Temporarily permanent

What, exactly, is a “temporary measure”? In difficult times such as these, “temporary” surcharges and taxes, or spending freezes and cuts, are the order of the day. When the price of oil soared past $100 (then $120, then $140) earlier this year, airlines, couriers and other transport-related businesses were quick to impose fuel surcharges, often multiple times. This week oil dipped below $70. Those fuel charges? According to B.C. Ferries CEO David Hahn – who hiked prices 10 per cent over the summer “temporarily” – well, we’ll have to wait to see what the ferry commissioner recommends.

Temporary is the new permanent. I remember when a former employer of mine was going through tough times getting an email from one of the vice presidents: to cut costs, he wrote, the company would “not be purchasing mechanical pencils for the foreseeable future.” We’d have to content ourselves with HBs. Two years later, the company was in the money – new contracts with Mexico and Korea, lavish sales conferences in Hawaii, hefty bonuses for the executive team. But still no mechanical pencils.

Of course, the precedent for all this is our income tax system. When Robert Borden’s finance minister Sir Thomas White introduced the federal income tax on July 25, 1917, it was as a short-term measure to help pay for Canada’s $600-million war efforts. “I have placed no time limit upon this measure but merely have placed upon Hansard the suggestion that, a year or two after the war is over, the measure should be reviewed by the minister of finance of the day,” he said, “with a view of judging whether it is suitable to the conditions which then prevail.”

White expected his income tax would not much outlast the war. In fact, 90 years on, it’s likely to outlast us all. So don’t expect that trip to the Island to get any cheaper. I, for one, have given up hope on any new pencils.