Home August 2017 The Delicate Dance of Social Licence and Other Intangible Government Promises

The Delicate Dance of Social Licence and Other Intangible Government Promises

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Paige MacPherson.

There is no clearer example of politicians using fluffy, intangible sales pitches to make their tax hikes easier to swallow than the dubiousness of social licence.

Social licence, taxpayers were told, is necessary to getting Alberta’s oil to market. The only way for Albertans to gain that social licence was to suffer a little (or a lot), and swallow the bitter carbon tax pill that no one voted for.

Could there be a worse news story for social licence salesmen than the election results in British Columbia? B.C.’s election eventually resulted in a NDP-Green coalition government. Among this duo’s shared commitments was bringing a halt to the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

That pipeline expansion is necessary for getting Alberta’s oil to Asian markets. The NDP-Green coalition, permanent or otherwise, shows just how volatile Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s social licence really is.

The sticky question is how one is supposed to quantify so-called social licence. It cannot be measured. It is apparently a chip that taxpayers gained when the carbon tax was forced on them. But it was never guaranteed to bring any benefit, and if pipelines were indeed built, there was no way to prove it was because of social licence (as opposed to, say, actual licences that resource companies are required to earn).

In return, however, the government was given a sweet deal. They got an ever-increasing, multibillion-dollar new tax, a rebate program through which they take money from all Albertans then give it back to some of them in crisp new cheques, piles of cash with which to hand out green corporate welfare, and their own expansion through new departments and programs.

The only guarantee with a carbon tax, as with most tax hikes, is that people pay more of their money to the government. Unfortunately, politicians selling policies with intangible benefits to taxpayers is commonplace.

Municipal elections are coming up. Before Calgarians go to the polls in October, city politicians should be held to their actions more than their words. Councillors may talk about understanding the need for lower taxes. But their actions matter more.

There’s been no firm commitment to any lasting tax relief in the city. This past year, as downtown property values dropped, suburban businesses had to make up the difference through enormous tax hikes. The city covered some of that cost, spending $45 million to cap the hikes at five per cent. But the Conference Board of Canada is predicting downtown office values will drop another 15 per cent next year – meaning business property taxpayers could be facing the same problem, with no solution in sight.

As any person with a household or business budget knows reducing spending is the common-sense way to avoid increased costs. Yet, when a citizens’ panel recommended Calgary city councillors scrap their gold-plated handshakes on their way out of office – otherwise known as transition allowances – and vote annually on any pay hikes, councillors rejected the ideas, deriding the citizen-volunteer panel in the process.

Entering election season, politicians are likely to talk about the need for both tax relief and shiny new spending items. There’s a good takeaway for Calgarians from the intangible social licence sales pitch and the carbon tax Albertans got in return: at all levels of government, the rhetoric runs hot. But actions speak louder than words.

Paige MacPherson is Alberta director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

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