Parties use pocketbook promises to retrench in familiar territory

OTTAWA — Help for small business. A boost to post-secondary students. A kick in the shins to the big banks.

OTTAWA — Help for small business. A boost to post-secondary students. A kick in the shins to the big banks.

It was a day of ideological retrenchment on the campaign trail Tuesday as the three major federalist parties retreated to their traditional policy corners for a breather.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper peeled a page from his recent, stillborn budget to reannounce a modest, one-year, $1,000 tax credit to help small businesses protect against increases to employment insurance premiums.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff made his first big policy pitch of the 36-day campaign that culminates May 2 — a $1 billion-a-year pledge for new, tax-free student grants to assist roughly a million Canadian families with college or university costs.

And Jack Layton of the NDP reprised his own hardy perennial: a vow to legislate lower interest rate charges on consumer credit cards.

Even Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe went old school, mounting a rousing defence of French language protections in Quebec.

After three days of often confusing campaign crossfire, Day 4 was about preaching to the choir.

For Ignatieff — the international academic whose work abroad has been turned by the Tories into a cudgel against him — the showpiece was a big boost to a previous Liberal government’s popular Registered Education Savings Plan program.

The plan would provide students $1,000 a year for four years, or up to $1,500 a year for four years for low-income families. The grants would go into education savings accounts for 14- to 17-year-olds as they approach post-secondary school age, but a Liberal release said current post-secondary students would also benefit from a transition period program.

“This is the kind of investment in education which is a game-changer for our country,” Ignatieff said in Oakville, Ont., calling it the biggest investment in post-secondary education in Canada’s history.

“It’s a billion dollars of new money to make us the best-educated society on the planet.”

He said the grants would start rolling in the fall of 2012 under a Liberal government.

Harper, speaking in Regina, panned Ignatieff’s education funding promise as tax-and-spend Liberalism.

“They’re going to promise everybody billions and billions and billions of dollars,” said Harper.

“And how’s that going to happen? They’re very clear, they’re going to raise taxes to pay for it. And that’s the choice.”

Ignatieff has vowed to present a “fully costed” platform that won’t raise personal income taxes.

But the Liberals have said they will raise corporate taxes back to the 2010 rate of 18 per cent, up from the current 16.5 per cent. They’ll also cancel scheduled cuts that would further reduce the business rate to 15 per cent.

Harper said his latest business tax proposal on rising EI premiums is part of a “responsible and affordable, low-tax plan for jobs and growth that is working for this economy.”

The $1,000 credit for 2011 is being billed by the party as a “new hiring incentive.” Harper acknowledged it will go to any employer whose salary base increases and boosts EI costs, whether they hire new people or not.

“Obviously it will help those businesses keep employees,” said Harper. “It will also be an incentive for them to increase their employees.”

The Conservative government had already moved last fall to reduce scheduled EI rate hikes on businesses and workers, cutting federal revenues by about $1.2 billion this fiscal year even as the government continues to battle a $40-billion deficit.

While Conservatives and Liberals glared across the budget ring, New Democrats were taking a run at financial institutions.

Layton said banks shouldn’t be allowed to charge consumers interest at a rate more than five percentage points higher than prime.

“I believe that you need strong banks in an economy so that you can have a healthy level of economic activity,” Layton told a news conference outside a family home in Brantford, Ont., west of Toronto.

“I think Canadians deserve something in return here — just a little bit of fairness. But you know what? Under Stephen Harper, Canadians pay some of the highest credit-card fees in the world — and that’s just not right.”

Layton says the NDP cap on interest rates would save the average credit-card holder about $60 a month, or more than $700 a year.

He acknowledged the credit proposal would likely just shift bank profit margins to other areas of their business.

“They’re going to have to figure out a way to make money without being so unfair to the Canadian consumers,” said Layton. “I have no doubt that the banks will be sufficiently creative to find a way to do that.”

The most significant off-script moment on the campaign trail Tuesday was the revelation that a former Conservative staffer who is under RCMP investigation had turned up working on a key campaign in Edmonton.

Harper, asked about the involvement of Sebastien Togneri in the riding of Edmonton-Strathcona, tried to take a fire extinguisher to the smouldering ethics issue.

“My understanding is he volunteered for a campaign. My understanding is that he is no longer a volunteer for that campaign,” said Harper. “And that’s all I know. That’s all I know.”

Canada’s 41st election campaign was triggered last Friday by a historic vote in the House of Commons that cited Harper’s government for contempt of Parliament.

But the issue of ethics, accountability and transparency have not managed to make much of an impact in the first days of the campaign under a fog of coalition debate fanned by the Conservatives.

Togneri, who was caught interfering with Canada’s Access to Information laws, was referred to the Mounties last month after The Canadian Press discovered repeated breaches of the transparency regime by Conservative staffers.

His case is just one of at least half a dozen that opposition parties say show the Conservative government’s disdain for the democratic process.