Party platforms show gaping divide between Toryworld and Liberal-land

NationalPost.com – fullcomment/Canada
Apr 12, 2011. Last Updated: Apr 12, 2011.  Kelly McParland

Though neither could be called a fun read, the platforms recently released by the Liberals and Conservatives are deeply revealing. Nobody could work their way through these two documents and claim not to know what the parties are about.

They thus offer a clear choice for Canadians, perhaps as stark a choice as any since the Conservatives proposed a free trade agreement and the Liberals vowed to block it. (Whatever happened to that promise, anyway?) After five years in office, Stephen Harper is stating, in as clear a language as politicians ever allow themselves, what he believes in. The Liberal version is far woolier, much less concise. But that itself is part of the message.

First hint of what’s to come: the Liberal document is almost one-third longer, at 93 pages to 66, partly due to the Liberals’ need to couch every statement in windy declarations of the party’s all-consuming high-mindedness, moral eminence and greater connection to Canadian values. But mostly it results from their determination to push government into far more areas of activity than Harper’s Conservatives, with policies on issues of every stripe. Even when they have little or nothing to say, they mask it with lengthy attestations of good intentions, making clear that — even if they don’t have a viable position — they want people to know they care.

Both make room to demean their opponents. The Tories, again, are more concise. Rather than recognize Michael Ignatieff’s party by its proper name, the platform constantly refers to it as  “the Ignatieff-led coalition with the Bloc and NDP.” The Liberals get even by portraying “the Harper government” as mean-spirited, tight-fisted, dishonest, incompetent, intolerant, secretive and an embarrassment on the world stage. Tories also hate volunteers and activists, and cheat women out of a fair wage.

On Taxes and the economy, the government says flatly it “will not raise taxes on Canadian consumers and families, and we will not raise taxes on the businesses that create jobs for Canadians.” It will “eliminate the deficit and return to balanced budget. We will achieve this without raising taxes.” The party says flatly it will not cut payments to individuals or provinces for health care, education or pensions.

The Liberals don’t lock themselves in quite so tightly. They promise to reduce the deficit to 1% of GDP within two years “and set subsequent rolling targets” to eliminate it eventually. They pledge to make the rich pay, raising corporate taxes to provide money for social programs and restricting stock option plans for wealthy executives. They say there will be no increase in personal or small business taxes, or the GST.

Both parties pledge to review government spending in search of savings, though the Tories have taken more heat for it by specifying a figure — $4 billion — without giving details. The Liberals don’t give details either, but the Conservative pledge has been treated as more threatening, perhaps because pundits believe they’re more likely to follow through. It is assumed the Conservatives will save money by reducing the size of the civil service to suit their view of a more compact government. The Liberals, in contrast, assert their faith in the civil service as “a cornerstone of our democracy and good government” and pledge to work with public service unions in pursuit of “renewal.”

One of the clearest areas of the difference in attitudes is health care. Neither party addresses the nub of the issue: how will we pay for the frightening escalation in costs at a time when aging baby boomers are about to put more pressure than ever on the system? But the contrast in mind-set is stark. The Conservatives deal with the issue in nine paragraphs, the Liberals devote six pages.

Mr. Harper pledges  to “work collaboratively with the provinces and territories to renew the Health Accord”, which expires in 2014 calls for annual increases of 6% in Ottawa’s payments to the provinces. He has pledged publicly to maintain the 6% elevator after 2014, though it’s not in the platform. But he is careful to specify that health care is a provincial responsibility and Tories will “respect limits on the federal spending power.” In other words, we’ll keep sending the money, but health is a provincial responsibility and we’re not going to interfere.

The Liberals, on the other hand, want to interfere at every turn. Ottawa is “a major player in public health and health promotion,” and the Liberals plan to keep it that way.  They have ideas for a new “Canadian Health Promotion Strategy” to promote exercise and healthy food. There will be a “buy local fund” and new standards on transfats and salt. They’re working on a Canadian Brain Health Strategy that will get $100 million to study Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease, among others. There will be a Rural Health Care strategy, with incentives for doctors and nurses to practice in rural areas (which the Tories also offer). Liberals “will work with the provinces and territories to ensure that all Canadians from coast-to-coast-to-coast have a drug plan” covering major illnesses. There will be “Pan-Canadian Collaboration on Quality Improvement, Innovation and Best Practices.”

While far more ambitious, Mr. Ignatieff gives no more idea than Mr. Harper on how to deal with the unsustainable costs. The system is already under intense pressure; Mr. Ignatieff adds more programs without explaining how to pay for the ones we have.

Health care is just one of many areas where the Liberals want to do more, while the Tories want to concentrate on responsibilities they already have. The Liberal platform is absolutely jammed with ideas for more government.

There will be access for the Internet for all Canadians; training for “digital life skills” for the elderly and lower incomes; a new daycare plan;  refinancing for the troubled First Nations University in Saskatchewan; a Canadian Clean Energy Partnership with the provinces; a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions; $1 billion in incentives for ‘renewable power entrepreneurs; a Canadian Freshwater Strategy, more protection for marine areas;  a “world leading oil spill contingency plan”; a ban on new oil exploration in the arctic and oil tanker transport off northern B.C.; a “poverty reduction plan” (that  includes “a renewed focus on volunteerism”); a 100% budget increase for the Canada Council for the Arts; the restoration of two little-used arts programs ended under the Tories; the reinstatement of the Court Challenges Program, which finances activist groups to sue the government; elevation of civil service pay equity to a human right;  the revival of rural mail services curtailed for budget reasons; more aid money for Africa (and less for whoever the Tories are giving it to); and more.

Much of it is only vaguely if wordily explained. For example, the Liberals “will engage with coastal communities, First Nations, provincial governments, tourism operators, ocean industries and other ocean users in decisions about how to reduce risks to oceans health.” I wonder how much that will cost. The party believes in collaboration, and lots of it. Its policy on international engagement outlines a return to the traditional Liberal faith in multilateral talking shops like the UN, the Commonwealth, the Organization of American States, NAFTA, the Francophonie and the G20.

“Multilateralism has been fundamental to the pursuit of Canadian interests and our contribution in the past. In new ways, it must also be key to our future,” the platform argues, referring, once again, to the Liberal view that Canadian Forces should be devoted mainly to “peacekeeping,” and hinting strongly at a return to the days of thin budgets for the military.  Plans to buy new jet fighters for the Air Force will be cancelled and all military procurement put under review. Money will be key to all future decisions. It’s back to the days when Canadian troops had to hitch rides on foreign aircraft.

The Conservatives see national security as a core responsibility and  treat it as an extension of their crime program. They plan to buy the F-35s, crack down on human smuggling, strengthen the Coast Guard by giving it law enforcement powers and establishing armed boarding teams, toughen procedures for deporting foreign criminals, expand a program to prevent hate crimes, re-introduce anti-terrorism legislation, and continue its northern strategy by adding education programs and building or extending two far-north highways.

Mr. Ignatieff dismisses Mr. Harper’s regular visits to the far north as “military photo ops and grandstanding.” Liberals would “reverse the mistakes” by appointing an Ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs and a permanent secretariat for the Arctic Council to deal with other polar nations.

The Tories stress plans for new free trade initiatives — agreements with eight countries have been signed since 2006 — including India and the European Union. They will continue talks with the U.S, on a “perimeter agreement” dealing with border congestion and security concerns. They pledge an unlikely “one-for-one rule” on regulations that requires elimination of an existing rule for each new one introduced, and would establish a new Air Expeditionary Wing with 550 military personnel at CFB Bagotville.

They also do their best to one-up the Liberals on patriotism: While the Liberals promise a big celebration for Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017 and would create a “Canada at 150″ panel to plan things, the Tories see their birthday party, and raise them several additional celebrations, marking the War of 1812, the Queen’s diamond jubilee in 2012, the 150th anniversary of the Charlottetown conference (where Confederation was planned) and the 200th anniversary of Sir John A. Macdonald’s birth.

The Conservatives also put in writing their refusal to pay for professional sports facilities, a dig at the Liberals promise to help build an arena in  Quebec city, and would insist courts impose a “victim surcharge” on convicted criminals — a requirement that is often ignored. For good measure, they’d double the surcharge.

It’s two very different views. The Conservatives believe Ottawa has a specific role in well-defined areas of responsibility and should stick to them; the Liberals see themselves ranging broadly over Canada, putting their hand in where they think there’s a need. The Conservatives believe budget certainty is key to providing other services, the Liberals see it as important but not a game-breaker. The Tories see Canada playing a strong, high-profile role in the world, the Liberals prefer a more muted, collectivist approach. Mr. Harper’s government sees plenty more areas to come down hard on law-breaking, Mr. Ignatieff’s Liberals think the Tories are paranoid.

You don’t need a debate to figure out what these parties are about. It’s right there in black and white. It’s a distinct choice, and an important one.

National Post

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