Two weeks ago I received an envelope from the Canada Revenue Agency that, surprisingly, was full of good news. First, it contained a letter from the Tax Centre that handles our returns listing the names and birthdates of our two children under the age of 18 on whose behalf my wife will be receiving the enhanced Universal Child Care Benefit. Second, it included a letter from Hon. Kerry-Lynne Findlay, Minister of National Revenue, informing us of the new package of family tax cuts and benefits that are being introduced by the Government of Canada (with asterisks indicating that they are subject to Parliamentary approval). The letter also mentioned enhanced benefits that have already been implemented. Finally, for good measure, the envelope contained an 8 inch by 3 inch colour flyer entitled “New family tax cuts and benefits for your family!” with the new benefits summarized in bullet points, a heart-warming picture of a family complete with canine strolling in the park, and the Economic Action Plan logo and Canada wordmark at the bottom.
What to make of all this? The letter from the Tax Centre rested on a foundation of integrated data management and provided an opportunity for my wife and me to ensure that CRA had the correct information about our children. That’s simply good public management.
The letter from the Minister and the flyer, however, are political messaging. Though “Government of Canada” rather than “Harper Government” was used, this was a clear instance of the Harper Government, in the run-up to the election, reminding this target group of all the things it had already done and would soon be doing for us. While this is less blatant and expensive than the Government of Canada commercials airing during the NHL playoffs, it is an instance of the same phenomenon. If the Liberals promised Advertising Commissioner in the Office of the Auditor General were in place, I’m sure (s)he would judge this mailing as unacceptable political advertising by the government.
More and more, politics as practiced by the Harper Government involves identifying target groups that polling data predicts are likely to vote Conservative, redistributing public resources to those groups through the tax system, and advertising to make sure that members of the group get the message and, impressed and grateful, vote Conservative. Demographics has happened to make me – a senior citizen with young children and a spouse who does not work outside the home – a recipient of many instances of Harper Government largesse. (Addendum: I once received Jewish New Cards from Stephen when the Conservatives were targeting the Jewish vote.)
The Harper Government’s vision of public policy is to a great degree based on marketing as she is taught in business schools. Use the redistributive capacity of the tax system to create private goods for targeted groups and then use public funds to advertise the availability and desirability of these goods. The French historian Renan wrote – and Pierre Trudeau quoted him – that “To have had glorious moments in common in the past, a common will in the present, to have done great things together and to wish to do more, those are the essential conditions for a people.” The challenge to the Liberals, NDP, and Greens in the coming election is to enunciate a vision of politics closer to Renan’s than Harper’s.
Finally, I should mention that I used this mailing as the basis of a question on the final exam in my public administration course, asking the students about the intentions of both the CRA’s and minister’s letters. Almost all the students in the course, many of whom are visa students from the People’s Republic of China, understood what the letters were about. So I feel I’ve done my duty to explain to my students how public management and political messaging dovetail as practiced by the Harper Government. What we must soon consider as voters is whether we want this vision or an alternative.