By Luke Faulks, Opinions Editor
How do you describe your priorities as a Canadian voter? From climate change to income inequality, from reconciliation to immigration, we all have a range of issues that animate us. But what’s true for everyone is that those interests don’t stop at our wallets. We’re not just taxpayers, we’re citizens. Reducing the public to “taxpayers” minimizes our roles, reduces our interests, and teaches politicians the wrong lessons.
In any given election cycle, Canadians, and by proxy, their interests, will be reduced to taxpayers and taxes. It’s a trend we can see across the political spectrum. An easy search through Liberal, Conservative, NDP, and Green statements shows parties embracing the term. And our political leaders aren’t the only ones who’re guilty of leaning into the rebrand. News and Opinion pieces from prominent Canadian outlets sprinkle the term throughout articles, as does academic research.
We need to fight back against the impulse to use the term.
“Taxpayer” reduces our role in politics to that of a piggy bank. It assumes stymied participation, something Canada doesn’t need help with. Canadian political participation has yet to match the over 79% turnout observed during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. The “taxpayer” brand is a symptom of that low turnout. Outside of paying taxes, the term suggests, Canadians don’t have a role. We don’t have a role in running for office ourselves, volunteering with public organizations, or otherwise engaging outside of whining about how our tax dollars are spent. It reduces our role to the point of endangering a healthy political system.
The term is also derogatory to Canadians, whose political interests exceed how politicians are going to spend their money. Case in point, we’re a country that knows fully well that fighting the climate crisis requires significant investment. We want effective climate action, anyways. Indigenous reconciliation is another issue that requires substantial investment. Despite the impersonal nature of the problem for most Canadians and the hefty price tag attached to it, it’s an issue that Canadians feel passionate about, which makes it worth politicians’ time to integrate these issues in a way that doesn’t reduce us to the taxes we pay.
Lastly, the taxpayer brand risks not just softly disenfranchising and explicitly reducing Canadians, but creating a reverse effect — telling politicians that raising or lowering taxes is the way to win votes. A 2013 study found that politicians on both sides of the aisle were convinced their voters tended to be more conservative than they actually were. The study suggested politicians were more likely to overestimate voters’ desire for austerity measures, and more likely to underestimate voters’ appetites for tackling social justice issues.
The race to the bottom on taxation — the natural result of politicians’ belief that they can run on lowering taxes — since the beginning of the neoliberal era has had a damaging effect on the government’s capacity to problem-solve. To effectively solve issues like climate change and Indigenous reconciliation, we need a fully-funded government. Using the term “taxpayer” implies a penny-pinching public that’s reluctant to see their money go anywhere but into their bank accounts. Using a more comprehensive term, like “citizen,” would help support the perception that voters are willing to support spending initiatives.
During his inauguration as Canada’s 28th governor general, David Johnston provided a rallying mantra for citizens:
“We are a smart and caring nation. A nation where all Canadians can grow their talents to the maximum. A nation where all Canadians can succeed and contribute.”
Each of Johnston’s important calls to action requires much more than being referred to as “taxpayers.” We have interests that both encompass and exceed worrying about how politicians spend on us. We’re citizens, not just taxpayers.