Campaigns shift focus to policy

It took a weekend of mudslinging but Canada’s 41st general election campaign climbed out of the sandbox Monday and started focusing on policy.

OTTAWA — It took a weekend of mudslinging but Canada’s 41st general election campaign climbed out of the sandbox Monday and started focusing on policy.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in B.C. promising a tax break for two-parent families, albeit several years from now — and provided the government manages to balance the budget.

The $2.5-billion scheme would allow spouses with children under 18 to split household income up to $50,000 in order fall into lower tax brackets. The plan wouldn’t begin until 2015-16 under current Conservative deficit projections.

Harper called it a “major, structural tax reduction” that would affect 1.8 million Canadian households. He said Canadian families have already benefited from Conservative tax breaks, “but obviously in the next two, three years … the focus has to be reducing the deficit without raising taxes.”

He also pledged that the tax break would come “within our next term” — a vow that could be beyond his control, given that he faces another possible minority government and an uncertain balance sheet.

In Toronto, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff argued that big-budget Tory spending priorities such as corporate tax cuts, stealth fighter jets and prison expansion would leave the cupboard bare when the federal-provincial accord on health care expires in 2014.

“If you spend billions on fighter jets, on mega-prisons, very quickly by 2014 we’ll reach a point where there’s not enough money to work with the provinces in order to save the universal, accessible health system we have,” he said.

The Liberal leader suggested renewing the 10-year, federal-provincial health accord of 2004 is going to require huge budgetary tradeoffs at a time when Harper is now promising major tax breaks — if the federal budget is balanced.

The former Liberal government of Paul Martin pledged an additional $41 billion for health care over 10 years, and Harper committed another $39 billion over seven years in 2007. Health care transfers are increasing at six per cent annually, but all that extra cash expires three years from now.

“Keep in mind the date 2014,” Ignatieff said.

The focus on bread-and-butter issues was a welcome change for many on Day 3 of the 36-day campaign, which stumbled out of the blocks with a bitter, hypothetical debate over whether there might be a coalition government.

The histrionics didn’t appear to move voters.

A new poll by The Canadian Press Harris-Decima — taken in the dying days of the minority government and the first weekend of electioneering — put the Conservatives comfortably ahead with the support of 38 per cent of respondents. The Liberals trailed with 24 per cent, followed by the NDP at 19, the Bloc Quebecois at 10 and the Greens at seven per cent.

Harper said the tax code currently treats families like “roommates living under the same roof with no financial attachment. That’s not realistic; that’s not fair.”

Frances Woolley, an economist at Carleton University, said the biggest beneficiaries of the proposed policy would be higher earning, single-income households with a stay-at-home spouse.

“This is a socially conservative move, not a fiscally conservative move,” Woolley said.

While the Conservatives said the tax cut would “average” $1,300 per family, the actual dollar value varies widely, depending on circumstances. Someone earning more than $127,000 a year with a stay-at-home spouse would save more than $6,000, said Woolley, who calculated the cut using 2010 tax rates.

A one- or two-income family in which the highest earner makes less than $40,000 would receive nothing, said Woolley.

Ignatieff dismissed the Conservative tax promise, saying families are being put “at the back of the line” behind big business.

“You come up to a family and say, ’I’ve got good news!’ ” he said.

“’First, I’m going to cut taxes for the biggest and most profitable corporations in the country. And then maybe in five years, if you take a ticket and you’re patient and you vote for us a couple times, come back and we’ll do something really great for you.’

“Is that credible? It’s just not credible.”

NDP Leader Jack Layton, who was campaigning in Saskatchewan, also took aim at Harper’s proposed tax break.

“Our families here in Canada need help right now, and this policy announcement from Mr. Harper shows he doesn’t understand that,” Layton told reporters in Regina.

“He thinks that people can wait and — on a wing and a prayer — maybe get some help some day.”

The Conservative budget tabled last week projected Canada’s deficit will be fully eliminated in 2015-16, based on undefined spending restraint that will hold annual program spending increases to two per cent annually.

Stronger-than-expected growth has enabled Ottawa to shrink the 2010-11 deficit to $40.4 billion from a previously projected $45.4 billion. The deficit in the coming fiscal year is projected to be about $29 billion.

A release from the New Democrats reminded voters of Harper’s own past comments on election promises that are cast far into the future.

“This is exactly the sort of cynical move Stephen Harper used to denounce,” said the NDP release.

It then quoted Harper from the 2005 campaign, commenting on a Liberal promise to spend $10 billion on childcare over 10 years.

“Why not $100 billion over 100 years?” Harper said at the time. “In our system, you actually have to get a mandate from the people. You can’t just declare that you’re going to govern for 10 years.”

Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe said if the Conservatives were serious about the family income splitting plan, it would have been included in last week’s federal budget.

jected Canada’s deficit will be fully eliminated in 2015-16, based on undefined spending restraint that will hold annual program spending increases to two per cent annually.

Stronger-than-expected growth has enabled Ottawa to shrink the 2010-11 deficit to $40.4 billion from a previously projected $45.4 billion. The deficit in the coming fiscal year is projected to be about $29 billion.

A release from the New Democrats reminded voters of Harper’s own past comments on election promises that are cast far into the future.

“This is exactly the sort of cynical move Stephen Harper used to denounce,” said the NDP release.

It then quoted Harper from the 2005 campaign, commenting on a Liberal promise to spend $10 billion on childcare over 10 years.

“Why not $100 billion over 100 years?” Harper said at the time. “In our system, you actually have to get a mandate from the people. You can’t just declare that you’re going to govern for 10 years.”

The prime minister defended the timing of the promise Monday in Saanich, B.C.

“We want to tell people what our fiscal priorities are when we’re in that position (of balanced budgets),” said Harper.

Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe said if the Conservatives were serious about the family income splitting plan, it would have been included in last week’s federal budget.

Layton said Harper has already rejected far more practical measures to help families, such as New Democrats’ proposal to drop the federal tax on home heating fuel, and boosting the overall Guaranteed Income Supplement for poor seniors by $700 million a year.

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