It has been almost five decades since Pierre Trudeau pronounced his goal of a “Just Society,” which included economic equality and reduced poverty.
Years later, a young economist in Alberta would enter politics intent on unravelling the Trudeau legacy. Stephen Harper, the longest-serving Conservative prime minister since John A. Macdonald, retired from politics last week.
So which man, Trudeau or Harper, created a more “Just Society” for the less fortunate?
Let us examine the facts:
A tabulation from Statistics Canada shows that in 1984 when Trudeau retired after a decade-and-a-half in power, 8.5 per cent of Canadians were below the basic needs poverty line. After almost a decade of Harper, that number had dropped to a record low of 4.2 per cent, a one-third decline from the rate he inherited from the previous government.
If you do not like those numbers, try Statistics Canada’s low-income cut-off line (LICO), which measures poverty and inequality based on the share of income that households must devote to food, clothing and shelter. When Trudeau left office, the percentage of people living below that line had increased to 13.7 per cent. In Harper’s last full year in office, it dropped to a record low of 8.8 per cent.
In fact, the percentage of Canadians below the LICO line dropped more under Harper than under any other prime minister in the last 40 years. (During the Trudeau years, it actually rose.)
The story is very much the same for middle class incomes, which fell six per cent during Trudeau’s last eight years in power and rose 11 per cent during the Harper decade, a fact conveniently provided in the very first chart of Justin Trudeau’s very first budget.
How can that be? A steely-eyed, hard-nose Conservative economist whose stated purpose was “more freedom through less government” reduced poverty, while a social democratic statist increased it?
Those are the facts.
And their approaches could not have been more different.
The government under Trudeau Sr. hiked federal spending to an all-time record of 25 per cent of GDP, an increase by half from the time he came to power. By contrast, under Harper, federal spending dropped to 14.2 per cent of GDP, the lowest in nearly 50 years. For Trudeau, social justice meant nationalization, taxation, debt and spending – in other words, trickle down government. For Harper, it was all about work, family and community.
To reward hard work, his government cut taxes for the lowest income earners. “In total, cumulative changes have reduced federal tax revenue by $30 billion, or 12 per cent,” wrote the Parliamentary Budget Office in a report entitled, Revenue and Distribution Analysis of Federal Tax Changes: 2005-2013.
In particular, Harper increased the amount people could earn before paying income tax by about $1,500, removing a million low-income Canadians from the tax rolls altogether.
On average, federal income tax on families earning less than $30,000 dropped by more than 90 per cent.
These tax cuts helped the working poor get over the so-called “welfare wall” by making work pay more than social assistance. With the same goal in mind, he cracked down on employers who abused the Temporary Foreign Worker program to drive down wages for Canadians, and he accelerated immigration for newcomers whose skills and work ethic were in demand.
His pro-family policies included cancelling the earlier Liberal government’s national daycare program and disbursing the money directly to parents, which helped reduce child poverty to a record low of 8.5 per cent in Harper’s last full year, down by a third from when he took office and down by half from when Trudeau left office.
That is what the facts show. They also show that while Trudeau spoke eloquently about alleviating poverty, Harper actually did it.
If we rely on “reason over passion,” to quote Trudeau’s famous slogan, we find it was Harper who brought Canada closer to a Just Society.