A Midterm Report Card (Part 1 of 2) Grading the Conservative Government - Taxpayers' Top 20 Policy Priorities
Shortly after the 2005/06 winter election campaign, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) issued its Top 20 Policy Priorities for the new Conservative government. The agenda items culled longstanding CTF policy prescriptions with taxpayer-friendly promises made by the Conservative Party. Together, they represent a bold wish list to strengthen the Canadian economy, ensure tax dollars are spent more wisely, restore government accountability, and give Canadians a louder voice in Ottawa.
Taxpayers recognize Stephen Harper did not win a majority of seats in the House of Commons. Nonetheless, that does not mean the Conservative Party should abandon its agenda or reject good ideas not included in its election manifesto, such as reducing personal income taxes. As Opposition leader, Mr. Harper said he was a friend to taxpayers. But opposition parties do not write budgets or pass legislation. In office, Canadians expect Prime Minister Harper and his caucus to deliver much-needed reform to the federal government. So how are the Conservatives progressing so far? Here is the CTF evaluation of its first 10 policies priorities. (The next 10 will be released later this week.)
1. Limit Cabinet Size and Reform MP Benefits
Prime Minister Harper was applauded for limiting the size of his inaugural cabinet in February 2006 to 26 members. The Conservative's streamlined executive was down significantly from 37 under former Prime Minister Paul Martin and taxpayers were told the smaller cabinet would save $48-million over two years. However, on January 4, 2007, six secretaries of state were added to various ministries. Even though these junior ministers do not attend cabinet meetings, each is entitled to political staff and an office budget. Despite this setback, Mr. Harper has maintained a smaller cabinet and not overloaded the executive.
There has been no reform of parliamentary pay and pension benefits.
2. Reform Appointment Process of Supreme Court Judges
Implement a multi-partisan Supreme Court nomination process and secure multi-party support when naming the heads of Crown corporations, agencies and other top government jobs
On February 27, 2006, the door of judicial accountability in Canada opened -- but just a crack. For the first time in history, a nominee for the country's Supreme Court had to face cameras and questions from an all-party Parliamentary committee. However, MPs were told the nominee, Justice Marshall Rothstein, could not be quizzed on any matter on which he might potentially render judgment. This ruled out questions of substance. The Prime Minister should allow greater latitude, and allow MPs to vote on the choice of nominee -- as members of his caucus requested.
Creating a new public appointments commission to provide more transparency in federal appointments was sidetracked after opposition MPs rejected Gwyn Morgan, the government's nominee. The former EnCana Corp. executive was not rebuffed because of his qualifications, but due to partisan mudslinging. The PM responded by shelving the commission, vowing to reintroduce it should he win a majority government.
The Conservative government made "substantially fewer patronage appointments" during their first year in office compared to the previous 12 months under Liberal rule, the Ottawa Citizen reported. The newspaper found between Feb. 2006 and Feb. 2007, the Conservatives appointed 410 people whereas the Liberals made 686 appointments in the same period the year before.
3. Enact a Legislated Debt Retirement Schedule
The Conservative government reduced the federal debt by $13.2-billion in the 2005/06 fiscal year. It anticipates an additional debt reduction payment of $9.2-billion in fiscal 2006. So far so good. Looking ahead, the 2007 Budget establishes an annual debt repayment of $3-billion in 2007 and 2008. Yet this is part of the budget framework and not set in legislation to guarantee debt repayment in future years.
Of particular interest to taxpayers is the budget's tax-back guarantee, which promises to reduce taxes using interest savings that occur naturally when government debt is reduced. Ottawa's debt stands at $472.3-billion and annual debt interest payments are more than $34.1-billion or $93-million each day. Should Ottawa make debt reduction a priority, the tax-back guarantee will be a boon to taxpayers.
4. Reform Fiscal Federalism
Ottawa is involved in too many areas of provincial responsibilities and the result is jurisdictional overlap that does not permit taxpayers to hold politicians accountable for how tax dollars are spent on health care and education. Who should voters hold responsible when medical patients sit in waiting lines rather than receive immediate care -- the provincial or federal government?
The Conservative government has opted to administer Canada's spaghetti federalism rather than untangle it. The 2007 Budget announced Ottawa will spend an additional $39-billion over the next seven years -- some of this amount will go to areas of federal responsibility and some to provincial areas. The payments to the provinces will be made through an enriched equalization and per capita education transfers. Ottawa will keep taxes high and continue to interfere in provincial affairs with the federal spending power.
5. Reform Federal Child Care
The Conservatives cancelled the daycare scheme that required parents to put their children in an institutional program. That program, developed by the Liberal government, provided no help to parents who raise their kids at home. It was replaced by a universal $1,200 child care allowance to permit parents -- not bureaucrats -- to choose what daycare option is best for their family.
Yet, the 2007 Budget revealed Ottawa will send $250-million per year to provinces and territories for government daycare spaces. In other words, the Conservatives revived the Liberal daycare program they had just cancelled! No wonder program spending has exploded under the Conservative government. Ottawa is funding two priorities -- the Conservative child care plan and the old Liberal daycare plan.
6. Medicare Choice
Respect the Supreme Court of Canada's Chaoulli v. Quebec decision. Allow provinces to experiment with medicare delivery reform, including the use of private health care
Although the Conservatives are rhetorically committed to single-tier delivery, they earn marks for not ordering provinces, like Quebec and British Columbia, to close private health care facilities. (In contrast, the Liberal government routinely turned a blind eye to private medicine in Quebec but pounced on any other province that mixed private and public medicine.) This is an important development for reforming Canada's ailing government-run health system as well as treating provinces equally.
7. Aboriginal Policy Reform
One casualty of the government's Federal Accountability Act was the provision to permit the auditor-general to oversee tax dollars after they are transferred to native bands. Taxpayers currently provide $8-billion a year to reserves across Canada, yet there is no way to scrutinize how that money is spent. It was, however, opposition members who voted to remove this important reform from the bill.
Where the Conservative government can act independently it has, by scuttling the Liberal's Kelowna Accord -- the flawed deal to hand native groups an additional $5.1-billion over five years. It committed Ottawa to pour more money into a failed system, fund a growing bureaucracy and do little to improve the lives of ordinary natives.
The federal government's announcement to guarantee mortgages for aboriginals living on reserves is another positive step. Under the Indian Act, financial institutions cannot collect on default loans on reserves, therefore it is difficult for natives to join the Canadian mainstream by becoming homeowners.
Federal Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice has signaled he will introduce matrimonial property rights on Canada's native reserves. And a bill in the Senate to expand human rights laws to native reserves has also won support from Minister Prentice.
8. The Senate - Elect or Abolish the Upper Chamber
Prime Minister Harper announced in April he will appoint Bert Brown to the upper chamber of Parliament. Mr. Brown was re-elected as an Alberta "senate nominee" in province-wide voting in November, 2004. He was the first choice of a majority of voters in that province.
Mr. Harper has made Senate reform a priority. Government legislation before the Senate will set eight-year term limits on new senators. A second bill before the House of Commons will allow for the indirect election of senators. Rather than pursue a constitutional amendment to permit direct elections, the Prime Minister will allow provinces to elect candidates for the Upper Chamber. The Conservative government will accept these submissions and appoint the candidates to the Senate thereby ensuring the will of voters is respected -- as was done with Senator-elect Brown. It is hoped this process will overtime become convention and be respected by future governments.
9. Scrap Kyoto
The good news is Mr. Harper has said he will not sacrifice jobs or endanger the Canadian economy in a vain attempt to fulfill the Kyoto Protocol. As such, the Liberal's $10-billion Kyoto scheme will not be implemented. The international accord committed Canada to cutting emissions of greenhouse gases by 6 per cent from 1990 levels by 2012. Yet emissions are 27 per cent above 1990 levels and 35 per cent above the Kyoto target.
In April, Environment Minister John Baird unveiled a plan to curb emissions by heavy emitters. The plan will require most industries to become 18 per cent more energy efficient by 2010, and cut greenhouse gases by 20 per cent by 2020. It will cost the Canadian economy between $7-billion and $8-billion a year. Consumers will pay more for some energy intensive products. But rather than adopt government command-and-control solutions, Mr. Baird is leaving it to businesses to find market driven solutions. Industry leaders grumble that the plan will be costly but is achievable.
10. End Long-Gun Registry
The Conservatives have tabled a bill to repeal the long-gun registry, although its passage in the House of Commons is unlikely.
Although the government has not cut off the registry's funding it has been reduced. Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day last year announced a package of fee waivers and amnesties to take the teeth out of the registry and free rifle and shotgun owners from complying with the rules. This amnesty was recently extended for a second year.
The next installment will grade the Conservative government on 10 additional agenda items, measuring progress -- or lack thereof -- to abolish corporate welfare, reform foreign aid, cut taxes and control spending.
For further information contact:
John Williamson, Federal Director, CTF - Ottawa