Liberals start an adult conversation

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial
Published On Tue Mar 30 2010

Give Michael Ignatieff and the Liberals credit: they tackled some difficult subjects at their weekend thinkers’ conference and invited speakers who would not necessarily tell them what they wanted to hear.

Speakers like former diplomat Robert Fowler (who said the Liberal party is “losing its soul”), former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge (who said the country faces a stark choice between cutting back medicare or raising taxes), and former ambassador to Washington Derek Burney (who advocated something akin to a merger with the United States).

One cannot imagine Prime Minister Stephen Harper – or, for that matter, NDP Leader Jack Layton – allowing such unorthodoxies to be uttered at a party policy conference. That Ignatieff did shows that he is not afraid to think outside the box – a welcome sign.

What the Liberals do next is another question. Summing up the thinkers’ conference with typical rhetorical flourish, Ignatieff declared: “We changed Canadian politics this weekend, and it will never be the same.” That remains to be seen.

In his wrap-up speech, Ignatieff called for increased investment in education and training, pension reform for Canadians not covered by private plans, a renewed commitment to tackling climate change, and a return to Canada’s role as a compassionate voice in world affairs. All are worthy ideas, but the specifics are still to be worked out.

At the same time, Ignatieff committed his party to a two-thirds reduction in the deficit in two years. To help reach this goal, he is proposing to freeze corporate income taxes, which the Conservatives are planning to lower from 18 per cent to 15 per cent over two years (at a cost of about $6 billion a year to the federal treasury).

While the corporate tax freeze won headlines and a stern rebuff from the Prime Minister’s Office (“a reckless plan”), there is less here than meets the eye. That’s because Ignatieff is promising to freeze the tax not at the current 18 per cent but at whatever the rate is when the Liberals take office. And the tax rate is due to be lowered to 16.5 per cent early next year. So if there is no election between now and then, the presumed $6 billion windfall from freezing the tax will be cut in half.

But at least Ignatieff is headed in the right direction – toward an adult conversation about the problems facing the country. He should be encouraged in this, not derided by the commentariat.

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