What's the difference between the Conservative and Liberal platforms? The colour: Robyn Urback

At a policy level, what the two leading parties in this election propose isn’t all that different: lower income taxes, a mishmash of credits and subsidies for parents and homeowners, and at least four more years of deficits. With either option, we’re not looking at dramatically different Canadas.

This election essentially comes down to whose face you won't mind staring at for the next 4 years

Your choice is between tax cuts or tax cuts, a weak or weaker climate plan, interest-free loans or tax credits, and maybe drug coverage, depending on the details, if this promise doesn't go the way of electoral reform.  (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

If you hacked the websites of the two parties jostling for the lead so far in this election and swapped one platform for another, would anyone know the difference?

I should be more precise: would any real people know the difference? I'm not talking about Ottawa-obsessed political wonks and media types who are required to pore over the fine print, but real Canadians who aren't obliged to watch Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau twirl around in a canoe, or Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer blandly state his indignation.

Both camps, at various stages over the past couple of weeks, have lamented that there hasn't been enough focus on policy so far this campaign. This is a complaint typically hauled out when your guy isn't looking too great for whatever reason — like when Scheer appeared with an anti-abortion-activist-turned-candidate right at the start of the campaign, or when Trudeau told Canadians he couldn't recall exactly how many times in the past he wore blackface.

Why isn't anyone talking about the issues? they whine to an electorate that now can't get the Banana Boat Song out of their heads. Let's talk about things that matter.

In reality, neither party genuinely wants to talk about policy, because policy isn't going to win this election. How can it? Both parties are essentially offering the same things, with a few small differences largely imperceptible to the casual observer who probably has far better things to do than obsess over the details.

Affordable house-buying

For example, both the Conservatives and Liberals have interpreted "affordable housing" to essentially mean "accessible home-buying," and thus, have offered incentives to help Canadians get into the housing market. (The NDP's plan, to its credit, is actually about helping families find affordable places to live, not buy, though the party hasn't said precisely how it will pay for it.)

The Liberals' plan is to offer buyers money up front in exchange for a chunk of the equity; the Conservatives' is to loosen stress test requirements and extend the maximum length of a mortgage. Yet neither plan is actually geared toward relieving the pressure in hot housing markets like Toronto and Vancouver, and both, by further incentivizing buying, could very well make it more expensive to find a place to live. 

So both parties are promising more money in our pockets through tax cuts: the Conservatives by cutting the rate on taxable income under $47,630 from 15 to 13.75 per cent, and the Liberals, by raising the basic personal income tax deduction from $12,069 to $15,000 for those earning less than $147,000. The Liberal plan will do more to lift low-income Canadians out of poverty, according to analysis by B.C. economist Kevin Milligan, but for median-income households, the impact will be roughly the same.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has promised Canadians access to interest-free loans of up to $40,000 to upgrade old furnaces and replace leaky windows in their homes. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Both Scheer and Trudeau have announced incentives to retrofit your home through either an interest-free loan (Liberals) or refundable tax credits (Conservatives). On climate, the Liberals will keep a carbon tax that is too low to change consumer behaviour, and the Conservatives will implement what is essentially a carbon price on heavy emitters, without setting clear reduction targets.                                                                                                                         

Both promise to tackle gun violence. Neither will balance the budget in the next four years. Both have promised to make maternity and paternity leave tax-free. Neither will touch supply management or government bailouts of big business. 

And on the one major policy difference that could actually drive a policy wedge between voters — pharmacare — the Liberals, who came out guns blazing on the file before the campaign (notably, during the height of the SNC-Lavalin saga), have been conspicuously reserved

War room spin

Beyond that, the Liberal and Conservative platforms are virtually interchangeable; they hardly lay out the framework for dramatically different Canadas. Your choice is between tax cuts or tax cuts, a weak or weaker climate plan, interest-free loans or tax credits, and maybe drug coverage, depending on the details, if this promise doesn't go the way of electoral reform

That's why so much of the war room-generated focus is on the leaders themselves: Justin Trudeau as two-faced and unethical, and Andrew Scheer as the right-wing lovechild of Doug Ford and Stephen Harper.

Indeed, success for the Liberals will mean convincing voters that Scheer will implement harsh austerity measures, new abortion regulations and that Canada is one bad prime minister away from a U.S.-style gun crisis.

For the Conservatives, it will mean persuading voters that Trudeau is lawless and privileged, and that he will bankrupt Canada with his excessive spending. It has nothing to do with policy, and everything to do with personality.

It's a crummy way to decide an election, but perhaps the only way when the biggest difference between the platforms is their colours. 

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.


Robyn Urback


Robyn Urback was an opinion columnist with CBC News and a producer with the CBC's Opinion section. She previously worked as a columnist and editorial board member at the National Post. Follow her on Twitter at: