OTTAWA — It’s been déjà vu for the Conservative campaign as Andrew Scheer resurrected the promises of campaigns past in his pledges of tax credits for transit users and families with kids enrolled in arts and fitness programs.
Stephen Harper — Scheer’s predecessor — had promised the very same tax breaks during his own campaigns, pledges that became reality when the Conservatives formed government but were subsequently axed by the Liberals.
Now the measures are back in the election window, a useful political tactic for the Conservatives keen to show they are on the side of families and remind voters that it was the Liberals who killed the credits.
That’s the message Scheer drove home Monday as he promised to revive the two credits for kids’ programs, telling journalists that Trudeau “took away important support that families need.
“Why? Because at the end of the day Justin Trudeau thinks he can spend your money better than you,” he said during a stop in Kelowna, B.C.
The refundable children’s fitness tax credit would allow parents to claim up to $1,000 in expenses a year for sports programs for each child under 16. The separate children’s arts and learning tax credit would let parents claim up to $500 a year per child for arts-related expenses and extracurricular educational activities. Together, the two measures could save parents up to $225 annually for each child. Parents of children with disabilities would be able to claim higher amounts.
Several days earlier, Scheer used a backdrop of GO Transit buses to announce his party was dusting off another policy from the past, the promise to give transit users a 15 per cent tax credit for the purchase of passes and fare cards used for extended periods.
So why go into the political time machine for campaign inspiration?
Economist Craig Alexander said the appeal of such boutique tax credits is undeniable. They allow politicians to target niche segments of the population and the cost in lost tax revenue is not usually significant. The Parliamentary Budget Officer has pegged the cost of these three measures at $524 million a year by 2020-21.
“From an economic point of view, small tax cuts don’t have a big economy impact. By definition, they are small tax measures. But they often can be very popular,”said Alexander, partner and chief economist at Deloitte.
While the actual impact on the wallet might be limited, the promises come in an election where worries about affordability loom large, Alexander noted.
“When wage growth is only a little over inflation and when there’s a sense that the cost of living is putting a strain on households, Canadians will take whatever governments are willing to give them,” Alexander said.
He said such tax credits are often used when a party can’t afford an across-the-board tax break. Yet in this election, the Conservatives have promised a broad tax cut too, pledging to reduce the tax rate on income under $47,630 from 15 per cent to 14.5 per cent in 2021, and 13.75 per cent by 2023.
The boutique tax moves were previously promised in past elections by Harper and the Conservatives and became a reality when they won. The public transit tax credit was introduced in 2006, the children’s fitness tax credit became a reality in 2007 and the children’s arts tax credit came into force in 2011. Combined, just over 4.1 million taxpayers claimed the three tax credits in 2016, according to the finance department.
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The credits were cancelled for the 2017 tax year, among several changes by the Liberals when they brought in their Canada Child Benefit, which they said would be more generous to families compared to the Conservatives’ “confusing” collection of child benefit programs.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, meanwhile, has vowed to take his 2015 promise of the Canada Child Benefit and make it even better. He has said a Liberal government would increase that benefit by 15 per cent for children under the age of one.