September 27, 2011

How High Taxes?

William G. Davis

Davis was leader of one of the most successful political parties in any democracy, the Ontario Conservative Party (Canapress).

William G. Davis, “Brampton Billy”, was premier of Ontario from 1971 to 1982. As the minister of education he presided over the massive expansion of the Ontario system of higher education, transforming its universities from cash-starved and dormant institutions to some of the finest in the world. He also was the person most responsible for the creation of the community college system. TVO, the educational TV network, was his construction.

As premier, he introduced regional government in Waterloo and other places, expanded the health care system, played an extremely important role in creating support for the Charter and, toward the end of his premiership, guaranteed full funding for Roman Catholic separate schools.

In spite of these achievements Davis appeared a dull and uninspiring man. He was extremely intelligent and had a wicked sense of humour, but he cultivated quite a different image. When someone asked him why he was so bland, he replied: “Bland works.”

Mitch Heburn

Mitchell Frederick Hepburn, premier of BC 1934 - 1942 (courtesy Archives of Ontario).

Ontario has had a few flamboyant premiers. Mitch Hepburn in the 1930s introduced a succession tax and pasteurization, but he is best known for organizing a volunteer police force, variously known as “Hepburn’s Hussars,” or the “Sons of Mitches,” to defeat a strike at the General Motors plant in Oshawa.

Bob Rae was swept into power by a tide of dislike for the Liberals and PCs. His tenure coincided with one of the worst recessions since the Second World War. Economic circumstances forced Rae to make sweeping social changes, limit the work week, re-open union contracts, and generally undermine the NDP’s chance of major national success for almost two decades.

Perhaps Ontario’s most colourful premier was Mike Harris. Harris’s Common Sense Revolution was a dramatic and ambitious attempt to transform the social, political, and economic structure of the province. Harris’s regime generated intense enthusiasm and was equally strong disliked. People still differ about whether he left Ontario a better place or a worse one. Few people disagree that he had changed the province in fundamental ways.

Tim Hudak, leader of Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Party since 2009, wants to fill Mike Harris’s very large shoes as the “tax fighter.” A significant problem for Hudak, though, is that taxes are not inherently bad. At an extreme minimum, the state must provide safety and security (police), roads, canals and other waterways, and some sort of prison system. The key question is: What sort of taxes (and there are many) should we have and how high should they be?

Ontario’s voters aren’t dumb. They see Greece’s problem with its sovereign debt, and they realize that, at some point, the province needs to be in a position to persuade the bond rating agencies that it is likely to pay back the money people lent it. Ontario is running a deficit of $16 billion. That’s an increase of $25 billion to Ontario’s debt each year. That’s amazing. When the Liberals took over from the PCs, they were outraged that they inherited a deficit of $6 billion.

Sure, you can cut department budgets, but there has been a lot of that going on. What’s left is cutting entire programs. Or raising taxes. People normally don’t mind paying taxes if they think they are getting value for their tax dollars.

Visit The Canadian Encyclopedia for answers to the question, “Why do we pay taxes?”

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About William Christian

William Christian formerly taught political science at Mount Allison University and the University of Guelph. He has contributed regularly to newspapers for over thirty years. His biography of Canadian philosopher George Grant was a national best-seller. He recently published Parkin: Canada's Most Famous Forgotten Man (Blue Butterfly Books), a biography of Grant's maternal grandfather (and Michael Ignatieff's great-grandfather). He lives in Guelph, Ontario. He tweets at @WEChristian.


Politics, Primary Loyalties


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