Analysis

'Liberals in a hurry'? That's Trudeau, not Mulcair's NDP

Time was when the NDP were the ones called "Liberals in a hurry." But now, Chris Hall writes, the roles are reversed and it's Tom Mulcair who is championing cautious change.

The two parties are hunting for progressive voters in very different ways

Race to the top? Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau climbs the famous Grouse Grind during an election campaign stop in North Vancouver on Friday. (Jonathan Hayward / Canadian Press)

There was a time in Canada when New Democrats were considered "Liberals in a hurry." But in this federal election campaign the reverse appears to be true.

Under Justin Trudeau, the Liberals look and sound a lot like New Democrats in a rush.

Consider some of the key commitments Trudeau's made both in the lead up to and during the election.

A Liberal government, he says, would spend a staggering $125 billion over the next 10 years to build and refurbish critical infrastructure.

The Liberals would tax the rich, creating a new 33 per cent tax bracket for people earning more than $200,000 a year. They'd scrap the Conservatives universal child care benefit as part of a plan to create a new, tax-free benefit that would pay more to lower-income families than those who are better off.

As well, Trudeau says, the Liberals are prepared to run deficits for each of the next three years.

OK, it's not exactly socialism. Other Liberal leaders have campaigned from the left, including Trudeau's own father, with great success.

But these Liberals are not just crowding New Democrats on their familiar turf on the federal scene. They're happily pitching in to help NDP leader Tom Mulcair pack up the furniture as he moves his party to the political centre.

Whatever Mulcair is proposing, the Liberals will go bigger. Whatever the NDP plans to spend, Liberals will dole out more.

It is, as long-time Conservative adviser David McLaughlin wrote this week, a battle of "real change" versus "safe change."

Change without risk

Mulcair says an NDP government would invest an extra $1.5 billion a year into infrastructure programs, plus $1.3 billion annually over 20 years for public transit. Solid, affordable investments. But far less than the Liberal plan.

Mulcair would raise corporate taxes, but cut the taxes of small businesses. On personal income, so far his party is only promising to close a loophole used by business execs to avoid paying taxes on stock option benefits.

New Democrats are also pushing their $15-a-day child-care plan, and pledging to create one million new spaces — a plan that depends on co-operation and a substantial contribution from the provinces.

Meanwhile NDP leader Tom Mulcair meets with Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson at City Hall. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press)

But here's the big difference between the two parties in a hurry.

An NDP government would balance the books next year, and beyond.

No deficits. No out of control spending. No danger to markets, or Canada's credit rating.

Janice Mackinnon is a former NDP finance minister in Saskatchewan. She said the Mulcair NDP has embraced the 21st century.

"I think this is key because the idea of taxing the rich is a critical 1960s NDP idea. What we had to come to grips with is, in a late twentieth, early twenty-first century economy, you can't do it," she says.

"It's a global economy, it's a competitive economy. We'd all love to tax the rich, on the left, but on the ground, it no longer works."

The time to invest

Mulcair's NDP is also mimicking the Conservatives in promising to use tax dollars to subsidize private industry.

The NDP would create new innovations funds — the first to boost Canada's aerospace sector, the other to provide financial incentives to the auto industry.

Both are key industries in Quebec and Ontario, provinces with a large share of battleground ridings.

The NDP holds most of the seats in the first, and is determined to portray itself as the real alternative to the Conservatives in the other.

NDP strategists acknowledge their campaign is built on the idea of change without blowing the piggybank — in other words change that's not so risky that it will drive voters back to the Conservatives.

For the Liberals, it's all about driving voters unhappy with the Conservative's overly cautious ways to them.

The focus of the Liberal policy, says Bob Rae, the former Liberal MP and NDP premier of Ontario, "is give the tax breaks to the people who need it the most, and let's spend the money in a responsible way.

"And when interest rates are virtually zero, this happens to be a good time for the government to be spending on infrastructure."

People can debate which of the Trudeau Liberals or the Mulcair New Democrats is the more progressive. But what's evident from the numerous public opinion polls is that both parties are enjoying early success.

They are virtually neck and neck, and, perhaps more importantly, are keeping pace with Stephen Harper's Conservatives.

Common ground?

Mackinnon says the closeness of the race should be prompting the Liberals and the NDP to look at each other's campaign promises, to try to find common ground now just in case the Conservatives win a slim minority.

"They both want to get rid of income-splitting for families, they both want to scale back tax free savings accounts, they both want to expand the Canada Pension Plan, they both want a different approach to the environment, they want a different approach to relations and funding First Nations…

"There's lots of common ground they have on which they could work together."

But Bob Rae, for one, adamantly disagrees, saying it's far too early for those kinds of talks.

"The time to focus on that is after the election. The time to focus now is on who's going to win?"

Rae, of course, negotiated an accord with Ontario Liberal leader David Peterson in 1985, talks that began four days after the Progressive Conservatives won just four more seats than Peterson's Liberals.

Their accord included a "program of action from common campaign proposals'' and a commitment from both parties not to force an election for two years.

So, in this incredibly tight three-way race, the two parties on the left of the Conservatives are both in a hurry to connect with progressive voters, but in no rush yet to see where exactly they might work together to end a decade of Conservative rule.

About the Author

Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.

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