Entries from March 2006 ↓

Over to David

So I could see it in his eyes. David was pumped, and that was exactly what I’d been hoping for. He’s the man, alright.

We met briefly tonight in my riding office, and I formally asked David Fisher, Oakville resident, dad and self-employed e-learning consultant, if he would chair a Halton committee on next steps for the pre-budget report I gave Jim Flaherty two days ago. As you may have read, it’s based on massive input from the riding, and from folks across Canada, thousands of whom came here to this warm little blog to give me their opinions.

The opus has 11 recommendations and enough words to make a Leonard Cohen song out of, and proposes some big changes to the way families are taxed, the way we save for retirement and the way Ottawa should treat taxpayers. It’s not meant to replace Conservative policy, but to complement it. And, without doubt, those who helped me frame it want a pubic debate on things like income-splitting and what taxes to cut.

Now, over to David and a committee of volunteer experts who will come up with ways of advancing these ideas so they might actually become law. That will take lobbying, grassroots voter action, outreach, research and conviction. I have faith this is going to happen, and that you will soon hear some surprising, and groundbreaking, news out of these guys. David asked me to ask you if you might like to get involved. If so, drop Esther a line in my Main Street office in Milton: esther@garth.ca.

So when I got back home to bucolic Campbellville, Dorothy was keen to show me today’s editorial in the main Oakville paper with the riveting headline, ”Turner stays in touch.” If it were a negative editorial, of course, I would not do this – which is…

Turner stays in touch

You have to hand it to Halton MP Garth Turner — he is one politician who knows how to keep a promise. Turner won the Halton riding in the last federal election largely by promising to be accessible to his constituents — to listen to their concerns and take them to Ottawa even if they clashed with his own party’s platform.

Earlier this week he proved his promise wasn’t an empty one designed to win over a gullible electorate. This week he arrived on Parliament Hill with a 20,000-word document called Voices Choices – Listening to the People, Budget 2006, which he presented to his Conservative Caucus colleagues and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.

The details of his report can be found elsewhere in today’s paper. One of the more prominent recommendations is to scrap his party’s planned capital gains tax deferral. His reasoning: while wealthy investors love it the deferral will benefit very few ordinary Canadians. Instead, his document is full of recommendations based on suggestions from ordinary Canadians.

Even more impressive, he explains why some of the suggestions from the public were rejected. At a time when Prime Minister Stephen Harper is trying to muzzle his Cabinet ministers, Turner is a breath of fresh air. During the election, Turner defeated incumbent MP Gary Carr largely through old-fashioned door-to-door campaigning and a masterful use of the Internet.

A veteran journalist, Turner produced a daily blog that connected with voters — not only in Halton, but across Canada. Following the election, he held a series of Town Hall meetings throughout Halton, which were attended by people pleased to discover an elected politician actually wanted to meet them outside an election campaign.

Besides these meetings, the MP garnered feedback from a wide range of media formats available to him — radio, television, the Internet and newspapers. As a result, he says his report is based on comments from more than 10,000 respondents. While his report may not make him a popular figure at conservative caucus meetings, Turner apparently isn’t worried.

Turner says his goal is to make ordinary Canadians more engaged in politics than ever before. With the tabling of his report and the wide-spread attention it has received, the MP from Halton is off to a good start.

Now, isn’t that cool? A nice, unexpected but extremely welcome byproduct of having done that report for Flaherty. It is truly humbling when local critics appreciate an MP’s work and say so. Rarely happens. Of course, I wouldn’t trade an ounce of this kind of respect from the people I represent for complete endorsement by the national media. And I’m going to end this posting now before I wreck the moment…

Priorities

Dorothy & Cheka support the 5 priorities

So, back home for a few days. Watching Cheka on the back lawn eating bugs which have just emerged form the turf. Dorothy raking and pruning. It’s a time of year filled with promise, of course. Makes a boy want to go and shine his motorcycle.

But I resisted. Instead, of course, an MP’s work drags on and today I started on a communications piece for my riding on the five major priorities the government will be popping over the next weeks, starting with the Throne Speech in a few days. Ten weeks out from the election, I have sense that many people have forgotten some of the themes of that contest, and I want folks in Halton to understand clearly what directions the feds are about to lead them in.

These are five things I believe in, will support, and will vote for. But I still have a clear obligation to inform constituents of them, ask for their opinions and then make sure those comments are woven into what I plan to say in the House of Commons. I gave my promise months ago never to send out MP propaganda with a party logo on it or spend time telling people how great the federal government is. And I won’t. But I sure will tell them what’s going on.

One priority, of course, is child care. It’s contentious. I came home to a front-page story in the local paper quoting municipal politicians dumping on the Harper Tories for reneging on the old Liberal promises to create new day care spaces for lower-income mothers. No matter the old plan would provide a relatively few spaces for a tiny number of kids. No matter not a single space has yet been created. No matter that this plan would provide no benefit at all to 90% of the families with kids in Halton. And no matter that I met with the same local polticians in the past few weeks who did not then have the conviction to say what a reporter just heard.

So, I have an obligation to tell folks the truth, hear what they have to say and move this issue forward. Not everyone will agree. But not everyone voted for me or Stephen Harper. It’s all about choices, isn’t it?

Speaking of child care, and the media, this story was in the National Post today:

Tory MP wants party to rework child care policy

OTTAWA – Conservative MP Garth Turner is urging his own government to water down a key campaign promise on child care after surveying more than 11,000 Canadians.

Turner, who was in trouble with his own party last month for publicly criticizing the government, argued Wednesday that many Canadians are not satisfied with a pledge to offer a $1,200 annual allowance to families for every child under six.

He said he received thousands of e-mails and messages from families across the country who would rather see a real tax break, instead of getting the $1,200 allowance promised by the Harper government. Many single-income couples feel they are at a disadvantage under the current tax system, since they don’t have the option of income-splitting, he added.

“You’re in the highest income tax bracket. You got two people living across the street who are both working, and maybe their family makes exactly the same as your family, but you pay more tax,” said Turner who represents the Halton riding, outside of Toronto. “People say: ‘That’s not fair. And if I were able to split income with my wife or my husband and average between the two of us, we’d end up paying the same taxes as those guys across the street. So why penalize me for caring for my children?’”

He said the issue is a popular complaint among many families who supported the Conservatives in the last election.

Turner said Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty were attentive as he presented his 20,000-word report on how to revamp the tax system and redesign the budget to caucus.

“I think they accepted what I had to say and did it in a polite and professional manner. So we’ll see what happens from here,” said Turner.

Unfortunately this story is not too accurate. The reporter was interviewing me about income-splitting, not child care, and got the two issues mixed up. My pre-budget report did not argue for income tax cuts instead of child care payments. What it does argue for is a Family Tax Return which would allow income-splitting between spouses where one is staying home to care for kids. I also argued that families who elect to income-split should not get the child care payment, as a way for Ottawa to afford the income-splitting.

Hell, here it is. Read this section of the report for yourself:

Create a Family Tax Return and allow income-splitting

This, without question, is the most-requested tax code change in Canada. There is a wide-spread perception that our system, which is based on the individual, is patently unfair to many families, particularly those with a single income.
Typically, this family would have one wage-earner while the other spouse stayed home and cared for children. When this family’s income is equal to that of a dual-income family, then invariably, the single-income family would pay more in tax and have less disposable income.
As a result, we have families making the same amount of household income and yet being taxed at different rates. At the same time the immense contribution of care-givers is not being adequately recognized by the tax system. And we are, ironically, taking more disposable income from the hands of parents than we are from childless, working couples who may incur less in the way of household living costs.
By creating a Family Tax Return, akin to the Joint Return which exists under IRA rules in the United States, we could level the playing field and tax families more equitably and realistically. This would also allow for:

§ income-splitting between spouses, so that stay-at-home caregivers would assume part of their spouse’s earnings and pay tax on it, while the other spouse would be taxed in a reduced bracket. It is interesting to note that France allows income-splitting to occur even between parents and children.

§ Stay-at-home caregivers to make RRSP contributions in their own name, since they would share in the earned income of their spouses. This focus on retirement savings is a critical one, given our aging population and general unpreparedness of most Canadians for their after-work years,

§ Single-income families to make better financial planning decisions and to be less preoccupied with tax avoidance.

§ Families to make better lifestyle and personal care decisions, such as opting for income-splitting to allow a spouse to stay home and care for disabled family members or aged parents. The more home care which can be provided, the less impact there will be on precious and strained government resources.

§ Canadians to better cope with financial pressures over which they have no control, such as the rising cost of residential real estate. As home prices escalate, more income is diverted into debt servicing costs, creating a huge strain on those families who choose to provide in-home care for children or elders.

§ Recognition of the family as the basic economic unit of Canada. For this purpose, “family” could certainly be defined in traditional terms, or as a single-parent entity or same-sex union, provided that a child or children are included. Income-splitting among childless, working couples, or working couples with children of a certain age, would be too problematic and expensive to consider practical.

§ Less dependence by some families on the government child care allowance, should they be able to split income between spouses.

The big question with the creation of a Family Return and allowing of income-splitting for families with young children would be the amount of lost tax revenue to the federal Treasury. So, here is one concrete suggestion for dealing with that…

Make the child care payment elective and means tested

Let’s be consistent with our policy of empowering individuals and families by giving them more choices. At the same time, let’s make the tax system consistent, in that government assistance is truly based on need.
In order to offset the cost of reduced tax revenues that income-splitting in care-giving families would create, let’s give such families the choice of taking the $1,200 annual Child Care Allowance, or opting for a Family Tax return with the ability to income-split. The choice would be theirs to make, based on the best outcome in their particular circumstances.
An additional way to finance the tax cost of income-splitting, and of saving valuable public resources from going to families who do not require it is to means-test the Child Care Allowance. Should we not ask the basic question, do wealthier families who don’t need $1,200 a year to offset child care expenses get it? The overwhelming response from the taxpayers commenting on this budget was, no.

Your comments are most welcome on any of the above. I’m going to polish my Harley now.

Message delivered

Jim Flaherty, the finance minister, got his. Autographed. Stephen Harper, the prime minister, got his. And he was pretty gracious about it, I must say. And every other Conservative member of Parliament was hand-delivered a copy of my pre-budget report, with its nice cover plastered with pictures of Halton constituents taking part in (of course) pre-budget meetings.

As you could tell from my post this morning, I was a little uneasy as to how all this would go today. My experiences over the last two days convinced me I needed to build some bridges into caucus, giving other MPs the report before it hit the headlines, while still being true to my promise to voters to get their ideas as much exposure as possible.

But, I am pleased to tell you, things worked out a lot better than I had expected. MPs made a point of asking for copies. Others seemed genuinely appreciative I acted to include them in the process. The media guys decided not to eat me up and spit me out for withholding the goodies from them. And caucus, which was long and intense, was actually also useful and productive. At the end of it – despite my obvious and public rift with the party gods – I am heartened. There were people who made a point of standing with me today, even when it was not to their advantage to do so. I will remember that.

In fact, the times in the caucus room yesterday and today, some of them collegial and some painful, also reminded me of the good thing about political parties. A hundred and twenty-four people, all different shapes, sizes and ages, a rainbow of backgrounds and experiences, farmer and millionaire businessman, from everywhere, rural and urban, close and remote, English and French. Some I know well, others are mysteries. But over the coming weeks and months I plan on learning what makes a lot of them tick, why they wanted to be MPs and what they are in Ottawa to accomplish. Knowing this will help me, and as I discover it, I would like to share those stories with you.

Well, some good news tonight in the acceptance by David Fisher of the chairmanship of a committee in Halton to receive, study and come up with ways to implement the budget report (he has made several thoughtful postings here). After all, a report is not the conclusion of something, rather the start. If we are to accomplish goals people want, like income-splitting within families, then we need a plan. I have some ideas on how this citizen committee can actually turn into a legislative body, and look forward to the first meeting.

Meanwhile the riding task force on high-speed Internet access for rural residents is moving along at warp speed. Esther and Sharon organized this, bringing together some constituents who have a huge amount to add, and they are mapping out a strategy that sounds impressive. The hope is to get connected here, of course, but also to set up a template of action for other rural areas that face the same fate – death by dail-up!

More news: The encoder boxes for the webcasting studio I’m building in my Hill office arrived today, and we are getting a lot closer to being able to fire this sucker up. The far-sighted technical staff of the House of Commons quickly realized the potential worth of this tool for MPs, and have partnered with me on a two-month pilot project. It’s a great vote of confidence and, with their help, we should have a live television studio in operation by next week, sending out interactive programming on the Internet and letting MPs do everything from conducting public meetings to helping constituents with immigration problems, in digital person. It’s niftily called “MPTV,” and I will have a lot more details on that in a few days. Meanwhile, tell me this: what kind of programming do you want to see? Political panels? MP profiles? Breaking policy news? Parliamentary agenda? Coming votes? Media analysis? Or analysis of the media? (Post a comment or fire me off an email – [email protected])

With this technology and set-up, we can let members do things for their ridings while trapped in Ottawa that were not possible before – plus, we can actually us it for regularly-scheduled programming which will not go through any media filter. Raw and uncensored, baby, it’s MPTV. Parental guidance definitely recommended.

And speaking of television, I see tonight CBC’s National ran a profile of me tonight as the maverick MP. Reporter Susan Bonner had shadowed me for a while this week, and turned out to be a very polite and astute woman. The piece was okay, I think. And thank goodness. I have caucus again next week!