinkable any more!

Instead, for commentary, the Calgary Herald scribe rounded up a couple of the Usual Suspects from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the preeminent local source of market fundamentalist ideological purity, the publicly financed University of Calgary.

Unsurprisingly, both used the opportunity to declaim that taxes are too high, especially when they are levied on billionaires who can move to London whenever they please. They also warned that we'd better cut taxes right now or more billionaires won't move here.

"The same people that came here shopping for attractive tax rates are going to be shopping somewhere else," warned U of C tax-law professor Catherine Brown.

And the tax rates had better be very attractive, presumably, to attract billionaires who weren't, like Edwards, born in Regina!

"This is the problem with levying taxes on high-income, high-skilled individuals," huffed the CTF's spokesperson, Paige McPherson, a prolific author of demands that modestly paid public employees like teachers and civil servants immediately take painful pay cuts.

The spectacle of the CTF rushing to the defence of hard-pressed billionaires at the same time it is demanding huge pay cuts for ordinary taxpayers is, to say the least, revealing.

The Herald's scribbler took care to remind the publication's few remaining readers that recent increases in the taxes levied on billionaires like Edwards are the fault of Liberals in Ottawa and New Democrats in Edmonton. Perhaps to generate some sympathy, he also noted that Edwards' personal fortune has recently taken a beating, falling from $1.8 billion to a minuscule $1.33 billion as a result of the declining price of oil.

Regardless, it apparently didn't occur to the Herald reporter to look for a commentator willing to speculate there might be other reasons for Edwards’ move or that he may simply find London a more exciting place to live than Cowtown, as astonishing as that thought might seem to some of us here in Alberta. As Samuel Johnson famously observed, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life."

No one, to my knowledge, has ever said that about Calgary.

At any rate, according to the foreign gutter press, Edwards' marriage fell apart several years ago. Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper reported in September in 2014 on the then-blossoming relationship between uncapitalized canadian crooner k.d. lang and Heather Edwards. Since then, Ottawa’s Frank Magazine has reported Edwards has been seen in the company of former Alberta premier Alison Redford, a person whose love of travel is well known.

The former self-described polarizing premier, by the way, has landed a new job as executive director of something called the Canadian Energy Initiative at the Conference Board of Canada, one of the country's more respectable think tanks. The Ottawa-based Conference Board keeps an office in Calgary.

Returning to the original question, should Alberta taxpayers be on the hook for expensive arenas for billionaires who own professional hockey teams but prefer to live elsewhere?

The precedent is not encouraging: The heavily subsidized new arena for the Oilers now snarling traffic in downtown Edmonton is likely to considerably benefit billionaire Vancouver condo owner Daryl Katz, another lingering example of the supposedly lost "Alberta Advantage" for which Postmedia pines.

Well, perhaps we'll have the opportunity to ask Edwards about this directly once Jeremy Corbyn becomes Prime Minister of Britain and the tax rate there for billionaires ratchets upward beyond Alberta's.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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