While Liberals face fury over tax changes, Conservative leader picks a fight with an academic

Speaking to reporters on Friday about the Liberal tax reform proposals, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer tried to stoke the outrage with a remarkable claim about an academic.

Scheer accuses researcher of 'bragging' about killing the family farm

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer speaks at his shadow cabinet meeting in Winnipeg on Thursday. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

The fury surrounding the Liberal government's proposals to change the tax rules for incorporated small businesses is already such that Andrew Scheer and his fellow Conservatives probably needn't do much more than nod in agreement.

But on Friday, speaking to reporters about the Liberal proposals after the Conservative caucus meetings in Winnipeg, Scheer decided to try to stoke the outrage with a remarkable claim.

"The key architect of this policy is now bragging about the fact that it will essentially kill the family farm," he said, "and he says that's a good thing. That's the key architect of this Liberal policy."

Scheer did not name the "key architect," nor did he cite the comments he had in mind. 

It turns out he was referring to Michael Wolfson, a professor and researcher at the University of Ottawa who has studied the issue of income sprinkling, where an incorporated individual distributes their income to family members. He previously worked for Statistics Canada and the department of finance.

Wolfson's research was cited in the Liberal Party's 2015 platform to support a promise to review taxation policies around incorporated entities. He has since written op-eds on the issue and been interviewed by the media, including an appearance on CBC's Power & Politics on Wednesday.

According to a spokesperson for Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Wolfson's "published work has been reviewed and used in research," but the professor had "no role" in the design or drafting of the government's proposal.

But what about the suggestion that Wolfson was bragging that the policy would kill family farms?

Federal government is using a 2015 study to defend its controversial proposed tax changes

6 years ago
Duration 8:22
Michael Wolfson, author of that 2015 study, joins Rosemary Barton to discuss

What Wolfson said

According to a spokesperson for Scheer, the claim relates to comments Wolfson made during an appearance on CBC Radio's Alberta@Noon on Thursday.

During the call-in show, a woman from Cochrane, Alta., said the Liberal proposals would "destroy the family farm" by making it impossible for farmers to pass on their farms to their children. (The exchange begins at about the 39:30 mark of the show.)

The host then said there have been concerns about the impact on farmers and asked Wolfson for his thoughts.

"It's very tough — it's sort of like dairy subsidies — to take on the family farm," he said. "But there's technological change going on throughout the economy, people are displaced. There's a question: Is it the family farm or is it the cost of agricultural commodities that we should be thinking about? And if there are other ways of organizing agriculture in this country that are more cost effective …"

The host interjected with a question. But these are the comments Scheer cites to support his claim.

Wolfson's comments continued after he was asked about the impact of the proposed tax changes on farmers.

'Not an area I've delved into'

"Well, it's not an area I've delved into, and there's no question there's a lot of controversy about the portion of the finance proposals that deal with capital gains, and the farm rollover is one of the things that's caught up in that," he said. 

"As I said before, if you're going to give a tax break somewhere, you have to draw boundaries around it. And people have been multiplying the advantage of being able to claim that tax rollover, for example. And that's one of the things that the finance discussion paper proposes to go after, although they're not specific in detail. It's a political choice that I don't want to have to get into to say how far should we be willing to go as a society to say, 'even if it's not going to be the most efficient way to produce agricultural output, we're going to subsidize keeping the farm in a smaller size in a family unit.'"

The professor responds

Reached on Friday, Wolfson said Scheer's use of the term "architect" was "way overstated," that he'd only studied the issue of income sprinkling and that the inclusion of proposals related to capital gains and passive income were surprises to him.

"I am not the architect of anything beside the addition on our house," he added.

As a "serious researcher," he said he is "not inclined to brag." Wolfson said he was "simply trying to flag an important issue."

He seems to have been speaking to a larger question about capital gains and the tax treatment of family farms.

He further suggested that some of the things he has heard Scheer say on the tax issue are "no more than polemic, floating freely, devoid of any supporting evidence."

Overplaying one's hand?

Amid this tax controversy, the greatest risk to Conservatives might be that they will overplay their hand.

Think, for instance, of their forays into American media to complain about the Liberal government's settlement with Omar Khadr. As much as Canadians might not have liked settling with Khadr, one survey suggested they also took a dim view of such cross-border politicking.

For that matter, a Conservative leader who wants to differentiate himself from his predecessor with a more positive tone might also want to avoid launching an unnecessary attack on an academic participating in the national debate.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.