UPDATE: Scott Brison's motion for a study on income inequality in Canada passed in the House of Commons on Wednesday. The motion was supported by opposition members as well as a number of government MPs.
The growing gap between rich and poor Canadians has caught the attention of a Liberal MP.
Scott Brison, the Liberal’s critic for finance and national revenue, is concerned an increasing numbers of Canadians are being left with less and that those being sidelined could end up causing big problems for businesses if the income gap isn’t addressed.
Brison wants a parliamentary committee to study the issue and report back with solutions. The Nova Scotia MP for Kings-Hants sat down with The Huffington Post Canada this week to talk about his motion, M-315, before MPs vote on it Wednesday.
Q: What is your motion about?
A: My motion simply asks that the finance committee of the House of Commons to study the issue of income inequality. It is a growing issue. We have seen in Canada over the last 30 years, under different governments of different political stripes, both federally and provincially, a growth in income inequality and in the gap between rich and poor. We are also seeing this as part of a global issue. It's notable, however, that income inequality in Canada is growing faster in recent years than it is growing in the U.S. and that is troubling.
We want the finance committee to study the issue to identify some of the causes for that growth in income inequality, to understand what the impact is socially and economically in Canada and to also make recommendations that we should consider. We should look at the Canadian tax system and consider whether or not we need some level of tax reform to build not just a fairer tax system but also potentially a more competitive tax system.
My fear is that if income inequality gets too great, and when citizens lose hope, that they may be drawn towards economic policies and politicians offering economic policies that are anti-market. If people lose faith in the system, that can lead to a rejection of the entire market-based economy and ultimately, that would be really bad for business. We can make a compelling case to business leaders that it is actually in their interest and in the interest of investors to ensure there is good social cohesion and equality of opportunity.
If there becomes a huge gap between, for instance, the level of early learning and childcare available to more well-off people and low-income people, well that is a direct hit on equality of opportunity. It is proven also that when social cohesion is eroded, when income inequality grows, that it affects everything from health outcomes to crime outcomes. You know, the Conservatives want to spend billions on new prisons, it is quite possible that if we spent more money on early learning and childcare right now we may not need the new prisons in ten years or twenty years.
The other issue is Aboriginal and First Nations communities. The biggest gap in Canada is really between Aboriginal and First Nations communities and the rest of Canadians. And I think that is as much of an economic issue as a social issue. When the fastest growing population in Canada and the youngest population is also the most socially disenfranchised and economically disadvantaged, that is a demographic, economic, and social time bomb. If we don’t address it now, we are going to pay for big time later in terms of social and economic costs.
Finally, in terms of inequality and the growth of inequality, if we have people fall through the cracks and we’re not able to harness their talents and their abilities to the fullest extent that is an economic costs that reduces our competitiveness, that reduces our productivity so I want to make the case not just to Canadians that this is a compelling social issue and that we need to address income inequality but that this is a case where good innovative social policy can be good for the economy and good for business.
And again, if people lose faith in the system and if they turn against the market based economy and they elect politicians who preach socialist anti-market policies, and in some cases pretty bad policies, that ultimately would be pretty bad for business. I think that this is an issue that Conservatives ought to be concerned, Liberals ought to be concerned, NDP ought to be concerned about ensuring that this issue is address through sound public policy. We want to avoid class warfare and that kind of thing. That is not constructive. Simply saying we want to tax the heck out of the rich doesn’t really address the problem because it doesn’t raise a whole lot of money but there are innovative, creative social policy investments we can make that can help reduce income inequality and inequality of opportunity. The real focus ought to be on inequality of opportunity as we move forward in ensuring that that is not eroded over time.
Q:You mentioned class warfare, a ticking time bomb related to Aboriginal and First Nations people, are we really at that point where the situation is that acute?
A: I come at it from a different perspective. I’ve been a business person, an investment banker, and I’m still partner in a private equity firm. I’m not some left-wing, rabid anti-business guy or some global-phobic-socialist luddite. I actually believe strongly in the market-based economy but I don’t believe in a market-based society. I think you need to have a level playing field in terms of, particularly, equality of opportunity. I fear that is being threatened now and I think that one of the contributing factors to that is this growth in income inequality.
If politicians don’t take this seriously, once the genie is out of the bottle, once people have lost faith in the system, I think it is then going to be very difficult and it may be too late to bring people back to a point where they do have faith in the system.
For generations, particularly since the Second World War, the strength of the American economy has been that people have had the sense that regardless of what station you are born into in the U.S. that you actually have a shot at it. You actually can succeed. I think that one of the reasons why growth in the U.S. is predicted to be very slow for the foreseeable future is that a lot of Americans have lost hope. They just don’t see what is in it for them. They just don’t believe they can make it. They just don’t have the same level of optimism that their parents had/ I think that when people lose hope that has very significant economic costs, and social costs, and implications even in terms of crime.
Q: How far are we from that point?
A: Income inequality is growing faster in Canada than it is in the U.S. I still believe that we are more socially cohesive in Canada. We have not become part of the gated community model to the extent the Americans have. I think there are more Americans who will say "Hey I pay for my kids private school, I pay for my family’s private health care, I pay for my private security and my private gated community, so I don’t want to pay taxes anymore."
I don’t have kids, but I don’t mind paying for education because I benefit from my neighbours’ kids being able to go to school. Canada benefits. It’s not just about helping your kids and helping your grandchildren, it’s about ensuring your neighbours’ kids and their grandchildren have a shot at it too. And you benefit from it.
So I think it is very important that we don’t go down that road of "What’s in it for me?" and we think, "What’s in it for everybody?" It is a cultural shift I fear is happening in Canada.
Q: So you don’t just want to study the tax code, you are looking at all types of solutions to address this problem?
A: I think we should consider some countries that do a better job on early learning and childcare, I think the Scandinavian countries do a better job of that. I think that the Germans do a better job of training and retraining and lifelong learning. I think that we need to restore the honour of the trades. I think that is just as important as the tax system to be honest.
So when I’m talking about learning, and the trades and early learning and childcare, I’m talking about narrowing the equality of opportunity gap and I think that is a far more constructive discussion then saying let’s tax the heck out of the rich people and turn it into some silly class warfare thing because it is more complex than that.
Q: The Conservative government doesn’t support your motion. They also don’t seem to acknowledge the problem is that severe. Does that concern you?
A: When I talk to Conservative members of Parliament as individuals, many of them understand that this is an issue, they see it in their own ridings. I’m confident and I’m hopeful, maybe I should say that I’m hopeful that the government may commission its own study perhaps at some point in the future or that there may be sufficient numbers of members of Parliament that support my motion.
Again, no single party can be blamed for having created this trend in Canada or any other country and no party has a monopoly on virtue or ideas to address it. So I just want to have a mature, adult discussion where we have open minds and open hearts and are prepared to take a look at what some provinces are doing better than other provinces, what some countries are doing better than other countries and learn.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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