Is Canada’s Populism Moment Over, Or Just Beginning?

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This year possibly saw Canada’s most pointless election. Though it was meant to be A VERY SERIOUS AFFAIR, the election was a gong show misleading personal attacks, the exposure of embarrassing histories and the revelation that the Prime Minister of the country couldn’t say how many times he wore blackface. Amidst all of this was the arrival of Canada’s first angry populist party under the leadership of Maxime Bernier. Bernier started his People’s Party of Canada in response to narrowly losing the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, in a contest that many within the party saw as rigged against him. Bernier may have agreed, and having crafted a libertarian brand as “Mad Max” thought this was the time to strike out on his own (I met Bernier during his run for leader of the CPC and was surprised at how short he was. I’m not saying that Bernier started another party due to small man syndrome, but his loss to the 6’3” Scheer may have played some roll). Maxime BHis party was a grab bag of disaffected curmudgeons and, unsettlingly, a number of quasi-racists who were obsessed with immigration.

The outcome of the election seemed to put Canada’s populism to rest, such as it was. A short lived attempt to start a “yellow vest” movement here, like in France, failed badly and tainted Andrew Scheer, the only politician to make overtures to various populist movements. Maxine Bernie’s party failed to win a single seat, including his own, and concerns that a populist wave was crashing down on Canada seemed unfounded. And yet shortly after the election we seemed embroiled in “WEXIT”, a nascent movement for Western Independence.

WEXIT probably won’t go anywhere, but Canada does have serious problems in the west that the much of the rest of the country seems disinterested in, and if left unaddressed could fuel years of populist outrage and self destructive behaviour. For instance, where you aware that mortgages more than 90 days in arrears in Alberta and Saskatchewan were now wildly out of step with the rest of the country?

Mortgages

Or that the unemployment rate among young men in Alberta had now reached 20%? For much of the last two decades Alberta has been a major engine of economic growth for the country and a source of opportunity for people across Canada. Today it has been reduced to the status of a Spain or Portugal (albeit with better financials).

Unemployment ALberta

51A5iiYoarL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_In their book “Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support For The Radical Right in Britain” by Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford, the authors note that the rise of populist UKIP party is “not primarily the result of things the mainstream parties, or their leaders, have said or done…instead, is the result of their inability to articulate, and respond to, deep-seated and long-standing social and political conflicts”.

This problem has been exasperated by an increasing focus on middle-class swing voters who have become seen as central to political success compared to people who have been considered “left behind” in a political and economic sense. They go on to point out that the major parties have “avoided high-profile efforts to mobilize the concerns of the ‘left behind’ voters because both parties have concluded, that electoral success or failure will depend on the support of educated middle-class voters, who hold a very different set of values and priorities.”

This rings particularly true where the priorities of Alberta have be seen to be dismissed by the federal government (despite the acquisition of a pipeline) which has rushed to the aid of an Oshawa car plant and was so embroiled in helping SNC Lavalin it led to a damaging scandal. Over the last two elections Alberta looks increasingly isolated, a sea of blue in a country of red, more politically hegemonic and less diverse than the rest of the country, single-mindedly focused on one industry to the detriment of everything else. For its part Alberta feels under siege, suspicious of political parties that would sacrifice their economic future for environmental priorities they now regard as suspect.

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In an article for The Atlantic in January of 2018, David Frum notes that “If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.” The situation isn’t quite that dire for Western Canada, but I think that if political parties cannot learn to articulate and respond to deep seated social and political conflicts in Canada, western Canadians will not abandon their own self interests, but they might abandon some of the tenants of confederation.

Over the last few years the rise of populism has frequently been treated like some kind of fever waiting to break, or a tide that must eventually recede. From a political standpoint this makes some sense, as political historian Richard Hofstander had noted about third parties in the US; “challenger parties are like bees: once they have stung the system they quickly die.” But political upheavals and realignments do happen, and with Brexit now almost a certainty and confidence growing that Trump may win a reelection despite impeachment our recession of democracy may be more prolonged than we’d like to believe.

As most people have noted our current situation has a great deal to do with the events of 2008, which a decade on has left a lasting economic impression on society. Canada sidestepped the worst of 2008 and has enjoyed relative economic strength and political stability. Mostly. But with Canadians being one of the most indebted within the OECD, its worth asking the question what will the rest of Canada look like if we face a serious economic crisis? Will the words “peace, order and good governance” still define the country, or will we awaken a more politically agitated populace? One that has less tolerance for slow and steady results and is far less kind to politicians that seem incapable of addressing major issues?

Sex and Education and Wages

Insolvency RatesMany populists already exist in our politics. Issues around education, housing and debt remain hot buttons for the electorate. And yet our last election spent far more time focused on a speech by Andrew Scheer from over a decade ago. Does that seem like a political class articulating and responding to long standing and deep seated issues, or one that has learned to master the art of getting elected? Education costs continue to climb and yet the return to students is considerably lower, and prospects much worse for those with only high school diplomas. Debt in Canada has continued to rise, a story that seems evergreen, but insolvencies have also started climbing. Currently insolvencies remain low overall, but given the large amount of Canadian debt, what might it take to push people over the edge? Which politician can honestly say they’ve got a good plan to deal with these problems?

So, is the populist tide turning? I think it is too early for us to say, and Canadians should be wary of people arguing that Alberta’s WEXIT is a silly tantrum. Instead we should watch with a cautious eye towards the West. Where Alberta goes we may well follow.

Information in this commentary is for informational purposes only and not meant to be personalized investment advice. The content has been prepared by Adrian Walker from sources believed to be accurate. The opinions expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ACPI.

 

A Financial Advisor’s Thoughts on the Election

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Politics is personal and we are not in the game of telling you who to vote for, nor are we endorsing one party over another. These are our thoughts about three issues we find relevant to what we do on your behalf and how we look at the market.

Despite however sophisticated we may think we are, elections are still a confusing mess of promises, accusations and distractions. And making sense of what has been promised is quite difficult. Take for example the Liberals promise for an additional $20 billion in transit infrastructure spending over the next decade. That sounds great and will no doubt be welcome, but that works out to $2 billion a year nation wide (it is not being proposed to be allocated that way, but for simplicity purposes this will do). The cost of the controversial Toronto subway expansion is likely to exceed the $3.56 billion currently budgeted. Given the huge cost of transit infrastructure I’m at a loss to know how much difference $2 billion a year make across the country. Its a big sum, but I don’t know what it’s worth and I’d wager neither do you.

For this reason elections regularly fall victim to the desire of political parties and the media for an easier story to tell. And disappointingly this election spent far too much time talking about the niqab, an issue that, despite how you may feel, has only affected two people since the 2011 ban was first introduced.

There are a lot of issues in this election, but some that could have a meaningful impact on your investments and retirement savings, and I thought I’d share some thoughts on them.

TFSAs

Tax Free Savings Accounts have been a popular new tool for investing since they were introduced in 2009. Originally allowing for a $5000 per year contribution, then raised to $5500 and finally to $10,000 per year in 2015, the Liberals and the NDP have both vowed to roll back the increased contribution room to the more modest $5500 arguing that the room only benefits the wealthy. I have previously written that I think this is a bad argument and that TFSAs are a valuable tool for saving regardless of income. Obviously the Conservatives have promised to keep the contribution levels where they currently are, and notably there has been no discussion yet as to how a roll back would affect existing contributions and future contribution room, nor how the CRA would track this year.

Pension & Income Splitting

Pension splitting has been reaffirmed as a necessary and vital tool for retirees by all the parties. Conservatives, Liberals and the NDP have sought to reassure Canada’s most reliable voting block seniors that pension splitting will remain a part of their income options. In a telling move that illustrates how cynical perhaps our politics are and who will reliably turn up to vote, pension splitting will stay, but the NDP and Liberals would like to see income splitting go.

Income splitting, if I’m being honest, makes a lot of sense to me. Designed to help families with a large income earner and where one parent stays at home to raise children, it balances taxes paid where a two income family would pay less even though their combined incomes are equal to one large earner. The tax benefit is only open to families with children under 18 and capped at $2000, so it isn’t a necessarily huge tax write-off.

Interestingly, the argument against income splitting isn’t a great one. According to the Liberals (and backed up by independent think tanks) the tax credit is really only available to about 15% of Canadian households, and so by that logic alone has been described as a $2 billion tax break for the rich. My math suggests otherwise.

According to the 2011 census, there are just over 13 million private households in Canada. Couples with children account for more than 3 million of those households (3,524,915) or around 28%. That means (and I’ll admit I may have this wrong) eligible families for income splitting account for more than half of all households with children. So the idea that it isn’t a useful or widely available tax credit may not be as accurate as portrayed given who it is targeting.

Housing

Economist Canadian DebtAs you know, I hate Canadian housing, (but love talking about it). It’s a known disaster waiting to happen that consistently defies odds and makes everybody nervous. But while it’s where Canadians have accumulated the greatest amount of debt it hasn’t really been an election issue. The importance of reducing the cost of housing hasn’t really been recognized either. There are efforts from all parties to create more affordable housing, but that isn’t the same thing.

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To this end both the Conservatives and the Liberals have brought some terrible ideas to the forefront. Conservatives have made their once temporary home renovation tax credit permanent, although they’ve cut it’s value in half to $5000 from the original $10,000 and have pledged to increase the maximum you can borrow from the Home Buyers Plan. The Liberals are offering to allow you to dip into the First Time Home Buyers plan more than once. Neither of these plans are great. The housing market is too hot and encouraging the use of RRSPs (you know, your private retirement savings) to encourage more homeownership highlights the complicity of Canada’s government in the soaring debt levels of Canadian families.

Home Ownership

In the end we may long for a political party that advised caution against further home ownership in a country where it is already at record highs, and one of the highest in the developed world. Just a reminder, the view of the government is that while high debt is a natural byproduct of low rates, too much debt will still be your fault.

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We aren’t trying to influence your vote, but we think it is important to understand that underneath the bluster and mudslinging are policies which can directly impact the financial well-being of Canada, and Canadians like you. So please remember, on October 19th, vote!