It was actually painful to watch Minister of Employment, the Honourable Pierre Poilievre yesterday standing in front of a Government of Canada back screen and behind a Government of Canada podium, but wearing a Conservative branded golf shirt, as he announced the largest one-time payout in Canadian history.
In case you missed it (and that barely seems possible, given how much time and energy the government has dedicated towards promoting it), the government increased the Universal Child Care Benefit for children under six from $100 to $160 and created a new $60 stipend for children between the ages of six and 17.
To add to the hype around the announcement, the program commenced January 1, but the government claims it was incapable of processing checks, so lump-sum, backdated cheques are arriving in parents' mailboxes this week. I generally do not dismiss the bureaucracy's general incompetence, but the fact that we are less than 100 days away from a general election may be a better explanation for the large, lump-sum, backdated payments.
There was a time when Conservatives would scoff at, or at least be embarrassed by, a huge expenditure, especially those considered to be an aggregate of the welfare state. However, I truthfully cannot remember when that might have been. After seven consecutive deficit budgets, adding over $200 billion to the national debt, including the single largest deficit in Canadian history, this Conservative government is clearly not embarrassed by spending taxpayers' dollars in large quantities.
However, you would think that there would remain some principled elements within the Conservative Party, who would see through the blatant and shameless self-promotion of having the minister wear a partisan branded shirt, having other ministers fan out all across the country to make comparable announcements, all on the eve of a national election, in which the polls, although tight, show the Conservatives trailing. Apparently, not.
The cheques might appear large ($520 for children under six and $420 for children under 18). However, it really is not Christmas in July for parents. In the last Omnibus Budget Bill, the government eliminated the Child Tax Credit. Moreover, the new Universal Child Care Benefit is taxable income. So although you get to cash the cheque before the election, when next April arrives, parents will be taxed on much of that so-called Christmas present. With the elimination of the Child Tax Credit, a family earning $90,000 per year will only be able to keep an extra $7.50 per month after the tax claw back.
Of course, from a political and electoral perspective, it matters not. The cheques get cashed before the election. The tax liability is not incurred until 6.5 months after the government hopes to be re-elected.
Both Treasury Board Guidelines and the Ethics Commission state it is inappropriate for a government official to blur the lines between a government and a partisan announcement. However, Minister Pierre Poilievre felt no apparent shame. He was quick to point out that neither the Liberals nor the New Democrats support the UCCB (a half-truth at best). Accordingly, he was not so subtly attempting to persuade an apparently gullible public that only the Conservatives could be trusted to protect families.
It's not new for governments to attempt to play politics with taxpayer money; but vote buying has rarely felt more shameless.
Conservatives used to stand for something, for small, limited government, for low taxes, for individual choice and individual responsibility for choices made. However, yesterday's spectacle has shown that the Conservatives are no better guardians of public money than any other party and worse, have taken electioneering and electoral bribery to new and dangerous levels.
In its nine years in office, the government has added over 120 boutique tax credits, designed specifically to garner votes from certain demographics. A true conservative would develop a simplified tax code and a lower base tax for all Canadians.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in asking his MPs to shill for the event, called Monday an "historic day," -- yes, the Conservative government handing out cheques totalling $3 billion is I suppose historic, as would any attempt to bribe taxpayers with $3 billion of their own money; although I can think of several other more appropriate adjectives.
It is time to stop pretending the Universal Child Care Benefit is about child care; it is about the election.
True conservatives are outraged (or at least embarrassed). Partisan Conservatives appear to be thrilled and self-satisfied. And poor Pierre Poilievre, he appears to be oblivious to the fact that he has been reduced to the role of infomercial pitchman, with a stylish golf shirt.
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