Hey, how would you like to have an extra one or two percent on your paycheque every month? Really? You would like that? Well, that’s surprising and newsworthy.
Of course, the way almost everybody in Alberta would answer the questions above is neither surprising nor newsworthy. I can’t think of anybody I know who wouldn’t jump at the chance to see a few more dollars in their take-home pay every month. Yet, somehow, Alberta’s mainstream media, opposition parties, right wing think tanks and lobby groups regularly run stories about polls and surveys where they present “newsworthy” facts that Albertans think they are paying too much in taxes.
The problem with these polls and surveys is that they are never contextualized for people. They ask questions like, “Do you support this or that tax?” and “Do you think your taxes are too high?” They never seem to ask people if they would favour a tax cut if it meant more crowded classrooms for kids, fewer doctors and nurses in the community or paying out of pocket for things like doctor visits and community road repairs.
A new poll released before the provincial budget by the Parkland Institute—where I work—also set out to explore Albertans’ attitudes about the taxes they pay. Not surprisingly, they found that when asked about taxation levels, 72 percent of Albertans felt they were paying either slightly too much or exceedingly too much in taxes. The results get a little more interesting when you break those numbers down a little bit. The details about methodology, the questions and the responses are posted at parklandinstitute.ca.
Respondents were given five options to choose from in response to how much they are paying in taxes compared to what they feel they should be paying—much less than they should, a bit less, about right, a bit more, and much more than they should.
Perhaps, surprisingly, given the assertions above about people’s reaction to taxes in general, one quarter of respondents felt they were paying about the right amount of tax. If you add to that the two percent who felt they were paying a bit less than they should and the 39 percent who felt they were paying a bit more than they should, you could make a case that 66 percent of Albertans feel that taxation levels are either exactly right or off just a bit. That’s very different from the constant right-wing assertions that the government is grossly over-taxing Albertans.
The Parkland poll also digs a little deeper than just that top-line question about whether Albertans feel over or undertaxed. That’s where things get more interesting and present something of a pushback on the story that is generally told about taxes.
For example, the poll found that 70 percent of Albertans (including 64 percent of Wildrose Party supporters) think that the richest 20 percent of Albertans do not pay enough in taxes. And 61 percent of Albertans think that major corporations do not pay enough in taxes. Both those numbers stand in stark contrast to the frequent statements from PC’s and the Wildrose that Albertans oppose the reintroduction of progressive taxation, and that they don’t want to see higher taxes on the rich and corporations. Clearly, whether the opposition likes it or not, Albertans would be willing to see the government go even further than it did on both progressive taxation and corporate taxes.
Where the poll results really get interesting is with a question that listed 15 different policy outcomes and asked respondents if they would be willing to pay a bit more in taxes to bring one or more of those outcomes about. A significant majority of respondents (81 percent) were able to identify at least one policy outcome they would be willing to pay higher taxes for, and 58 percent identified five or more things for which they’d be willing to pay higher taxes. The highest ranking options that people were willing to pay for included; better access to long-term care for seniors, reduced emergency room and surgery wait times and better income assistance for poor Albertans. All of this despite the fact that a majority of Albertans feel they are overtaxed.
The bottom line here is the degree to which media, politicians, and think tanks do a significant disservice to public discourse, democracy and the public interest when they report only the fact that Albertans don’t like taxes—without bothering to dig a little deeper. The Parkland poll results show that Albertans have a much more nuanced understanding of taxation and public services than just “taxes bad,” and that they are willing to consider higher taxes if they can see direct links to positive policy outcomes. There is still ample room in Alberta for a thoughtful conversation about taxes and public services. Given the current state of our provincial finances, it is long past time that we embark on it.
Ricardo Acuña is the executive director of the Parkland Institute, a non-partisan, public policy research institute housed at the University of Alberta. The views and opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute.