Ontario Liberals need to understand that progressive politics is the middle ground

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately of what a Congresswoman Alexandria Occasio-Cortez-style platform would look like in Canada, and in Ontario in particular.

I’ve written previously that the idea of “centrism” is being used as a misnomer; the public has moved to the left on issues like a $15 minimum wage and taxing the ultra-rich.  An objective definition of “centrism”, therefore, would reflect the fact that the Overton window has moved to the left.  Instead, when people say “centrism” they seem to mean “socially liberal enough to be acceptable at Rosedale cocktail parties, but really fiscally conservative so I can buy whatever I want”, which does not seem to have a constituency outside of elite, technocrats, like Howard Schultz.

With that in mind, what would a bold, aggressively progressive agenda look like?  Even if the policies might seem impractical, the goal of an AOC-style approach to politics seems to be based less on legislation than inspiration: goal-setting and pushing further than might even seem possible gets things done.  Being bold can move mountains.

As the Ontario Liberal Party rebuilds, setting out the vision is as important as selecting the leader (former Government House Leader John Milloy sets this out rather well in a column).

Ontario Liberals need to stand for opportunity, equality and justice for all in an era of stagnated wages and rising inequality.

Let’s start with how to pay for our goals, rather than the goals themselves.  It’s important Ontario Liberals recognize we need to rehabilitate our brand on fiscal responsibility — but we need to do it in contrast to Premier Doug Ford’s slash-and-burn approach.  I’m all for sensible penny-pinching, but we need to talk about revenue as well.

I’ve written previously that Ontario needs a robust strategy to optimise its real estate assets; I’m excited by this possibility, whether through air rights above subway stations or coffee shops inside them, or advertising options on government land: whatever brings in passive income.

But beyond that, I can think of no better manner to address income inequality than by strategically increasing our taxation of the ultra-rich in order to finance programmes to lift up the working- and middle-class families and seniors who work hard to build our society — and who decide elections.

Pollster Frank Graves suggests nearly 70% of Canadians support a 2% “wealth tax” on all assets over $50 million.  More than that, Canada is the only G7 nation without any form of estate or inheritance tax (Ontario just uses relatively minor probate fees).

Canada has over 10,000 people worth over $30 million, and their combined net worth is over $1.1 trillion.  In other words, 15% of Canada’s wealth is owned by less than 0.4% of Canadians; of this, nearly 30% inherited their wealth, with 26% inheriting wealth from more than one generation back.  The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives estimates, “Instituting a 45% estate tax on estates valued over $5 million, in line with the rest of the G7, would add $2 billion to federal revenue”.

As political theorist David Moscrop wrote, “Today, democracy is up against the wall all over the world.  This is precisely the moment at which we should double down on including people…in the economic system…That means redistribution.  One fine way of doing that is taxing extreme wealth through an inheritance tax and using those funds to invest in something far more valuable than a vacation home or luxury yacht”.

What could those far more valuable things be?

In no particular order, Liberals should champion:

Universal pharmacare for all.  Free preschool.  Not just restoring the OSAP “free tuition” programme but actually funding universities and colleges such that we could abolish tuition entirely.  Student-loan debt forgiveness.  A combination of a basic income or increases to welfare rates to ensure no one is living in poverty.  Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, indexed to inflation.  Public transit as free as our roads and highways, and massive investments to build more through a Green New Deal-style government mobilization to fight climate change.  (Indeed, major corporations are already paying more tax because they’re doing so well — they can afford to pay a reinstated cap-and-trade programme, the proceeds of which could fund transit for average people.)

There are people in my Party who will cry havoc and say this is unabashed radicalism.  To that I say simply: sure, but it’s popular.  Popular enough to win.  And win big.

Even those who want the Ontario Liberal Party to return to the “centre” will need to concede that these ideas are the centre.  The middle ground has shifted in the years since the 2008 crash.  It’s time Canada’s progressive politics catch up.

These are also necessary measures.  We are staring down both the real risk of the end of liberal democracy through such abject inequality and of advanced civilisation as we know it through climate change; our response cannot be small, incremental changes.  It’s a bonus that these ideas are popular, but even if they weren’t — they’d still be necessary.

Photo Credit: TVO

More from Jonathan Scott.   @J_Scott_

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