The election is barely a week old and Canadians are already getting a good picture of what Conservative leader Andrew Scheer would offer as Prime Minister: little more than a policy mini-me of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.  

Harper, who once said that he didn’t think there were any good taxes, had a simple answer to just about any social, environmental or economic issue outside of his priorities: give it a tax cut, usually followed by program spending cuts. Pressure to support the arts? Give artists a tax cut. Want to encourage children’s fitness? Introduce a tax credit. Support for public transit? Another tax credit. Encourage volunteerism?  Yes, a tax credit for that, too.

It became very clear early on with Harper that there wasn’t much point in proposing anything to his Finance Ministers unless it involved some form of a tax cut or tax credit.  The compulsion to cut –and complicate the tax system with ineffective credits– got so out of hand that even the right wing Frontier Centre put out a scathing report criticizing “Harper’s tax boutique”.  It came down especially hard on two of his highest profile tax credits, the Children’s Fitness Tax Credit and the Public Transit Tax Credit (both of which Scheer this past week promised to re-introduce).

The report found the credits “predominately benefit taxpayers in the middle-and upper-income categories” and amounted to “$164 million in unnecessary and indefensible federal tax expenditures.” Despite their hefty price, the credits didn’t work. The transit credit had no impact on greenhouse gas emissions and the children’s fitness credit didn’t increase childhood physical activity.

“If the Harper government is serious about reviewing government expenditures and cutting ineffective programs, it should take a much closer look at its tax expenditures and, in particular, eliminate the boutique tax benefits,” the right-wing authors advised.

They were far from the only ones to find fault with the credits.

Harper’s public transit tax credit was examined in at least six separate studies by different academics and experts. Each one found it was ineffective in increasing public transit ridership. In fact, after it was eliminated in 2017, transit ridership increased at a faster rate than it had for years, and has continued to do so. Increasing supply through investments in public transit and making it affordable by reducing fares, especially for lower incomes, is far more effective.

Finance Canada’s detailed 2017 review of the Child Fitness Tax Credit and the Children’s Arts Tax Credit found the same thing: they were “ineffective” at promoting greater participation in physical and arts activities,  they paid out predominantly to higher-income families  and they “were likely inferior to alternative approaches to promote fitness and artistic development among children, such as targeted direct subsidies to families and service providers or investment in sport and social infrastructure.”

But these critical investments in transit, infrastructure and health programs are harder to make when government money is spent on ineffective credits that complicate the tax system and pay out mostly to wealthier households.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was right to eliminate these and other Harper-era regressive tax breaks, like income splitting, and fund direct program spending instead. But when it came to eliminating far more regressive tax loopholes like the private corporation tax dodge and the stock option deduction, the Trudeau government retreated partway. There’s no fairness in a tax system that eliminates credits for ordinary Canadians while leaving in place far more expensive and ineffective loopholes for the wealthy and corporations.

Trudeau’s shortcomings pale in comparison to reviving bad Harper policy ideas, especially now that they’d cost almost three times as much as they did a dozen years ago. Scheer’s tax cut a day policy announcements have so far offered no new or original ideas, simply plagiarizing some of Harper’s worst.

Like any plagiarism, it’s not an exact image of the original. A couple details have been changed. The “Public Transit Tax Credit” was renamed the “Green Public Transit Tax Credit”.  The prosaic-sounding Children’s Arts Amount was retitled to the more wholesome “Children’s Arts and Learning Tax Credit” and also made refundable.  Despite the new packaging, these programs are still deeply flawed.

On top of these credits, the party is proposing a “Universal Tax Cut” although there’s nothing universal about it. Less than a third of Canadian taxfilers—those with higher incomes—would receive the full value of this tax cut, with more than a third not receiving anything at all.  Scheer claims it would save the average Canadian family $850 annually, but the PBO estimates the annual cost of this cut at about $6 billion when it would be fully phased-in in four year’s time. This works out to an average of $400 per Canadian household, less than half of what Scheer claims. 

Including the party’s proposed increase to the RESP and CESG, the measures will cost over $8 billion. With a promise to reduce the deficit, these tax cuts will be paid for through cuts to programs, although he hasn’t said what he’ll cut. We just need to turn to Doug Ford in Ontario and Jason Kenney in Alberta to see what to expect. 

Canadians don’t need more regressive and phantom tax cuts that primarily benefit higher incomes and lead to more social services cuts. We need the federal government to bring in a fair tax plan to close loopholes, make our system more progressive, tackle tax havens, and invest in programs that really work for Canadians.