What do we mean when we talk affordability?

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As the official writ-period is poised to begin, the three main parties have spent a lot of time and energy trying to make affordability their main issue.  While Andrew Scheer and the Conservatives have been trying to make this their main message – particularly as it concerns things like the federal carbon price – all of the parties have variations of the same thing, and are promising policies around things like capping mobile phone and internet prices.  And while there’s no guarantee that this is what the election will eventually be fought over – there are some six weeks in which world events could quickly overtake things, be it the escalation of Donald Trump’s various trade wars impacting the Canadian economy, a Trump-led currency war, or the situation in Hong Kong boiling over so much that the Canadian government would need to evacuate its 300,000 citizens there (and possibly other newly created refugees).  But for the sake of argument, let’s delve into what an election on affordability would really mean.

For starters, let’s be up front and note that a lot of this talk is pretty vacuous, and none of the parties are particularly clear on just who they’re targeting, because “everyday Canadians” doesn’t necessarily pan out in their plans or messaging.  The Liberals have spent the last several years messaging about the Middle Class™ (and those working hard to join it), but refuse to quantify what that actually means, while also promulgating the false narrative that there has been stagnation in those middle income deciles when statistics don’t actually bear that out – unless you carefully select them, which they did repeatedly as justification, when one only needed to broaden the timeline to show that they were selling a load of manure.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, have repeatedly talked about “everyday Canadians” but hewed to a series of policies predicated on boutique non-refundable tax credits.  Those typically disproportionately benefit the wealthy, because people who don’t make enough to pay income tax can’t benefit from them, and the benefits only become worthwhile at the top end, by which point you’re moving outside of the range of “everyday Canadians.”  We saw this play out again when Scheer promised to implement his leadership policy (and defeated private member’s bill) about making maternity and parental benefits tax free – something where the benefits are disproportionately weighted to the top income earners.  And the NDP?  Their focus on universal programmes for things like removing the HST from home heating, or free tuition also disproportionately benefit the wealthy.

With this in mind, talk about “affordability” then starts to move into a distrust of statistics – particularly inflation.  Everyone likes to claim that everything is rising faster than inflation – err, except that is inflation, and Statistics Canada tracks all of those things they talk about, and lo, inflation remains within the target range of between one and three percent, and largely at two percent.  This has also given rise to a dangerous breed of StatsCan “truths,” who insist that the arm’s length statistical agency has been cooking the data to benefit the Liberals, whether it’s with the inflation data, or as we saw online this week, poverty figures.  Conservative Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt outed herself as a StatsCan truther when she declared that the poverty line was lowered in order for the Liberals to claim that they lifted more people out of it, which is not only untrue, but it’s dangerous hokum.

For people like Raitt, and others who preach from the gospel of “affordability,” they need to disprove the StatsCan data because they feel that things are getting more expensive beyond the rate of inflation, and they rely on anecdotal tales of woe and suffering.  When she was Conservative finance critic, Raitt liked to share these tales of hard done-by families in Question Period to hammer the government, but when someone did the math of what she was decrying, it didn’t add up.

Which brings us back to this election – just how do parties plan to tackle “affordability,” if it’s something that they refuse to either define, or where they steadfastly ignore the data on it?  The Conservatives try to frame affordability around taxes, and yet their plans to replace transparent carbon prices with the hidden costs of regulatory measures that will get passed onto consumers without the benefit of the current carbon rebates, how is that helping with “affordability?”  Likewise, the NDP will talk about affordability in terms of things like promising to build half a million affordable housing units immediately, without taking into account the fact that there are labour shortages in many markets, there are no site plans that can take months or years for all approvals, and even if the plan is to transition unemployed energy workers to construction jobs, that can’t happen overnight, and has the potential to overheat certain markets which drives up costs.

And when we really get down to it, if parties are so concerned about the high cost of living, what they’re really saying is that the Bank of Canada has allowed monetary policy to be too loose.  And as economist Stephen Gordon suggested a few weeks ago, if that’s the case, then it’s up to the media to start asking parties just what they think that monetary policy should be, as the Bank of Canada’s mandate is coming up for renewal in 2021, and they have an ability to do something about that – given that they obviously think that the Bank of Canada has done a poor job of constraining the cost of living.

I can pretty much guarantee you that every party will balk at answering this question because they don’t actually know what they’re talking about.  “Affordability” is often just code to make it look like they’re concerned with “pocketbook issues” when those are not actually what is on their agenda, though they may be a by-product (such as promises to expand social programs).  And rather than just transcribe these talking points, those of us in the media should challenge these narratives a little more forcefully so that we can see what these parties are really selling Canadians, rather than the wrapping they’re putting on the package.

Photo Credit: Maclean’s

More from Dale Smith.     @journo_dale

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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