Opinion: Liberal platform targets classic voting blocs

At first blush, the Liberal election platform appears to be all over the map. There is something for everyone.

Do you work in the gig economy? If your employer comes under federal jurisdiction, the Liberals will develop “relevant” rules to protect you.

Worried about climate change? The Liberals will plant trees to pull carbon from the atmosphere.

Do your kids like to camp? The Liberals already have a program to show them how to do it. It will be expanded.

Another federal statutory holiday? You got it.

All of this is very nice, as is the plan to subsidize up to 2,000 entrepreneurs who want to start new businesses or the plan to create a National Infrastructure Fund (as opposed to the existing Canada Infrastructure Bank, which the Liberals set up after the last election) or the plan to subsidize energy-saving home renovations.

Some promises, such as the plan to ban the sale of assault rifles and buy back those that are now legally in circulation, might even do some good.

But the Liberals’ apparent scattergun approach disguises the fact that, when it comes to spending actual money, the governing party is focusing on the usual voting blocs that determine election outcomes: old people; people with kids and people looking for a break on their taxes. The single most expensive promise in the Liberal platform is the pledge to exempt from federal income tax the first $15,000 in earnings for all but the wealthiest. By 2023-24, that is expected to cost the treasury $5.7 billion annually. Currently, only the first $12,309 of earnings is tax exempt.

By comparison, the Liberals’ planned spending on climate change is peanuts. The party estimates that if it won government, it would spend only $300 million a year to plant trees, $432 million a year to subsidize energy-efficient home renovations, $180 million a year to help electrify public transit and $67 million a year to encourage clean technology. The second biggest single expenditure in the Liberal platform is the promise to increase Old Age Security payments to those over 75. By 2023-24, that would cost $2.6 billion a year.

What’s interesting here is that OAS payments benefit not just poor seniors but middle-income ones as well.

The other big-ticket items in the Liberal platform are also familiar ones: $1.8 billion a year by 2023-24 for improving health care; $1 billion annually to subsidize students seeking post-secondary education; $1.2 billion a year to beef up the Canada Child Benefit, a subsidy aimed at poor and middle-income parents.

How would the Liberals pay for all of this? The short answer is that they would borrow. The Liberals have become eager converts to the new fiscal orthodoxy, which holds that deficits don’t matter – as long as the economy is growing faster than government debt.

The more detailed answer, however, involves some spending cuts and increased taxes. Over the next four years, the Liberals would make $10 billion in unspecified cuts.

Over the same period, the platform says, a Liberal government would bring in an extra $6 billion by closing equally unspecified corporate tax loopholes.

By comparison, the Liberals say their much-vaunted plan to tax tech giants like Google would bring in only $730 million annually by 2023-24, while their proposed tax on luxury cars and boats would net only $621 million a year.

As for their controversial real estate speculation tax, the Liberals themselves calculate that it would bring in a mere $256 million annually by 2023-24.

In short, this is a classic Liberal political platform. Rhetorically, it is a scattershot document that is pitched ever so slightly to the left. In real terms, however, it zeroes in on key voting blocs, including seniors and parents with young children. It talks of climate change at length but doesn’t propose to spend much money attacking the problem. It promises to close corporate tax loopholes but doesn’t exactly say how. It talks vaguely of spending cuts but doesn’t say what will be trimmed.

Its most expensive promise is not a marquee social program like pharmacare. Rather, it is a broadly based tax cut. That’s not dramatic. But it probably would be popular.

Thomas Walkom is a national affairs writer.

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