Margaret Thatcher, Kathleen Wynne, Alison Redford and the politics of conviction

This week saw the passing of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, one of the most influential politicians of the 20th century and probably the greatest female political leader of modern times. It is a truism that Thatcher led a revolution in the U.K. and beyond, one of the hallmarks of which was the notion that cutting taxes should be a central goal of modern government. Thatcherism, as it came to be called, in conjunction with Reaganism, its brother doctrine in the U.S., held that tax cuts were the cure to most of the economic and social ills that afflicted western democracies in the 1970s and 1980s.
The tax-cutting ideology espoused by Thatcher and Ronald Reagan reverberated far and wide, transforming the political right in some countries, but also having an impact on more moderate, centrist governments. The Chrétien Liberals, we should recall, boasted 13 years ago about bringing in the largest tax cut in Canadian history. This set a trajectory for federal tax reductions of various kinds that continued under both prime ministers Martin and Harper, the latter of whom took this ethos to absurd extremes when he suggested all taxes are bad.
At the federal level in Canada, for 15 years and spanning three different governments, the only acceptable direction for taxes has been down. Any politician who hints at the notion of a federal tax increase faced pillory if not political destruction. The ideological groundwork laid by Thatcher in the 1980s had a big influence on this world view taking root in Canada.
The worm, however, seems to be turning in this country on tax policy, at least at the provincial government level. And it is turning due to the ascent of two new women politicians on the Canadian scene — Premier Alison Redford of Alberta and Kathleen Wynne of Ontario. Together, these premiers may be on the cusp of sparking a minirevolution of their own on the issue of taxes. Both are courageously suggesting that perhaps some taxes will have to be increased. In so doing they are challenging a received wisdom that has gripped this country for two decades.
Wynne is basing her government’s entire agenda on the idea that Ontarians are going to have to pay more in taxes or other charges in order to generate the revenue needed to fix the chronic public transit issues that have afflicted the province — especially the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area — for a generation and that undermine both quality of life and economic productivity. It is a breathtakingly sensible idea that runs headlong into the anti-tax red meat Ontarians have been fed for many years, stuffed down their throats today by both Conservative Leader Tim Hudak and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.
For her part, Redford’s government has committed heresy in Alberta by suggesting that her province’s minimalist carbon tax might have to be more than doubled to have the desired effect on oilsands emission reductions. That Redford has even raised this issue in a province with the most anti-tax political culture in Canada, that prospers or slumps on the fortunes of the oil industry, borders on the heroic.
The nascent tax reform agendas emerging under the Wynne and Redford governments are potentially revolutionary in their longer-term implications if they succeed in sparking a conversation among Canadians about the appropriate role, levels and uses of taxes, and in the process recast two decades of anti-tax political discourse. Wynne and Redford might in fact be putting the first nail in the coffin of the conventional view that any talk of tax increases is political suicide in this country.
Margaret Thatcher famously described herself as a conviction politician, one who would not be dictated to by public or elite opinion. While Kathleen Wynne and Alison Redford — Liberal and Progressive Conservative respectively — reject Thatcherite policy ideology, they too appear to be conviction politicians in their own right. Both women seem to genuinely believe that the specific tax increases they are suggesting are good public policy choices that are needed to improve the quality of life, economic prosperity and environmental sustainability of their provinces, even if they might prove to be less than popular among citizens.
It is worth remembering that the last major act of Thatcher’s government was the introduction of the “community charge,” known euphemistically as the “poll tax,” one of the most controversial policies of her time in office. As premiers Wynne and Redford embark upon their own tax reform agendas they can take some comfort from the fact that even Maggie Thatcher — the inventor of conviction politics and one of the leading proponents of tax cuts during her era — believed in some tax increases.