You might consider the argument Colin Horgan makes in his recent opinion column — that money talks in Canadian politics — a given.
Lobbyists influence politicians, Horgan writes, and it is mainly rich interest groups that can afford lobbyists; ergo, the rich have more influence. Generally, this can certainly be true, but it's important not to over generalize either; remember that lobbying is not universally effective, nor is it of benefit only to rich big shots.
The proposed income tax changes of which Horgan writes, which will significantly increase taxes for small businesses, are a prime example of how the political influence game can be far less simple than it seems.
Horgan mentions that a Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) lobbyist met with Finance Minister Bill Morneau's senior policy adviser on the very same day that the tax changes were announced. The implication seems to be we should take this as ominous, yet why this should be disturbing is unclear.
- Money talks in Canadian politics. This tax reform showdown is just the latest proof
Yes, the CFIB is clearly lobbying the government, and presumably has been for some time. But to me, this suggests that the group has done a spectacularly poor job of wielding its influence, since its main constituents are being slammed with a new government policy that will be very detrimental to them.
The same goes for the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), which, Horgan notes, lobbied a couple of policy advisers in the Prime Minister's Office about "tax planning using private corporations" in May.
If money is talking in Ottawa, it's apparently not doing so very loudly or persuasively.
Another problem with Horgan's suggestion that powerful interests are having their way with our politicians at the expense of the little people is that it ignores the many voiceless small business owners out there who are little people themselves.
These owners are going to suddenly owe the government a great deal more money every year, which will have a huge impact on their lives. They would like to make that known, but they are too busy doing stuff like making a living – sometimes just scraping by – to afford the time and money to schedule meetings on the Hill.
It's good for these owners if groups that can afford it – groups such as the CMA – get in there and fight. Or it would be if the groups were having the kind of effect Horgan implies, anyway.
What's more, it's not helpful to anybody to perpetuate the prevalent stereotype of doctors as rich fat cats, as tempting as this may be. There are certainly many worse lots in life than being a practicing physician in a first world country such as Canada, but people tend to forget that doctors work in a profession that typically requires massive student loans and years of training for paltry pay, while offering no pension for the retirement years (though plenty of bureaucracy during the years of practice).
Morneau implies doctors are evading taxes by exploiting loopholes in Canadian tax law. That is what the tax changes are meant to correct, but in many cases, doctors are not so much ducking tax obligations as simply creating working retirement plans given the circumstances of their employment and the nature of their work.
Now, you may scoff at the idea that doctors and lawyers (who may also be affected by the tax changes if they are sole practitioners or have their own small firms) deserve our pity and sympathy. Horgan suggests that constituency calls to MPs are probably a lot more effective when they come from doctors and lawyers; these individuals are likely to be more adamant and more persuasive.
But there's a flipside to having a reputation for being strong and prominent: the public has little empathy for you… and politicians know it.
So, while Horgan is complaining – or perhaps just warning – that there will be a rhetorical showdown over the tax changes only because those negatively affected have the money to exert influence, I think this is an example of the reverse phenomenon. It's because they are perceived as wealthy that a class of Canadian small business owners – which includes many doctors and lawyers – is an easy target for a government looking to make political hay.
Therefore, while Horgan may see the opposition to the tax changes as evidence of a special-interest income divide, I see the tax changes themselves as evidence of an attempt to exploit societal jealousies and misunderstandings that stem from a class divide. And it will only get worse if this is truly our government's idea of tax reform.