Leaders talk environment, pre-school

It was a day of contrasting environments — or alternative universes — on the federal election trail Thursday as Conservatives and New Democrats laid out green policy planks.

OTTAWA — It was a day of contrasting environments — or alternative universes — on the federal election trail Thursday as Conservatives and New Democrats laid out green policy planks.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper travelled to Newfoundland and Labrador where he dangled the prospect of federal aid for a provincial hydroelectric project and an undersea power cable linking it to Nova Scotia consumers.

“It is a big chance to shift an entire region of the country toward greener energy and away from large-scale greenhouse gas emissions,” Harper said in Halifax as he made his first swing of the 36-day campaign through Atlantic Canada.

“So this has the potential of being a very important part of our efforts to fight climate change in Canada.”

Harper then travelled on to St. John’s, N.L., where he told a cheering partisan crowd that a re-elected Conservative government would support clean energy projects across the country. But the prime minister did not put a dollar figure on any federal commitment, which was not included in the 2011 federal budget that died with his minority government last week.

The Tories were shut out in Newfoundland in 2008 and won just 10 of 32 seats in the Maritimes, so improving their fortunes in Atlantic Canada is a key challenge for the May 2 election day.

While Harper was laying out uncosted federal backing for energy projects, NDP Leader Jack Layton was vowing to slash federal tax breaks and credits to another energy sector. Layton said he would eliminate $2 billion in subsidies for the oilsands and put the money toward clean energy.

“This is the choice for Quebecers in this election: a prime minister who underwrites major polluters, or a prime minister who wants to put an end to these subsidies,” he said after touring a Montreal company that recycles computer equipment.

He said “every single penny” saved by the government would be redirected to green energy — precisely the kind of project Harper is promoting in Newfoundland.

Layton said he, too, would support the Churchill Falls hydro development, but complained that Harper’s promise was an electorally motivated one-off.

“It shouldn’t be just political,” said the NDP leader. “It should be based on some criteria so that all parts of the country, including Quebec, can have access to the same kind financial support.”

Harper told the crowd in St. John’s that’s just what he has in mind.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff campaigned Thursday on an entirely different environment — early childhood learning.

He proposed an “Early Childhood Learning and Care Fund” that provinces and territories could tap to hire more teachers and open more spots for kids on pre-school waiting lists. It’s a scaled down version of past Liberal daycare plans, starting with a $500-million investment in the first year, rising to $1 billion by the fourth year.

Ignatieff stressed that unlike national social program launches of yesteryear, the latest Liberal proposal would be stripped of bureaucratic machinery.

“This fund, in the next federal budget, means that provinces can come and say ’We’ve got a great plan to extend daycare in Manitoba…” he said in Winnipeg.

“You do it working with the provinces piece by piece. You don’t need a big, vast federal program employing lots of bureaucrats.”

That’s yet another new political environment that’s emerged in Canada’s 41st election: talk of tax cuts, targeted benefits and government streamlining have all but eclipsed promises of grand national schemes.

Turning from policy to politics, Harper’s front-running campaign ran into some trouble over his strict media strategy.

A day after the Conservative leaders’ team announced it won’t respond to any more questions about the party’s 308 local campaigns, Harper was pressed on his rationale for restricting national media to a total of four questions per day.

The prime minister refused to explain his media strategy, responding instead: “If there’s another subject, I’ll answer it.”

For reporters, producers and technical crews paying more than $11,000 per person a week to travel with the prime minister, the restrictions are chafing.

Without the ability to ask follow-up questions, reporters are unable to clarify responses from Harper that may appear at odds with the known facts.

The format has largely insulated Harper from probing questions on his unsubstantiated and repeated claims that Ignatieff is intent on forming a coalition with the NDP and Bloc Quebecois if Conservatives win anything less than a majority.

Conservatives heralded proof of that coalition Wednesday when an NDP candidate in southwestern Ontario unexpectedly announced he was backing the local Liberal in an effort to unseat the incumbent Tory. The Conservative war room was silent Thursday when the NDP nominated a new candidate for the riding of Elgin-Middlesex-London.