Of HST and flying pigs

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Hands up all those who like paying taxes. I thought so. Politics has become so dysfunctional recently that it is virtual electoral suicide to utter the T word during a campaign - it's why Mr. Ghiz assured us during the last election, that the HST was not coming to PEI. The problem is that if we want good government, the lifeblood of that critical part of society is the income it gets from taxation. We could, of course cease collecting all taxes and dispense with government entirely, but I don't think we'd like the results. As U.S. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said - "I don't mind paying taxes, it buys me civilisation".

There is certainly an argument to be made that the recent behaviour of governments - be they provincial or federal - is enough for us to begrudge giving them anything, but that is a behavioural problem, not a structural one. I don't think people would mind paying taxes if two things existed - that they were collected in a thoughtful and equitable way, and that the proceeds were spent wisely.

As far as reckless expenditure here on PEI is concerned - take your pick; Plan B, the Borden hills, Holman Grand Hotel, brand new ministerial vehicles, or any number of failed government-backed enterprises. If we must pay taxes - and we do - let's demand that the stewards of our money treat this public revenue with the care it deserves.

Here on PEI we have current issues that highlight a deficiency on both the collection and expenditure sides of the equation. I look at government as succession planning on a large scale. It is the role and responsibility of governments to look into the future with the best information and analysis available to them and to make collective decisions that steer the boat they are captaining on the safest possible course. That way, when they pass on control to whomever follows, their job is not hampered.

Taxation policy can be used by imaginative, thoughtful governments to influence behaviour and shape the society they prefer. What Premier Ghiz refers to as a loss of “wiggle room” in adopting the HST, is in actuality a loss of our autonomy to create a tax system which reflects the values of islanders. It is yet another surrendering of the precious powers that come with being a sovereign jurisdiction. For this reason alone (and there are many other powerful and valid ones), we should not have adopted the HST.

HST creates winners and losers - as all taxes do. Some people and sectors of society will benefit, some will pay the price - literally. I'd prefer a government that used the powerful tool of taxation to shape society for the betterment of all - both present and future citizens.

But another recent story might point us in an economic direction that could finally provide PEI with a development plan that could create prosperity on our near bankrupt island, and help us avoid any future tax increases. Pigs apparently do fly – or at least a thousand island hogs with the help of a jet liner are winging their way to China. They are sought after because of the fact that we are an isolated, small jurisdiction – two features of commercial life on PEI that have forever placed us at an economic disadvantage in a world where scale and proximity to markets provide a fiscal edge. We have never been able – nor will we ever – to compete in a global market place against other regions where labour costs, environmental standards, size and geography give them an insurmountable competitive edge. What we must do, if we want to create a prosperous, sustainable and clean economy on PEI is to take advantage of the unique characteristics that exist here and create products – whether they be pigs, pottery or potatoes that are unique and of exceptional quality. I want to be clear that I don’t necessarily support the specific example of transporting hundreds of pigs across the globe on airliners, rather that this type of economic activity which flows from our uniqueness and relative isolation are where we should be focusing our fiscal energy. We must create an island “brand” that shouts purity and excellence. This is something we can choose to do if we encourage producers – farmers, fishers, artisans, entrepreneurs – who take advantage of the unique qualities that make PEI such a special place. This, of course would require creative, bold political leadership with vision and courage, and that is apparently not going to come from those that have held the reins of power here for so long. What we need is a new way to govern; an administration that is transparent and accountable, has a wise long-term vision, treats all islanders with equal respect, and uses our inherent strengths in a way that builds a better, stronger PEI.