Tim Hortons deal plays into Tory playbook

Five years ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered a speech at a Tim Hortons instead of the United Nations General Assembly that pretty well sums up the ranking of both institutions in the prime minister’s hierarchy.

Five years ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered a speech at a Tim Hortons instead of the United Nations General Assembly that pretty well sums up the ranking of both institutions in the prime minister’s hierarchy.

He’s rolled up the rim at a hockey game in Saskatoon and hoisted a Timmy’s at a British Columbia rink.

His former finance minister, the late Jim Flaherty, once hopped a Challenger to deliver a financial update at a Timmy’s in London, Ont.

When she launched her bid for the Liberal leadership, Sheila Copps went to the original Tim Hortons in Hamilton, a place I remember as a kid as a doughnut destination after dusty evenings on the baseball diamond.

There is likely no politician in this country whose road to electoral victory did not go through a Saturday morning of glad-handing at the local Tim Hortons. And Canadian politicians — particularly Conservatives, who proudly placed an outlet in Kandahar, Afghanistan — have been a key part of the patriotic marketing buzz that has grown the ubiquitous chain here.

Now the Conservatives have another reason to give Tim a hug.

It may not be as warm and fuzzy as a frigid ice rink on a winter’s dawn, but the US$11-billion takeover of Tim Hortons by Brazilian-owned Burger King is now a powerful symbol of Harper’s cuts to corporate taxes and his move to make Canada more business friendly.

“Canada is open for business,’’ Finance Minister Joe Oliver crowed on Tuesday.

Industry Minister James Moore’s office said the “extremely positive’’ deal will bring jobs and investment here.

It touted a KPMG study from June showing Canada to be the most competitive business tax environment in the world, far outscoring the U.S. on tax considerations.

Expect the Burger King deal to be part of Harper’s key economic message going forward, even if the tax savings for the burger chain may not be all they seemed at first glance.

Canada’s basic corporate tax rate is about 26 per cent, while it is about 35 per cent in the U.S., but both companies paid a rate in the range of 27 per cent at the time of the deal.

Burger King, facing a consumer backlash south of the border over “tax inversion,” said the deal was all about growth and the Canadian market and that was why the newly merged company would be headquartered in Oakville.

The main message here is that Timmy’s will remain Timmy’s and our politicians will continue to pander to its patrons.

The symbiotic nature of the relationship between Tim Hortons and Canadian politicians was neatly captured by Susan Delacourt in her 2013 book Shopping for Votes: “Tim Hortons voters don’t like fancy, foreign synonyms for their morning coffee and they like their politics to be predictable, beige — just like the doughnuts and décor at their national treasure of a food retailer,” she wrote.

On that day in 2009, Harper was celebrating Tim’s “return home” after it had been bought by U.S.-based Wendy’s in 1995.

Its iconic status did not suffer during that period. It won’t now.

“The United States is a great place to visit, but let’s face it, there is no place like our home and native land,” said the prime minister.

Harper managed to evoke the former Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Horton, the great Toronto teams of the 1960s and the NHL original six. He even quoted Pierre Berton and spoke as a hockey parent who knows “that when it is -20C and everyone is up for a 6 a.m. practice, nothing motivates the team more than a box of Timbits, and nothing warms the parents in the stands better than a hot double-double.’’

It was, as Delacourt wrote, “an unsubtle way to persuade Canadians of Harper’s true patriot love and homespun authenticity.’’

But the real point of the speech was to tout his carving of corporate tax rates, a move that he said brought Tim Hortons back home.

It is again controlled by a foreign conglomerate, but this time the story is much cuddlier for the government because the Canadian company is staying home and Burger King is coming north.

Expect the Tories to double down on their favourite double-double.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs columnist. Contact him at tharper@thestar.ca.

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